The current exhibition in the Cotsen gallery is a small but potent object lesson. If we want to understand why so many young men volunteered to serve in the Great War, it is illuminating to look at the children’s books that glorified soldiering and demonized other nations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries across Europe. Not all of them were written and illustrated by old military men (although one book in the show is)–four women author/artists are represented.
A surprising number of these picture books feature toy soldiers as the actors. Some come to life only when their owners fall asleep. Or like animals in fables, the figures stand-in for human beings, distancing the reader from the realities of war’s theater. Native troops from Africa seemed to belong to another world dressed in their gorgeous, colorful uniforms. Others performed completely fantastic feats of heroism. Frequently the child was encouraged to see himself as the omniscient general with the power to move around the massed little bodies as he pleased. Girls were not necessarily excluded from these fantasies, although they were more likely to assume the duties of men and their uniforms. A completely naked female doll executed as a spy (male) or be converted to the side of peace after wounding an enemy soldier,
In the reader’s nook just outside the door to the curatorial offices, will be a copy of a recent exhibit catalogue on the subject of children’s books and war: Richard Cheek’s . Playing Soldier: The Books and Toys that Prepared Children for War 1871-1918. Weighing in at six and a half pounds, Playing Soldier displays far more books, popular prints, board games, and paper toys from the collection than could be displayedin the Cotsen gallery cases.
For anyone interested in how children’s book illustration served national destiny in the run-up to World War I, this is a must-see publication. “Extravagantly illustrated” is no exaggeration: the majority of the double-page spreads feature four or five pictures, but eight or ten are not unusual. It showcases four major Western European traditions–German, French, British, and American—which conveyed patriotic ideas in aesthetically distinct ways. Every feature, from the palettes of the illustrations to the display types used on the covers contribute to recognizable national styles of book design. The quantity and quality of the illustrations for Playing Soldier makes it an invaluable pictorial archive and anyone who would like to see more of the kind of books featured in “Steadfast Toy Soldiers” should enjoy browsing in Cheek’s exhibition catalogue.
The illustration featured on the exhibition poster is by Job for Georges Montorgueil’s Jouons a l’histoire: la France mise en sceme avec les joujoux de deux petits francaisParis : Boivin & Cie, Éditeurs, . Cotsen10970.