But it’s just a children’s book…

A couple of correspondents recently have criticised me for taking Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful seriously. ‘It’s just a children’s book,’ they argue. ‘So you can’t expect literary sophistication or historical accuracy.’
Others have taken a similar line about Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas Truce poem, whose target market is also apparently children (though there was no indication of this when it was printed in The Guardian).
Should there be separate rules for adult fiction and children’s books? Well, up to a point; only a twerp would criticise The Wind in the Willows for inaccurately claiming that toads drive motor cars. Equally, one wouldn’t want to spoil a child’s pleasure in Treasure Island by suggesting that most eighteenth-century pirates were less interesting than Long John Silver or Ben Gunn. Children’s literature is a genre with its own standards, and any reader should expect it to communicate through vivid characters, a clear narrative and (often) strong simple emotions.
My problem with Private Peaceful is that it simplifies human nature, and the simplifications of history are a symptom of this. Morpurgo divides his characters into good and bad. From what I remember of the novel, nobody crosses the line. There is no Long John Silver figure, attractively bad, to pose dilemmas of divided loyalties. There is not even a Mr Toad – on the same side as the heroes, but enjoyably deplorable. No. The Peacefuls are all simply good and their enemies are all simply bad. The Colonel and Hanley are ludicrously one-dimensional bullies; life in this novel is often horrible, but it is never morally complex, because it never suggests that people are complicated.
Both Morpurgo and Duffy deliver a simple pacifist message, but I find it very interesting that they need to falsify the history to do so. The entire denouement of Private Peaceful depends on a soldier being executed for stopping to tend his wounded brother. No British soldier in the Great War was shot at dawn for such an action; it would not have been a capital offence. Morpurgo’s desire to make the War seem worse than it actually was surely tells us something about how his didactic purpose overrides his interest what life was actually like – surely a major fault in a writer of historical fiction, even for children.
As for Carol Ann Duffy, who has written good poems in her time, her Christmas Truce piece never makes much contact with historical actuality at all. Neither she, her illustrator or her publisher seem to have been interested in the actual events or conditions of 1914 – or why did nobody at Picador point out to the illustrator the surely well-known fact that British soldiers did not wear steel helmets till 1916?
All of Duffy’s soldiers are generic (and nameded with an alliteration that reduces their individuality:’Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz’). They rush joyfully towards each other, with none of the tentativeness that, according to accounts, marked real 1914 contacts. It was a brave man who first put his head above the parapet, Christmas or no Christmas. Her soldiers do predictable things, like offering each other drinks and playing football, but there is none of the surrealism of the actual truces. I think of the English hairdresser who gave a German soldier a haircut in the middle of No-Man’s-Land. Long John Silver and Benn Gunn may not be 100% authentic, but they are worth reading about because they are rounded, gripping characters. By offering generalities, Duffy lets down not only her child (and adult) readers, but the soldiers of 1914, who, when one finds out about them, turn out to be quirkier and much more interesting than the figures of this poet’s imagination.
Private Peaceful is being turned into a film. It will be interesting to see whether it is labelled a children’s film, or whether it is aimed at an adult market too, as Spielberg’s version of War Horse seems to be.

2 Comments

  1. Posted January 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Nina Bawden’s 1973 novel Carrie’s War is also a children’s story about a time of conflict, but unlike Murpurgo Bawden seems to trust her audience with the idea of moral complexity. By the end of the story the villain is revealed as rather less straightforwardly villainous than he was at the beginning, and the heroine rather less straightforwardly virtuous than she at first seemed.

  2. Jane Stemp
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    George, I agree wholeheartedly that being “only” a children’s book does not equal carte blanche to do poor research and to mislead readers…! I have yet to read a modern book with a Great War theme, aimed at a younger readership, which totally satisfies.

    [and, by the way, hallo Alan, we were colleagues at St A’s, 1987-1991!]


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