I created the basis of this website as a class project for my Masters Degree in Library and Information Science. The class was LIS 303 Literature and Resources for Children, taught by Betsy Hearne through the LEEP format in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Fall semester of 2003.
This website presents an annotated bibliography of children's fictional books featuring children with parents in the U.S. military. After a lot of searching I found:
- about 13 picture books
- about 16 middle grade books plus a series
- about 16 young adult books plus three series
- and about 8 books written for adults but with a child or teen as a main character
(Note that I am finding more books all the time. This is currently a particularly popular subject in picture books. Several new picture books have been published in recent months.)
According to the Department of Defense Manpower Statistics published in 2002 there were over one million, one hundred and eighty thousand children with parents in the active duty US military in 2001 (accessed via Lexis-Nexis 25 November, 2003). There are also over a million adults in the reserves, but I could not find figures for how many children they have (accessed via Leis-Nexis 25 November, 2003). Children with parents in the reserves may have more stability in where they live but many are currently facing having a parent called for full time active duty at a U.S. base or deployed overseas.
Around fifty books seems a small number to reflect the experiences of this large group of children, especially considering that many of these books reflect children's experiences of the Vietnam War era or earlier.
Of course, these over one million children have different lives and different experiences but many of them have some things in common that may include:
- moving frequently
- changing schools frequently
- the possibility of a parent being deployed or going away for a long time
- living on a military base
- living overseas for a few years or maybe longer but expecting to come back
- having a parent with a job that might dictate where they live, what they wear and whom they may socialize with
There are many children's books that deal with issues such as moving or an absent parent but I focused on books featuring military families. I also focused on books from World War II or later to try and better reflect a modern child's experience. I believe military children need to see themselves reflected in print. As Hazel Rochman said about the experience of growing up in South Africa, "I thought my place was really off the map; nothing could happen there that would interest the rest of the world." Military children are not physically off the map (unless they are stationed overseas) but their experiences can be so unusual as to be off the map of mainstream America. It is also important for children whose parents are not in the military to attempt to understand the experiences a military child might be growing through. These books may contribute to that understanding.
Luminaries of children's literature such as Zena Sutherland and Betsy Hearne have long proclaimed that children will benefit from seeing the experiences of groups with which they identify reflected in the books they read. Zena Sutherland put it nicely when she said, "Books like these parallel the need of each individual not only to belong with pride to his or her own group, but to identify warmly and sympathetically with ever-widening circles of people" (page 17). Even more importantly "A good and honest book can strengthen the pride of the minority member and enrich all who read it," (page 18).
I separated the books I found into four categories, although some books may fit into more than one category, such as Candy Dawson's Charlie Pippin which may be read by middle grade children but also enjoyed by teens for the complexity of its ideas. The four categories are picture books, middle grade books, teen books and books published as adult books but having a child or teen as a main character.
Growing up a military child can be memorable and emotionally significant judging by several adult novelists who turned to their childhoods to create moving and sometimes emotionally wrenching books. All the adult books suitable for teens that I found were written by children who grew up in a military family. Most of these books paint a less than rosy picture of a military childhood. This may not be an accurate picture of what this sort of childhood is like for everyone. It is possible that military children who are unhappy with their lot (and have writing talent) may grow up to write about it while military children who are happy about their lot grow up to become Colonels. Pat Conroy is notable in this genre for his well-known work, The Great Santini about his military childhood in the 1960s. Pat Conroy said, 'I think being a military brat is one of the strangest and most interesting ways to spend an American childhood. The military brats of America are an invisible, unorganized tribe, a federation of brothers and sisters bound by common experience, by our uniformed fathers, by the movement of families being rotated through the American mainland and to military posts in foreign ands.' (Wertsch, xvii).
The middle grade and teen books are generally of good quality, for example Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff was a Newbery honor book in 1998 and Robert Cormier's After the First Death has been seen as important enough to reprint at least five times since its publication in 1979.
The quality of the picture books I found varied enormously. The picture books by well-known children's books authors like Robin McKinley who wrote My Father is in the Navy and Jane Yolen who wrote All Those Secrets of the World are very high quality. Both these books tell a story in poetic language. My Father is in the Navy is illustrated with color pencils and All those Secrets of the World is illustrated by paintings but they both have illustrations that complement the text and were created by experienced and talented artists. Some of the self published books are of lesser quality, although many will still be useful to small military children. As Betsy Hearne said, "In fiction, as in nonfiction, a worthy subject does not guarantee a good book" (page 183).
How well does this selection of books reflect the experiences of military children?
These books may help a military child by seeing his or her own experience reflected in literature. This experience is reflected in funny ways in books such as Jack Santos' Jack Adrift, Fourth Grade Without a Clue, or in a serious way in books such as Marc Talbert's The Purple Heart.
Some details in these books such as having to have a nameplate on the front of your house with your parent's rank and name will be familiar to many military children who have lived on a base, but odd to children of civilians. This detail was mentioned in Elizabeth Berg's Durable Goods and Adele Griffin's Rainy Season. In Durable goods it is reported without comment, 'Our fathers' names and ranks are posted outside our doors, above our mailboxes. We have look alike bushes in the front and back' (Berg 1993, page 6). In Rainy Season, 'The black plaque, stamped out like a license plate and fixed to our front door screen ' #4J Lt. Col. Beck ' is the one thing that distinguishes our house from all the others on First Street' (Griffin, 1996, page 24).
Moving frequently is another theme common to many military children, though of course it is not only military children who may move frequently. In many of these books the loss and dislocation of moving is portrayed in a poignant way. For example in Anne Marie Alpin's The Proving Ground, 'Kevin wondered how that would feel, living somewhere all your life like that and having family around ' knowing you were walking where your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had walked' (Alphin, page 8) and 'Army friendships didn't last. Once you moved to a new post, you forgot the kids from your old post because you'd probably never see them again' (Alphin, page 27). Katie in Durable Goods has these sad thoughts as she is leaving, 'On the last day, after the moving van has gone, I walk around the empty house. There are marks on the walls, evidence of how we were. It is the loneliest thing, to see those last pieces of you that stay behind' (Berg, page 186).
Other details may not reflect the average experience. For example, out of eighteen books I found that mention the parent's military rank, twelve of the parents have a rank of Lieutenant Colonel or higher. According to the Department of Defense Directorate for Information and Reports on September 30 2003 these higher ranks had around forty thousand people out of a total of over one million, four hundred thousand in the military. (https://www.dod.mil/dfas/militarypay/newinformation/WebPayTableVersion2006updated.pdf This is the actual pay table (2006 version) accessed on August 16 2006). Therefore over sixty-six percent of the books represented parents with high ranks when in reality less than three percent of active duty military people have these ranks. Jack Gantos's Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue and Richard Bausch's Rebel Powers both feature an enlisted father. In both of these books lack of money is an important issue. This reflects the reality of many enlisted personnel because they earn considerably less than officers (look at the figures at https//www.dfas.mil/accessed on August 1 2013).
Interview with A Fifth Grade Teacher of Military Children
I interviewed a 5th Grade teacher at an elementary school on an Air Force base. This teacher taught for four years at a public school, and then spent time at home raising her children. Since then she has taught 5th Grade for fourteen years at the two elementary schools on the same Air Force base.
I asked her if she saw any difference between children in military families and children in civilian families. She said that military families are especially supportive of their children's schools. She suggested this is maybe because they are less cliquey than civilian families and have to make their own support because they move around so much. The families generally see school as very important and want their children to do well.
She said that students who find academic work difficult can find that the constant moving makes their difficulties worse and that they will sometimes get even further behind as schools will teach concepts and information in a slightly different order. Students who are academically strong will thrive on the variety and do well at the core subjects and also have a broad general knowledge.
A disadvantage of the military lifestyle for some children can be that they live too close together. The teacher gave an example of two students she once had in her class who lived on either side on a duplex, shared a class and rode the bus together. In the teacher's opinion these two students ended up seeing too much of each other. This may happen in the civilian world in a small town but is perhaps more likely in the enclosed world of many military bases.
Many of the children are so used to having a parent away for a few days or weeks that she often wouldn't know about it until a child told her something like, 'My mother is coming back tonight.' The teacher said that sometimes her students' behavior changed when they have a parent away for an extended period. The worst part for the children, that will show in their behavior or in their comments to their teacher, is having a parent away on a special occasion like a birthday or Christmas.
Growing up in a military family can be important and life defining for a child. Children need to see themselves reflected in the print they read and pictures and print they have read to them. Therefore, I recommend anyone in a position of supplying books to military children, such as in a library or school near a military base, provide children with some of the books listed on this web site. I also recommend that parents of military children try to find some of these books at an age level appropriate for their children so they can read and discuss them together.
The Search Process
I discovered Robin McKinley's My Father Is In The Navy accidentally through research for another class and began to wonder what other books featuring the lives of military children were available. I started this project with very little knowledge of what fiction children's books featuring military children were available.
I spent hours searching Books In Print, WorldCat, NoveList many library online catalogs and even amazon.com. I found many titles that I then bought or acquired through the library to see if they were relevant. I tried the standard children book searching tools like Genreflecting and What do I Read Next? but didn't find them very useful as books for children with military parents is not a category that they use.
I would like to thank the 5th grade teacher for agreeing to be interviewed and the members of the Fiction_L listserv for suggesting titles. I would also like to thank Jamie, Kathy and Elsa for valuable editing and technical assistance.
Hearne, Betsy. With Deborah Stevensen. (1999). Choosing Books for Children: A Commonsense Guide. Third Edition. University of Illinois Press.
Rochman, H. (1995). Against Borders. Horn Book Magazine. March/April (Accessed online from https://www.hbook.com/exhibit/article_rochmanhtmll )
Sutherland, Z. (1997). Children and Books. New York, NY.Addison Wesley Educational Publishers.
Wertsch, Mary Edwards. (1991). Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress. New York, NY.Harmony Books.
The bibliographic information for the fiction books mentioned in this essay is on the bibliographic pages.
Links on this page checked OK 2007-02-01