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Research Communications

Illustrating War 

Groundbreaking children’s books unveil tragedy of World War II

April 26, 2010

When Ohio University undergraduate Caitlin Yocco began studying how women are portrayed in French literature for children, she repeatedly stumbled upon newer illustrated storybooks that unflinchingly describe life in Europe during World War II—aimed at children.

“To my surprise, children served as the main characters of the books, which focused on their thoughts, experiences, and feelings at a time of desperation,” says Yocco, an Honors Tutorial College student and French major.

Yocco1
Caitlin Yocco
Photo by: Kevin Riddell


Yocco knew that she had discovered a unique subject for her senior thesis when she found a total of 16 such storybooks, all but two of which were published after 2000. The tragic events of World War II have, up until the last decade or so, been difficult for even western European adults to speak about openly. It is neither a time that German citizens are proud of, nor a time that French residents wish to relive.

In fact, the storybooks in Yocco’s study are difficult to find at book stores in Paris, says Lois Vines, a professor of modern languages and Yocco’s advisor. And while there has been some scholarly research on depictions of World War II for children, most literature and media on the topic are about and for adults, Yocco says.

“Presenting World War II to children through stories rather than through history class is relatively new,” says Yocco, whose research was supported by the Dean’s Discretionary Fund in the Honors Tutorial College.

The books in Yocco’s study feature beautiful illustrations sometimes paired with actual photographs that don’t shy away from the dramatic misfortunes of war. Publishers originally declined children’s works about World War II because of this candid content. One of the first books that Yocco studied, Rose Blanche, by Italian illustration artist Roberto Innocenti, was first published in the United States in 1985 after it had been declined by publishers in France. It has circulated through Europe and is being released in a new edition in Canada, but is still out of print in France. 

Rose Blanche, about a young German girl who witnesses the events at a concentration camp, is unlike any other children’s book. She continues to return to the camp with food for the children trapped inside until one day, she is caught in crossfire. The book infers that she dies. 

Many of the other books used for Yocco’s research have similar stories, and feature symbols such as the yellow star (which Jews over the age of six were required to wear to identify themselves) and the swastika. Yocco and Vines agree that the work captivates and overwhelms.

“It’s fascinating to see how authors of children’s books in French present to young readers the tragic aspects of the Second World War, inhuman acts that even the adult mind finds difficult to grasp,” Vines remarks.

Vines suggests that enough time has passed since World War II that authors are now “willing to unveil the tragedy of the war to younger generations. They feel that they owe it to those who died during the events of the war.”

But is it right to expose children to such harsh realities? After conducting her research, Yocco offers a caveat.

“It’s a good idea to engage children in this discussion as long as there is appropriate adult participation,” she says. “I would use these books with my own children as long as it were the right time and place.”

By Bridget Peterlin

Editor’s note: Caitlin Yocco will be one of more than 550 Ohio University students presenting work at the 2010 Student Research and Creative Activity Expo on Thursday, May 13, at the Convocation Center. For more information, visit www.ohio.edu/studentexpo.

This story also will appear in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.