A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans – Munro Leaf, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1942
Today is the 75th anniversary of VE, Victory in Europe Day, marking the surrender of the Axis Powers and the end of World War II in Europe. There are many serious works of children’s literature, both fiction and non-fiction, about the War and about its impact on young people. You may not know that Munro Leaf, author of The Story of Ferdinand, also wrote a popular series of cartoon-illustrated guides to the joys of learning. Some of the better known were Arithmetic Can Be Fun, History Can Be Fun, and Grammar Can Be Fun (that last one a bit of a harder sell). A few have even gone back into print.
During the War, Leaf worked for the U.S. Army, and also created a memorable work of home front propaganda for kids, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans. In th tradition of patriotism & American children’s literature, he tackles the question: What could American boys and girls do to help the war effort while their fathers and brothers were fighting and their mothers and sisters were holding down the fort at home? His answer: plenty.
First, you have to put the strict gender roles of this book into historical perspective. Yes, Leaf does suggest that everyone has a job to do, and that asking Dad to mend socks makes as much sense as demanding that a baby take care of the furnace. In fact, Leaf seems unaware of Rosie the Riveter and her tremendous contribution to the war effort. The general message of the book, however, is powerful:
There are some of us who seem to think that we are the only kind of Americans
who really are Americans and people who are a little bit different from us aren’t Americans at all.
What has made this country so wonderful and strong is that we have come here from all over the world bringing with us so many great and different ideas, talents and skills.
(Leaf does acknowledge that Native Americans, whom he appallingly calls “red Indians,” were here before anyone else.)
Children know how terrifying bullies become when their power is unopposed: Leaf uses this fact to teach a lesson about bullying on a societal scale:
They are the Faking Bullies who make others unhappy by being mean to them and telling lies about them. These Fakers pretend that they are being patriotic when they do this, but they are really doing their country a lot of harm.
Leaf empowers kids by telling them that it’s time to get busy and he is quite specific in his recommendations. It’s time to hold family meetings, do housework, repair and recycle, learn first aid, and plant a Victory Garden. One of his special attributes as an author and illustrator is specificity; along with the simplicity of his cartoon books, this makes his inimitable style easily recognized and tremendously appealing. What might kids repair and re-use? “Toys, Pans, Clothes, Toasters, Radios, Carpet Sweepers, Bicycles, Vacuum Cleaners, Skates, Lamps, Automobiles, Tires, Furniture, Almost everything you can think of.” This list is presented in artfully spaced double columns, accompanies by small sketches of some of the items.
There is a gallery of portraits showing adults helping our country, including “Soldiers, nurses, sailors, motor corps drivers, air defense spotters, canteen workers,” and more. (Several are women, including the air defense spotter and motor corps driver.)
The tremendous obligations placed on both children and adults may make everyone cranky. Leaf admits this, validating children’s feelings:
If we just plain hate to work, sometimes it’s our own fault, but just as often it’s because other people have made us feel that way about it. The trouble is that they don’t give us regular jobs and then depend on us to do those jobs.
Time to fix that problem by making it clear what is expected of each person; we’re all in this together. The book even includes blank space for creating a map of your community with the location of essential locations: “You can never tell when knowing these things may be very important.”
Some of the suggestions in the book are no longer applicable, including the exhortation to buy War Bonds. But a great deal of Leaf’s kind and purposeful address to children still is, including an emphasis on self-care. Kids need to eat healthy foods, keep clean, and get enough sleep. Admonitions to stay cheerful, and to avoid becoming that spoiled “BRAT” (all capitals) might now be viewed as psychologically less-sound, but, remember, there’s a War on.
This is a day to remember, and to remind children that they were part of it.