B is for Battle Cry: A Civil War Alphabet. Written by Pat Bauer. Illustrated by David Geister.
Release Date: April 20, 2009.
What kind of a children’s book can you write about the Civil War? In general, war is a horrible thing and anyone reading about it, regardless of age, will have to contend with that horror. Children, as a rule, aren’t too keen on horror of any kind. There is certainly value in teaching children about history, and accurate history is always preferred, but some historical subjects require a certain level of maturity to fully comprehend without doing more harm than good. Thus, it seems to me, readers should leave a conflict as deadly and brutal as the American Civil War alone until at least reaching adolescence.
To their credit, the authors of B is for Battle Cry seem to understand this. I’ll admit, when I first discovered the book a few months ago, I immediately treated it like a joke. I assumed its depiction of the war would be hopelessly facile and whitewashed. Most of my Facebook friends agreed and began suggesting their own alphabetical entries, sardonically emphasizing the war’s cruelty, brutality, and racism. Having finally read the book, I’m a little more sympathetic to it. The audience is clearly not young children but more mature kids, for whom this would be a gateway to further study.
As expected, the war’s most brutal aspects are absent and the book is occasionally too bloodless—B, for instance, is devoted to battles but mainly focuses on their abundance and differing Confederate and Union names instead of their violence, although G’s entry on Gettysburg somewhat makes up for this by highlighting the high number of causalities—but it doesn’t shy away from portraying the war as a struggle, instead of just a cool triumphal history story. D is for disease and N is for nurses. P for POWs describes harsh conditions in Elmira and Andersonville, and V for Vicksburg focuses on the hardships civilians faced during the siege. Other entries are certainly helpful to young minds curious about the war, such as I for ironclads, L for letters, T for trains, and W for women. Emancipation commendably gets its own two-page spread and the book repeatedly cites the expansion of slavery as the primary cause of the war. The accompanying artwork is generally very good and each letter gets two different texts—a 4-line poem set to the meter of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” and a longer description for more interested readers. As opposed to representing the “football analyst school” I’ve lamented here before, B is for Battle Cry reads more like a primer I’d be comfortable reading to my kid, but only once he’s old enough to understand what death and war really mean.
Nevertheless, there’s still something inherently absurd about a children’s book describing the bloodiest event in American History. B is for Battle Cry does about as good a job as you could expect but there’s still dark comedy in the contrast between the implied innocence of the form and the harsh reality of the subject. Hence, with apologies to everyone everywhere, I’ve created my own Civil War Alphabet of Horrors that should not be read to any child under any circumstances. Feel free to add your own completely inappropriate entries in the comments:
A is for “Bloody” Bill Anderson
B is for Black Codes
C is for burning of Columbia
D is for Diarrhea
E is for mental Exhaustion
F is for Fort Pillow
G is for Grapeshot
H is for sack of Harrisburg
I is for Ile-a-Vache colony
J is for Andrew Johnson
K is for Ku Klux Klan
L is for amputated Limbs
M is for Minie Ball
N is for New York Draft Riot
O is for Overland Campaign
P is for Prostitution
Q is for Quantrill
R is for Ruins [I could go with something much worse here but even I have standards]
S is for Sand Creek
T is for Trauma
U is for Underwater deathtraps
V is for Clement Vallangidham
W is for Washington Conference
X is for Xenophobia [credit to Megan Bever and Catherine Bateson for this one]
Y is for Yellow fever
Z is for Zebulon Vance [had to stretch for this one]
- My apologies to anyone turned off by the goofiness of this post. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled blogging next week with a look at how the Civil War potentially influenced a certain wildly popular science fiction film franchise.
- Does it mention slavery: Yes, but my one major criticism of the book is that African Americans are generally absent. Even in the “E is for Emancipation” entry, the description generally sticks to the outdated notion that Lincoln singlehandedly ended the institution and fumbles its interpretation of the Proclamation’s tangible effects in the occupied Confederacy.
Next Entry: General Lee and Santa Claus
A for Andersonville! How charming.
Almost went with that one myself but I thought Bloody Bill Anderson’s name made my point a little more clearly.