[(essay date September 2000) In the following article, Galbraith contends that several prominent post-World War I picture books, prominently among them Gág's Millions of Cats, encapsulate the difficulties children faced in dealing with their anxieties about war.]
The Great War was absolutely beyond human imagination. ... [T]here can never be enough books, plays, films, accounts of the war, never enough means of impressing imagination.--Paul Cohen-Portheim, a German noncombatant interned 1915-18 (1-2)[O]ne is inclined to believe [that] the creative writer perceives his world once and for all in childhood and adolescence, and his whole career is an effort to illustrate his private world in terms of the great public world we share.--Graham Greene, "The Young Dickens" (106)
The Great War of 1914-18, now known as World War I, is a psycho-historical legacy carried by all Europeans and European-Americans (Fussell). An estimated eight million men at arms, many as young as seventeen, and at least nine million noncombatants of all ages died in this war, and tens of millions were wounded (Keylor, Shermer). Survivors directly affected by the war had to cope with the shock and grief of primal losses even as they scrambled to orient themselves in an alien world. Even those Europeans and European-American immigrants who were not directly traumatized by the war were compelled to revise their view of existence based on this cataclysmic historical break.
Artists for whom the Great War was a part of childhood or adolescence and who produced picture books in the late twenties and thirties were inevitably working with themes of security, internationalism, and the predicament of being a child in the midst of adult danger. But these global threats interacted with each artist's intimate history of loss, lack of adult understanding, violation, and fear in childhood, producing images that fused both levels of experience.
The universe of the picture book must, according to prevailing editorial requirements, be optimistic, light-hearted, and just. These mandates, derived from social norms as well as protective concern for what a child can bear, dictate that childhood trauma be presented in picture books only in such a way that upbeat and culturally sanctioned messages are promoted, while raw and threatening content remains latent or suppressed. Serious writers and artists working in this genre and expressing truths about their own childhood experience thus face the seemingly impossible task of revealing their own pain without dismaying children or their parents (Galbraith, "Agony," "Primal").
A group of picture books that have attained the status of classics in the United States was produced by artists in the aftermath of one world war and in the prodromal stages of another. Their evocation of serious and grand themes in the "small" world of the picture book makes these books stand out from those coming before or after. Millions of Cats, the original Babar trilogy (The Story of Babar, The Travels of Babar, and Babar the King), The Story about Ping, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The Story of...