In Canada, on November 11, we pause and reflect upon those whose lives have been affected by War. We call this day, Remembrance Day. In schools all over the country, children will learn about how wars come about and how they are resolved. They will learn about famous battles and about the soldiers who fought and died in them. They will, also, learn about symbols of war, such as the poppy, that we wear over our hearts.
In my career as a teacher, I always welcomed the opportunity to explore the serious topic of conflict with my students. Coming as it does on the heels of Halloween, Remembrance Day serves to vividly highlight the distinction between dress up costumes from the world of monsters and a soldier’s military dress, from the world of war. My experience was that the kids were usually quite respectful during our Remembrance Day activities and that they wanted to do their best work and that they wanted to learn more about what War was really like. That’s where having access to good books helped a lot.
One of my first goals in my Remembrance Day Units was to impress upon the kids that War is not like a video game or a movie. It is not play time. It was very real and serious for those involved. However, it is important to remember that small children do not often have any personal experiences to draw upon during these initial discussions so, it was important for me to present battle scenes in ways that they could relate to. So, I showed them battle scene photos; especially of the trench warfare from Passchendale or Ypres; all mud and obliterated landscapes and I asked them simple questions like, “What do you think the soldiers did when they got hungry?”….there were no recess breaks during the battles where the soldiers could all have a snack. “Where did they go to the bathroom?”….there were no toilets or toilet paper. “Where did they sleep at night?”…..there were no beds or blankets, only cold, wet mud. It didn’t take many discussions like this for the kids to realize that they would not like to be in those conditions of battle at all. They quickly came to the conclusion that many soldiers were tired and hungry and cold and wished that they were anywhere else than where they were. In other words, the students started to develop a sense of empathy.
Once those discussions were had, I wanted to take their thoughts to the next level by talking about, not just the brave soldiers who fought in the battles but, those also affected by War…..the civilians. We would talk about what would happen to our school, our houses and our neighbourhoods if wartime battles took place there. This is when I would reach for one of the most important and valuable books I had in my personal library, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.
What a potent and powerful story this is! The main character, Rose Blanche, is a young German girl. The story is told from her perspective and unfolds over the course of the entire Second World War. As you know from History, Germany was quite successful in the first half of World War II. So, in the beginning of this book, Rose’s town is decorated with flags, it is clean, the buildings are sturdy and bright, the soldiers passing through are all well-dressed in clean uniforms, their tanks and other equipment are all shiny and new.
But, one day, while coming from school, Rose witnesses something that changes her life. She sees a young boy, her age, taken by police and put in the back of a closed truck that was filled with other people. She doesn’t understand why the boy was taken away and decides to follow the truck as it heads out of town. At this point, I always stopped and asked the kids why they thought the boy was taken away. Every class said that he must have been bad and broken a law or done something wrong. No one ever said that it was because he was Jewish.
Rose’s journey leads her to a prison camp. The sickly looking people on the other side of the barbed wire all have yellow stars on their clothes. Rose doesn’t understand why they are imprisoned but she knows they are starving so she starts smuggling food out of her own home and bringing it to the prisoners.
The illustrations in the second half of the story start to reflect the tide of the War as it turned against the Germans. Now, the buildings Rose walks past are damaged, the landscape is turning grey, soldiers are coming in the opposite direction from when we first saw them and they are injured and weary-looking. Without saying it in words, the illustrations show that the front lines of the War are approaching Rose’s town.
The book concludes with Rose walking, again, to the prison camp. But, this time, a battle is raging in the forest by the camp and in the chaos of that battle a shot rings out and Rose is killed. The final page of the book shows the battle field has regenerated and a poppy is growing where Rose had stood that fateful day. The first line on this page reads, “Rose Blanche’s mother wanted a long time for her little girl.” It is an emotional punch in the gut. The kids are usually all very sombre at this point so I would always pause slightly and then, in hushed tones, ask about their Mom waiting for them to come home that day and how she would feel if they didn’t come home as expected.
No one thinks War is fun or cool after this.
Rose Blanche is a serious book. But, there is a place in a classroom for serious books. The key to being able to successfully address serious topics in a classroom is having established a safe, trusting environment during those opening weeks of the school year. This is not a book to read on the first day of school. But, it is a book to read once you, as a teacher, reach the point when you can say to a class that we are safe in this space, we can talk about anything in this space and we can move forward together in this space. Books like Rose Blanche expedite this bonding process exponentially.
Rose Blanche is the sort of book that kids would look at thoughtfully and quietly on their own or with a trusted friend during our Reading time. I always kept the book out on display throughout our Remembrance Day Unit and then put it away afterwards. However, before putting it away, I always made sure to promise the kids that if they ever wanted to read it again then, I would happily share the book with them. That’s what you do with good books….you share them with your friends, as I am now with you.
Are there any “serious” books that you remember from school or from home that made a lasting impact on your life? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks, as always, for reading my words.