One of the earliest books I remember was an illustrated book on the Civil War. The illustrations were not childish, they didn’t look inviting or warm and cuddly, but neither did they portray war – a subject I’ll get to below. I just took a quick look on Amazon for children’s books on the Civil War and found that many of them had cutesy illustrations, childish – why? Peter Rabbit ought to look cutesy, not a soldier and certainly not a slave.
I am a bit sorry I had that Civil War book – it didn’t portray the horror of war. Better to have a book without pictures than a book with illustrations that do not show war as war. One of the results of Matthew Brady’s photographs during the Civil War was that they brought home to those civilians removed from the war the horror of war.
As a young boy I recall watching a television program about the Holocaust. I don’t know if my mother gave any thought to allowing me to watch, but in retrospect I’m glad she did because I never forgot the images of the concentration camps. Could not I have seen Matthew Brady’s photographs as a young boy? Perhaps they would have guarded against me glorifying the Civil War.
There is a popular Civil War artist in Virginia whose paintings are sought after. I noticed in my Amazon search that he has illustrated children’s books about war, including the Civil War. I have never been drawn to his work, in fact I’m repelled by it. It is too clean, too mythologically “noble”, too deceptive. I’m not suggesting he means to be deceptive, I’m not sure what he means to do, but I do know that both children and adults are living in a fantasy land if they think this artist’s portrayals are the way the Civil War was or the way any war has been.
It took me most of my life to see the Civil War for what it was, and continues to be – a tragedy, a horror, with slavery running before it, through it, and after it. If we’re going to have children’s books about war they ought to be ones that cure children of any idealistic ideas about killing people and devastating families…same for adults. I never had any idealistic ideas about the Holocaust, I wish that I had never had any idealistic images or ideas about the Civil War…or any war.