Slote examines how adults talk to children about trauma

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The Karl W. Weiss, ’87, lecture series continued with a presentation on World War II British Children’s Literature by Assistant Professor of English and Director of Education Studies Susan Slote.

“It is my honor to introduce Susan Slote tonight,” said Assistant Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Lauren French. “The best thing of being on (the Karl W. Weiss lecture series) committee is getting this window into colleagues’ work and careers (at Allegheny).” 

Slote presented her research titled “‘It’s Our War, Too’: Mass Evacuation and World War II British Children’s Literature,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. in the Henderson Campus Center.

This presentation was just one piece of her ongoing research on how adults talk to children about traumatic events that directly impact them, according to Slote. 

Before she began, Slote gave a special thank you to four people, including Research and Instruction Librarian/Special Collections Librarian Jane Westenfeld and Emma Himelein-Wachowiak, ’20. 

“(Himelein-Wachowiak’s) intelligence and dedication underlied a lot of what you are going to hear tonight,” Slote said. 

Himelein-Wachowiak served as Slote’s research assistant during the summer of 2018. 

“I wanted to just start with a word about children’s literature, which is a unique genre,” Slote said. “Unlike adult literature, it has a very particular audience — the child reader. Almost always, the child reader is different from the creator of the literature and from the buyer of the literature.” 

Slote explained that this puts child readers in a vulnerable position and creates obligations for the writer of the literature. 

“Children’s culture in general and children’s literature in particular is created in a social context that aims to impose special values on the children who are the inheritors of that culture,” Slote said. “Children’s book authors have to navigate those expectations for their audiences in order to impart those values.” 

Slote’s presentation was to focus specifically on the mass evacuation of children from cities in Britian in anticipation of “Nazi aerial bombardment and potential occupation,” according to a My Allegheny post. 

As the discussion began, Slote reminded audience members that there are real children standing behind the night’s discussion. 

“Here is what I’ll be arguing tonight — that British children’s literature of the period spoke in a very direct and particular way to children experiencing evacuation,” Slote said. 

“We Couldn’t Leave Dinah” by Mary Treadgold and “Visitors from London” by Kitty Barne were two of the books Slote closely examined. According to Slote, these books engaged in what she called “evacuation discourse.” 

Slote’s research focused specifically on Operation Pied Piper, which was the largest mass movement of people in the history of Britain — the evacuation, which occurred in 1939, moved almost 3 million people in just four days, according to the BBC. 

“(Operation Pied Piper) was considered a huge success executed with military precision,” Slote said. 

However, Slote explained that a major downfall of the operation was British Officer Sir John Anderson’s failure to anticipate the challenges of evacuees. 

“Ultimately, this lack of foresight had tragic results,” Slote said. “According to one survey, 47% of child evacuees suffered some kind of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.”

Slote explained that the failure to consider the lifelong effects of evacuation can be traced back to the culture of the upper and middle classes in Britain — British upper classes had long-standing traditions of sending children away to be educated. 

“(The failure of Operation Pied Piper to consider its effects on children) does seem emblematic of a fast-paced, widespread attitude towards children,” Slote said. 

Children’s literature from the period depicted evacuation as “a battle waged on the homefront and winning that battle as a way to a renovated nation.” 

Slote continued by discussing some of the research conducted by Himelein-Wachowiak, which included coding articles for commonly used language to describe evacuees. 

The words most commonly used to describe evacuees by journalists included courageous, cheerful, healthy and young. However, the most common words used in documents submitted included difficult, deprived, needy and poor. 

Slote also referenced a broadcast created for children given by 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth II at the request of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. 

“In this speech, Princess Elizabeth becomes a signifier for the British child in wartime,” Slote said. “The youth in her voice conveys that she is still a child but is stepping forward to assume the obligations of war.”

In her address, Princess Elizabeth II used the words cheerful and courageous to describe child evacuees. 

“(Cheerful and courageous) in this context especially convey not just a feeling but a moral obligation,” Slote said. “In closing (Princess Elizabeth II’s) remarks, she commits herself and her listeners to a final obligation that is really important — to redeem the post-war world.” 

According to Slote, this radio address helps understand what British culture asked of its children. 

“These elements comprise much of the evacuation discourse surrounding the children’s book writers of the period — the need for courage and cheerfulness, the need for bearing the burdens of war and the conception of their evacuation journey as transformative, ultimately both for themselves and for the nation.”

Elizabeth becomes a signifier for the British child in wartime,” Slote said. “The youth in her voice conveys that she is still a child but is stepping forward to assume the obligations of war.”

In her address, Princess Elizabeth used the words cheerful and courageous to describe child evacuees. 

“(Cheerful and courageous) in this context especially convey not just a feeling but a moral obligation,” Slote said. “In closing (Princess Elizabeth’s) remarks, she commits herself and her listeners to a final obligation that is really important — to redeem the post-war world.” 

According to Slote, this radio address helps understand what British culture asked of its children. 

“These elements comprise much of the evacuation discourse surrounding the children’s book writers of the period — the need for courage and cheerfulness, the need for bearing the burdens of war and the conception of their evacuation journey as transformative, ultimately both for themselves and for the nation.”

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