Changing Things Up: Making World War II Real to Kids

Two skeptical evacuees meet their cat lady foster mother in a church hall in Balesworth (the town in my Snipesville Chronicles series that’s lightly modeled on Stevenage) Hertfordshire, England, in 1940. From Could You Be A World War II Kid? at J.T. Reddick Elementary, Tifton, Georgia, January 2019.
I’ve been trotting out Could You Be A World War II Kid? in schools for a decade. It’s my most flexible and practiced program, with lots of different versions for different audiences and different situations. Looking at the big picture, however, I think it needs an overhaul. The past doesn’t change, but history (the interpretation of the past) can and must to keep us in touch with it. That said, this is too popular a program for me to mess with it too much at once. So I have continued to tweak, albeit more consciously than before.

One popular addition involves kids in the action:

Through the lychgate to the church hall, where our pretend evacuees will meet their foster parents for the rest of the war. Marching in place behind me (as Miss Sutherland, their escort), kids often gasp when this picture turns from black and white still to color video, and they see we are moving through the picture. It’s a simple but surprisingly engaging technique, and it’s all part of building empathy, culminating (as time allows) with a discussion of the Kindertransport, a highly resonant subject today. Could You Be A World War Two Kid?
In character, as WVS lady Miss Sutherland, and with a background of wartime images, I lead my younger audiences on the evacuee journey by train from London (starting at Kings Cross for its Harry Potter resonances) to a small town in Hertfordshire. We arrive at the church where they will meet their foster parents. I had the good fortune to shoot video last summer on a non-rainy day in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, at St. Nicholas Church which shows no tell-tale 21st century signs, on a weekday when nobody was around to get in the shot. My audiences pretend to “walk” through the lychgate, and into the churchyard. The video editing technique I used to steady my wobbly footage adds a wonderfully surreal feel, and (to my pleasant surprise) kids audibly gasp when they realize we are “moving.”

Tremendous fun and popular though this is, it is simply a dramatized version of what kids  experience while reading novels. It’s why I consider my historical fiction the most important thing I do: it encourages deep empathy.  At this age particularly, for kids to learn history via random facts (per curriculum) would be a shocking waste of time: I have great respect for teachers who  interpret the drill and test curriculum to a much higher standard, and I hope my programs provide inspiration and practical help in that direction. Harness imagination, and we give kids a fighting opportunity to seek out learning for themselves, and the critical thought that brings with it, for a lifetime.

Annette Laing is an academic historian, formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is also author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of YA time-travel novels.

Leave a Comment