War Stories

My grandfather, after he retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, taught military history for a number of years, and by the time I was born he’d amassed a small library’s worth of books and then some. I was twelve when I pulled Bill Mauldin’s Up Front off the shelf. It’s a tidy volume bound in brown cloth, filled with single-panel cartoons depicting infantry life in World War II alongside Mauldin’s prose notes on the subject. It’s a funny, dark, straightforward book that’s frequently described as “grim” in reviews and commentary. I’ve loved it since I first read it through.

There are lots of topics that are off-limits when you’re writing for kids. Books, movies, music, whatever it is, there are things we’re comfortable with kids exploring and things we’re not. Sex, torture, gleeful violence, sexual violence–they’re all out-of-bounds up to the age of sixteen or so. Kids should learn about the world, we say, and about other people, but not too much. Not too fast. We introduce death slowly, and we argue when we do about whether we did the right thing.

Which is why I’m fascinated by our enthusiasm for kids playing at war.

Girls dress up as Katniss Everdeen for Halloween and parents are thrilled that they have such an empowering costume available to them. Since 1977, thousands of children have played Rebels and Empire in their backyards with cheerful abandon. Even that simplest of card games, the one you learn to while away a long wait at the doctor’s office, is called War.

We’re (thank goodness) no longer happy to have boys with BB guns running around the neighborhood shooting at each other with only a metal-bucket helmet for protection. Elementary school playgrounds ban sword fights with sticks. But once we take away the genuine danger of child-size weapons, we’ve decided that other parts of war–the maneuvering, the rhetoric, and yes, the fighting and the dying, if it’s clean enough or heroic enough–are all fair game.

What do we see in war that makes us say, yes, this is child’s play? It certainly isn’t the horrific bombings, casual murder, frequent boredom, civilian deaths, or exhausting uncertainty. It isn’t body parts hanging from shattered tree limbs or children, real children, reenacting the way their best friend died; we don’t give kids All Quiet on the Western Front or Syrian Dust and say, here, blueprints for your next game. But once you’ve taken the hard parts out, what exactly is it that we think is left?

You draw a card, and I draw a card. One of them is numerically superior to the other, and so the losing card is ceded and absorbed into the winner’s forces. We draw, and we come up even, and thus results not just a skirmish, but a battle, wherein we bet the fate of three cards on the power of one. I lose, and you absorb my losses into your deck.

It’s a pleasant game. Polite. Unambiguous. In each round there are winners and losers, and sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other. Losses may well be won back again. The forces are interchangeable, and we almost never play to the drawn-out end. It’s all very civilized.

We play at war, kids and adults who have never in our lives seen a battlefield except when the cannons are plugged with cement. Assuming we have even an inkling of what we’re doing, it must take a special kind of mental gymnastics to focus on the parts we find interesting or exciting and box up the deaths and dismemberings on the shelf labeled non-threatening ideas for the moment. It’s a very particular kind of deception.

I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, as long as we know that we’re lying to ourselves.

War happens. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t or wish it away. At the same time, though, most of us don’t want to go looking for it, and we sure as hell don’t want to help it along. Our best bet, then, is to borrow from Sun Tzu: know your enemy. That means trying to understand war as best we can, even those of us who by accidents of time and place haven’t at this point in our lives heard our friends die beside us or seen the aftermath of a bombing up close.

What we have to go on is stories, the true and the fictional. We read histories, watch dramatizations, and listen to first-hand accounts, and yes, as kids we play these out with our toy soldiers the same way we play house or play funeral. Stories and games are ways we make sense of incomprehensible things like adulthood, like death, like thousands and sometimes millions of people killing each other as fast as energy and ingenuity will let them, like physics and astronomy and entropy.

It’s worth doing. We just have to remember that it’s an inexact attempt at best.

Lucky for us.

Up Front, in case this wasn’t clear, isn’t a book for kids. At all. But there are other books that are, some of them excellent. Nathan Hale’s Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a nonfiction graphic novel about World War I. Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is a picture book about Japanese-American families interned in Idaho during World War II. I’ve previously mentioned Number the Stars.

My grandfather, who spent twenty years in the Army, who never once spoke about his combat experiences in Vietnam when he knew I could hear him, kept his copy of Up Front when he and my grandmother moved to their retirement community and left most of their library with my parents. My grandmother gave it to me when he died.

Folded inside the book is a Life magazine article Mauldin wrote about the 1945 American Legion convention. I don’t know for sure that my grandfather was the person who clipped it; the book has a $1.00 price scribbled inside the cover in pencil, suggesting that it was purchased used, but the arrangement of staples on the article inside looks to me like Grandpa’s doing. He would have been eighteen at the time.

In any case, the article begins on page 38. Page 37, on the flip side, is a full-page black-and-white photograph: “U.S. BOMBERS THAT SCOURGED GERMANY ARE LINED UP FOR SCRAP PILE AT WALNUT RIDGE, ARK.” That war, at least, was over.

Spoiler Alert: I Like Young Adult Fiction

So I’m not really sure how it happened, but we seem to have decided as a society that young adult books aren’t real books.

That’s the conclusion I have to draw from two separate conversations I’ve overheard this week, one at the bookstore and one at one of my other jobs, which included variations on “I mean, it’s YA, but it’s not really YA, because it’s good.” One was at meeting of a book club, in reference to The Giver; I don’t know what the other comment was about.

I wasn’t technically part of either conversation–hazards of the service industry–so I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, which was to ask (politely) for the speakers to clarify what they meant by a book not really being YA if it was good. Can kids’ books be good under that definition? What qualifies as YA? And why on earth are we so squeamish, as adults, about admitting that we sometimes read books for which teenagers are the target audience?

Quite aside from our rather bizarre hypocrisy of collectively expecting adults in the entertainment industry (and elsewhere) to look like teenagers when we apparently otherwise hold said teenagers in some contempt, I’m curious about what it is we object to about YA. I mean, I’m assuming that a lot of you who have read this far don’t object to it at all, but we’re a self-selecting sample. A larger (though similarly self-selecting) sample of librarians, booksellers, and authors I’ve worked or spoken with have related frequent anecdotes about being taken less seriously when they discuss YA than when they talk about either children’s or adult books. I can certainly say that I’ve had very few adult customers show any compunctions about purchasing children’s books to read themselves, but even some of my regular customers remain embarrassed when they buy Shadowshaper or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong; when Twilight gets as much attention as it has, and when it then spawns not only a movie franchise but the surreal cultural phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Gray, I can understand that you might not have gotten the best first impression of young adult fiction. Maybe you’re also skeptical of the hoopla surrounding The Hunger Games and Harry Potter–I’d consider the last three books in that series to be YA–or have heard way too many people talking about love triangles and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in relation to stories for teenagers and are feeling a little burned out.

It’s curious to me, though, that the people I’ve overheard aren’t rejecting vampire books (the book club that appreciated The Giver is quite enthusiastic about non-Twilight vampires) or dystopias (witness the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984), or even genre fiction in general. They’re rejecting all literature written for young adults. Genre fiction, realistic fiction, humor, if it’s written with teenagers in mind, it’s out.

Notably, the three dystopian classics I just listed are all frequently read or taught in high school. We consider them eminently suitable for young adult audiences. But where I have no problems selling 1984 to a forty-five-year-old father of two, I find that the suggestion that they check out Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is met with blank stares, even though I would consider the two books to be comparably subtle (so, not especially, but there’s definitely a time and a place where that works well), and even though Little Brother is in fact free to read online if anyone’s interested.

Is it about the age of the main characters? But I’m not alone in loving To Kill a Mockingbird and City of Thieves, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is popular in multiple adaptations. And The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds is a solid example of a young adult novel in which the protagonist essentially functions as an adult, with jobs, grief, relationships, and looking after family the primary concerns.

Is it the lack of graphic sex and violence? I’d like to direct you here to the massive cultural obsession with Jane Austen, who relates very little sex or violence indeed, and the fact that I Am the Messenger and The Female of the Species are considered YA even with scenes of violence and sexual content that are as explicit as most literary fiction and sometimes more so.

I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know why some of us who work extensively with young adult fiction have run into skepticism, or why I keep hearing these kinds of comments, some of which customers say to my face as if I’ll undoubtedly agree. I don’t know why I’ve seen people who are clearly engrossed in March put it down when they find out it’s won YA honors. (We shelve it with adult books now and it does well.)

But I want to add on something that may or may not be a counterpoint to everything I’ve said so far: The Book Thief, which was originally published as an adult novel with a young narrator, is now frequently shelved in YA. I almost never have to hand-sell it; both adults and teenagers pick it up off the shelf without a word from me. Adults will sometimes ask where they can find it. The same is true of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: it’s shelved in both YA and adult, because that’s where people look for it, and adults are quite happy to pick it up from the YA shelves.

There’s nothing that makes The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street more or less literary than, say, The Hate U Give. All are beautifully-written stories of vital, deeply human characters with much to say about wider society. The difference is in how we talk about them. We talk about The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street as books worth reading on their own merits. We celebrate the act of reading them rather than shaming each other or ourselves for it.

We can do that with more books, if we choose to. I’m starting to see it already with The Hate U Give, for which probably half my customers have been adults buying for themselves.

The Hunger Games still doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. It really isn’t mine. But we get to decide whether we dislike something for what it is, or whether we dislike it because we hold people who like it in contempt. You might notice that I’m heavily biased towards the former.

We decide what we take seriously. We decide what we let ourselves explore and what we let ourselves delight in.

Lucky us.