Monday, December 27, 2010

Off Topic - Children's Books during World War II

This is to pick up the thread of a conversation we began in the comments section of this post a month ago that introduced the series on home front “war stories”. I’ve had another project on the back burner for some time with which some of you might be able to help.

This involves a possible book about children’s books written during World War II, about that war. We’re not talking about any classics of children’s literature here, no Caldecott or Newbery Award winners; what I mean are those series books, the pulp novels that engaged teens and pre-teens with a weird combination of childlike adventure and all-too adult angst about the consequences of not doing one’s patriotic duty during the war.

Some of these were a series featuring the same character, like the “Dave Dawson” books, where he and his pal, Freddie Farmer, fought the enemy pretty much all over the globe. Likewise “Red Randall” who began his teenage trial by fire at Pearl Harbor. Both series were written by R. Sidney Bowen.

“Cherry Ames” went from nursing school into the Army, served in Panama, some non-disclosed islands in the South Pacific, flew through a hailstorm of gunfire over Germany, and finished up her tour of duty as a nurse in a veteran’s hospital. I won’t guess how many girls pursued nursing careers because of this series, but I know there are some out there who admit to it.

Other series followed a theme of wartime service but featured different characters. Whitman Publishing, who practically cornered the market in children’s series books at the time, produced several pulp novels under their “Fighters for Freedom Series”. This gave us “Nancy Dale - Army Nurse”, “Dick Donnelly of the Paratroops”, “Norma Kent of the WACS,” “Sally Scott of the WAVES”. “Kitty Carter of the Canteen Corps” showed us we didn’t necessarily have to be in the military to help the war effort.

The publisher touted these as “Thrilling novels of war and adventure for modern boys and girls.”

It was a tough being a modern boy or girl when war might be all you remembered, and would determine a future you could not imagine, a future which seemed to hang precariously on whether or not you displayed your full measure of devotion and courage. Just eating your vegetables wasn't good enough anymore.

There are several elements to these stories which are quite striking. One is the, in some cases, unsparing description of death and cruelty, and the fatalistic manner in which the tone of these stories seems to indicate the young reader should accept these conditions. Nancy Dale’s troop ship is torpedoed, and she spends several days in a lifeboat with a handful of other nurses and crew members. One dies and they dump the body overboard.

At one point in the story she receives word her brother is missing in action and presumed dead. A family friend, comforting her, tells her not to hold out much hope of his survival. “Don’t let wishful thinking keep you from facing reality, my dear. There’re many things worse than death in this war.” How would a kid, who had relatives in the war, take this message?

On the frontispiece of “Red Randall at Pearl Harbor”, published by Grosset & Dunlap, we are reminded that “This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials is completed and unabridged.” Even the book itself has the imprimatur of self sacrifice.

If you find these books today, the pages are yellowed, few of them have book jackets left intact, but many of them have the signatures of the children to whom they belonged. Or, in this case of this flyleaf of “Norma Kent of the WACS” - “To Shirley from Grandma - December 25, 1944”.

What I’d like to know from you is your memories of reading these books, how you discovered them, and what impressions they had upon you. Perhaps you were, like Shirley, a child at Christmas. Perhaps you were Shirley’s younger sister or brother, getting her hand-me-down books five or ten years later, when the aftermath of the war was known and the wartime service remained a badge of honor out of reach for this first succeeding generation. Maybe you were her daughter, or grandson, and found these books in an attic. You could have read them when the war was current events, or something that came alive for you one rainy afternoon in the 1970s.

I’d like to know about that particular American generation, who became adults in the early 1950s, perhaps still “shell shocked” by a childhood of vicarious victory and defeat, who found themselves taking places of responsibility in a society where, though regimented, not everyone played by the rules.

I’d like to hear from the all the nurses, the sailors, the fliers, who became what they did because of a book they’d read when they were fourteen.

I’d like to hear from the romantic nostalgic buffs who learned history from flea market artifacts like a written-to-formula kid’s novel about a world turned terrible where the monsters were real, and you never read “and they lived happily ever after” at the end.

If you have any thoughts to contribute, please email me at:, with the understanding that any communication might be used for possible publication, though all requests for anonymity will be honored. No email communication will be published on this blog.



heather said...

There were actually tons of WWII nurse series out there--obviously Cherry Ames is the one that everyone remembers because she managed to outlast the war by morphing the "military nurse" theme into a "detective nurse" one, but there were plenty more (and plenty variations: spy/nurses, African-American nurses, stewardess/nurses). If you haven't seen it already, this page has run-downs on some of the major series, but smaller regional publishers put out their own, too. (It's always neat to find some of the regional ones at my local used bookstores.)

I collect girls' series books from the 1930s-60s, of which Cherry Ames is my favorite, and I was immediately struck by the same disparity you were . . . the weird combination of childlike adventure plots (and child-friendly descriptions of candy, Christmas, parties, etc.) with the fact that, unlike in most children's stories of the era (Nancy Drew for example), the books are explicit about the fact that their characters truly are in mortal danger and this all requires a very stiff upper lip at times.

If you can get a hold of Sherrie A. Inness's compilation Nancy Drew and Company, there's an essay that would probably be right up your alley--it's a comparison of Cherry Ames to the combat nurses in films of the era.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Heather for sharing your own expertise as a collector in this area. I'll look for Inness's book, sounds like a great essay.

Though I read the Nancy Drew books, too, as a child, I was always drawn to the wartime books, or post-war series like Rick Brant that seemed more interesting simply because they were set in a definite time and place. Of course, because of that most could not be updated, like our friend Nancy Drew, whose world was entirely fictional, and live beyond the first printing.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I confess, I also liked Cherry Ames because she had a twin brother. Neither of them were evil.

Yvette said...

In truth, Jacqueline, I don't remember reading any of these books. I was born in '42 so I missed all the war books, though I suppose I could have read them in the 50's, but if I did I have no memory of them. But I do have a small collection of boys' stories I picked up here and there in antique/junk shops over the years. I checked and sure enough I found a wartime story: DAREDEVILS OF THE AIR by Thomson Burtis. This is printed on the title page: "This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials is complete and unabridged."

Not much help to you in your quest, but I will say I think you've hit on a GREAT idea!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Yvette. You were probably one of those more advanced children reading Dickens' "Bleak House" at ten years old. Still, it's interesting that you collect boys' adventure stories as an adult. Proves you're still a kid at heart.

Audrey said...

This is a topic that is of great interest to me. I am glad to know that other people care about this literature and I would love a book on the subject. All historical and sociological context aside, I find that many of these stories are just FUN to read. At least they were when I grew up reading them. I am under 20 years old but I discovered the Cherry Ames series in my library and ever since then I was hooked. I love old books and these stories are some of my favorites. And there are so many! Penny Marsh, Sue Barton, Kathy Martin, Vicki Barr, and many more. I love children's literature from this time and have often thought I would like to preserve and reprint these and other great kids books. It makes me sad that so many of these are hard to find. Even when I would interloan them ten years ago it was often challenging because many libraries didn't want to loan out such old books. But I see these stories as far superior to Twilight or Princess Diaries books consumed by so many tweens and teens. It's a shame more people my age and younger can't enjoy them. Thankfully, some places are reprinting them which makes me so happy. Still, there are many out there that are left to be stumbled upon by chance--and I have a few stories about randomly stumbling upon a book that I grew to love. I think what I love about these books is that they are simple in terms of catering to a young audience, but they also delve into very serious themes. I like that mix of complexity and entertainment. This is a topic I could ramble on for a very long time--and I have probably written enough as it is. Thanks for the post!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you for rambling on, Audrey, your comments are a delight. I admit, I'm surprised a young woman these days "under 20" would have such passion for these books, but then those of us with an interest in popular history do not fit any particular age pattern. Thank heavens.

I would imagine the main obstacle keeping many of these books from reprint is the sometimes prejudiced way they treat certain sterotyped characters, not only including the enemies of the day. One needs maturity to understand the context of the times, and I suppose publishers and libraries may feel that today's young readers might not have that mature understanding of the era.

I like your comment about "that mix of complexity and entertainment." So well put.

Miss Fierce said...

I've nothing of significance to add, just that I found this topic very intriguing. I love children's literature, and am somewhat ashamed to admit that I've never made the leap into historical children's lit. I'm going to hunt around for the titles you mentioned in this post.

amy said...

Nice blog

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Miss Fierce. Sometimes some of these kinds of books can be found on eBay, otherwise it's pretty difficult to find them. Most, with the exception of the Cherry Ames books, are out of print. Good luck.

Amy, thank you.

Elisabeth said...

Last month I read The Children's Civil War by James Marten - a fascinating book - and it devoted a whole chapter to children's wartime literature, which, though from an entirely different war and time period, shared many characteristics with the books you mentioned here. There were the young heroes who experienced all kinds of daring adventures firsthand, and the home-front and war-effort stories. Again, a lot of these books were forgotten because they were specific to their times. You might want to check it out for comparisons.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Elisabeth, for this valuable recommendation. I had not heard of this book, and I'll be sure to check it out.

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