Today is Holocaust Memorial Day in the United States, so even though this day was commemorated in the UK on 27 January, it is worth pausing a moment to think about World War II. In particular, I am interested in how children are taught about it.
Much of the research on this topic shows that teachers rely on children's literature as a way of engaging children. In other words, they use fictional materials to teach about a real, historical event. Sometimes they do this in combination with non-fictional materials, such as maps, textbooks, testimony, pictures, or Anne Frank's diary (as for this last one, I've taught university students who were unaware that Anne Frank's diary was not a novel, so that doesn't bode well for younger children realising that). But often fiction is used on its own.
Teachers say that fiction is easier for students to get into, and thus it is easier for them to empathise with the characters and to understand the story, and therefore they need less guidance. While this is problematic for other reasons, I won't focus on that now. Instead, I want to think about these books and what they suggest about the Holocaust.
One of the main issues with many children's books about the Holocaust is that their protagonists are true exceptions: they are children who survive the dreadful events of World War II. They thus give a skewed idea about what actually happened during the war.
Naturally enough, most books for children have children (or child-like creatures) as the main characters, and child readers can live vicariously through the child protagonists and their adventures. However, during the Second World War, children were not off having adventures; rather, they were to a large extent in hiding, being transported out of their native countries, or being gassed in concentration camps.
But many books about the Holocaust for children show the main characters escaping from the havoc and danger wreaked by the Nazis and sometimes even saving others from it too. A good example here is Morris Gleitzman's well-written and entertaining - if one can use that word about the Holocaust - trilogy Once, Then, Now. The main character makes so many bad decisions and yet manages to survive unbelievable situations.
So immediately, readers are getting a false idea about the war, because as much as we would like to believe that lots of children managed to wriggle out of the Nazis' grasp, this simply did not happen.
Furthermore, many - but definitely not all - children's books have happy, or at least resolved, endings. But the Holocaust didn't have a happy ending; it simply couldn't have, because of the sheer number of innocent people who were tortured, victimised, and/or murdered. And yet nearly all of the children's books about the Holocaust end with the protagonist surviving, frequently together with his/her friends and/or relatives.
Once again, then, children are not seeing the reality of the Holocaust. Child readers are being led to believe that many, perhaps even most, children survived the Holocaust. And, obviously, we know that this is not true.
A novel for children that does end unhappily is John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. But this book is so implausible that it really can't be recommended. Unfortunately, however, a number of teachers have told me that they use it in class because a) it features a male protagonist, so it "gets boys reading", and b) there is a companion film, which they can show in class. I wish those weren't teachers' main considerations.
I wish instead that teachers were concerned with plausibility and accuracy. Of course, one could argue that fiction doesn't have to portray reality. But if teachers are using fiction as teaching material, then it behoves them to make sure that the material they use is fairly realistic and historically accurate.
So as we remember the Holocaust and remember all those who suffered during it, we should also spare a thought for the next generation. There are many reasons why we want them to learn about the war (a sense of duty and moral obligation, to try to create a democratic society, to prevent prejudice, and so on) and we often teach them about it through picture books and novels. But those books aren't very realistic and they therefore don't do a particularly good job of teaching child readers about the Holocaust.
This may mean that we're undermining our own goals. Solutions here may include using non-fictional materials more often in the classroom and/or publishing more realistic books for children about the Holocaust.
Whether there will be a happy ending to this story remains to be seen.