War and Children’s Literature - NCTE
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War and Children’s Literature

This post was written by NCTE member HeeYoung Kim, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship. 

 

A nine-year-old boy, SeungBok Lee, was killed in a small remote town in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The murderers were North Korean commandos who came to South Korean territory for military action. They were stranded in the mountain area and came to SeungBok’s house. They asked for a meal and shelter. After the meal, while they talked about the political war, SeungBok told them, “I hate communism.” This saying provoked the North Korean soldiers and they finally killed him. It was December 9, 1968, and his ninth birthday.

SeungBok became a hero. Newspapers reported his death with a detailed description of the cruel scene of his death. They praised the courage not daunted by a pointed gun. The government built his memorial hall, which was a must field trip itinerary. Every elementary school erected a bronze statue of him in their schoolyard. His story was included in the elementary textbook. Annually, all students participated in a writing and drawing contest in memory of him.  

The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953. In 1945, with the end of World War II, Korea achieved independence from the thirty-five years of Japanese colonialism, but was split and occupied by a trusteeship. The United States occupied the Southern part of Korea, whereas the Soviet Union occupied the Northern part. In 1948, with the Cold War tension, this resulted in two sovereign states: North Korea as a socialist state and South Korea as a capitalist state. When the Korean War ended in 1953, along the cease-fire line, the barbed-wire wall was built and guarded by military forces. To this day, nobody can cross the line. 

After that, the two Koreas strongly fortified their political ideology. In South Korea, a strict anti-communist ideology was reinforced. The National Security Law passed in 1948 and branded any sympathetic communist sentiment as a serious anti-state crime. Anti-communism content was infused into educational content in the classroom. Anti-communism, along with anti-North Koreanism, became the chronic, habitual, and natural ideology conveyed to children and implemented in education for more than thirty years after the war (Zur, 2009).

I remember that we went on a field trip to the SeungBok Lee’s memorial hall and saluted in front of his statue of him. I remember that one day while I was playing in the corner of the playground, I saw him standing in the bronze statue and I felt so heartbroken and hated the North Korean people who cruelly killed him. I remember that I wrote how much I hate communism and North Korean people for the writing contest. Students created posters that demonized North Korean as evils and monsters, as scary as possible. 

I had to say that communism is a peril and evil before I learned about it. I hated North Koreans more than any other people in the world, who had been just Koreans through more than five thousand years of history and fought for less than three years. I learned that North Korea invaded South Korea, but I had not learned why they invaded. I learned that the American people helped South Korea and the Russian people helped North Korea, but had not learned knowledge that explained why they sent the precious lives of their people to the battlefield of the far country that they had never been to. 

There are wars. We see so much poignant news about the wars. Many people died, including soldiers, civilians, and children. There is an enemy that should be defeated. These poignant representations and confrontation of evil and good create some cultural rituals in which war becomes an honorable event that is unfortunate but necessary for national security and progress. War even becomes an amusement to children, in which fighting is glamorized and the enemy is dehumanized (Nguyen, 2017).

War is an extremely complex social phenomenon that cannot be explained by any single factor or through any single approach. Nations go to war for a variety of reasons. It has been argued that a nation will go to war if the benefits of war are deemed to outweigh the disadvantages and if there is a sense that there is not another mutually agreeable solution. More specifically, wars are fought primarily for economic, religious, and political reasons. It may be impossible to understand every fact and situation around the war. Mainstream history textbooks present only the dominant knowledge,  and educators do not have the resources to teach difficult knowledge (An, 2022). Children’s literature could be a useful resource for teaching diverse aspects of war. Even though children’s literature is an ideological text that represents the dominant narratives, critical reading of literature can create space where students can understand the complicated truth of the war.

Sun (2009) examined Korean children’s literature about the Korean War and revealed how anti-communist ideology was enforced. Anti-communist literature for children depicted North Koreans as unequivocally evil, and American and UN soldiers as wholly good. Personal sacrifices, both of civilians and of soldiers, were valorized for the sake of the nation. Most interestingly, these books reveal more complicated power dynamics of how the anti-communist discourse reinforced the hegemonic powers of the people who stayed in favor during the previous Japanese occupation and those who remained affluent during this period. Anti-communist literature for children often privileged the perspective of the landowners who typically collaborated with the Japanese colonial government and depicted South Korea as a comfortable and happy place until the North Koreans destroyed it.

Children have been regarded as innocent, and political aspects often do not take our attention in reading children’s literature. War needs to be taught critically if we want to empower children to transform the world into a less violent place. Many scholars and educators have advocated the use of quality children’s literature to engage children in the realities of war and assert that war-related attitudes begin to develop in early childhood and that children are capable of exploring difficult knowledge of war. I hope that we will find the pedagogy through which we can teach our students to be able to see the aspects of war critically beyond what we are compelled to know and feel about the war. 

 

HeeYoung Kim is an assistant professor of reading at West Texas A&M University. She is a transnational educator from Seoul, Korea, where she taught at elementary schools for fourteen years. She is interested in the sociocultural representations in multicultural and global children’s literature. Her research focuses on critical literacy through creating differences and becomings.

 

The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

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