Medals, Spam, and Kale: World War II through a Child’s Eyes

Don’t You Know There’s a War On? – written and illustrated by James Stevenson
Greenwillow Books, 1992

Today is Veterans Day.  In the United States, many children have parents serving in the military, under very different circumstances than in the past.  The nature of war itself has changed, and it has been a long time since Americans had confidence that the sacrifices of those serving, and of their families, had a clear and valuable goal.  The wonderful illustrator, author, and cartoonist James Stevenson (1929-2017) produced a beautiful reflection on the experience of an American child growing up during World War II, struggling to make sense of the constant adult rejoinder to so many legitimate questions posed by kids: Don’t you know there’s a war on? (For my reviews of other books about children on the home front, see here and here.)

Stevenson’s pictures are in delicate pastels; his people have almost featureless faces, emphasizing the universality of their situation.  The book is not uncritically nostalgic about a time when Americans were fighting to destroy fascism.  It begins with a plane hovering overhead and a brown cloud of smoke emerging from a city: “In 1942 there was a war.” We then learn about the details of the war’s impact on the young narrator. Facts are presented in a regular font, while conversations are slanted in the style of cartoon captions.  There is no ambiguity about the detail that “My brother went into the navy.  I stayed home with my father and mother.” These sentences are accompanied by a figure of a sailor, facing straight towards the reader, an almost undefined blue swatch of color as the duffel bag by his side. The young boy is also a simple, lone figure, his red shorts and socks a contrast to the soldiers white and blue uniform. 

Then the confusion begins.  The boy’s requests for a ride to the movies, a Baby Ruth candy bar, and something for dinner besides Spam (inedible meant, not unwanted messages) are all met with the same confusing phrase, which adults have now seemingly adopted to avoid difficult explanations. In these scenes, people’s faces are in profile, hidden behind the side of an armchair or facing away from the child. Then, the child gradually becomes involved in the daily routine of defeating the enemy by participating in communal activities.  There are small, childlike drawings of war stamps and tin cans to be collected.  The child and his mother plant a victory garden, although “Nobody liked kale. It tasted awful.” Stevenson conveys the child’s confused acceptance of the way things are, whether the mysterious system of gas rationing or the fear that their neighbor with the German American name of Schmidt might be a spy.  The narrator is even free to express a normal childhood hope that his elementary school might be the target of feared attacks by the enemy.

There are maps and medals, references to mysterious places like Guadalcanal, and discussions among boys about whether they aspired to pilot a flying fortress. plane or a PT boat. The tone changes when the boy’s father reveals that he is joining the army.  Suddenly, even as he begins to cry, the boy is instructed that his adulthood has begun: “I want you to take care of your mother.” His father pulls away on a train and his home is transformed into a series of absences, every object a painful reminder.  For the first time, he articulates a terrible threatening thought: “If I wished hard enough, he wouldn’t get killed.”

Every image in the book is carefully selected and placed on the page, each one proving how words and pictures used together can express the inexpressible, whether fear, ambivalence, or grief.  There is even the paradoxical acknowledgement that sometimes, even if briefly, words cannot suffice, as when the children’s neighborhood newspaper goes on hiatus: “We stopped putting out The Blackout when Sally Ann Curtis’s brother got killed in Germany. We didn’t know what to say.”

The war ends in victory and the words change. Trains arrive, this bringing back the men who had lived an entirely different reality overseas. This one does not recede into the distance but rushes to meet the family members, their arms raised in greeting towards the returning soldier mirroring their gesture.  The conclusion of the book is definitely reassuring, but readers have learned that war, and service, are not the sum of supportive gestures or minor inconveniences.  Don’t You Know There’s a War On? is a subtle, empathetic, and accessible exploration of a child’s response to war on a distant home front, and its message is still unmistakably relevant today.

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