How Nazi Germany is like a beloved children’s book

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Today I’m going to show you how a popular children’s picture book is really an allegory for Europe during the years leading up to World War II.

Before I do that, we’ll need to backtrack to the end of World War I. On June 28, 1919, Germany agreed to the Treaty of Versailles, which effectively ended the war between the Germans and the Allied Powers. While Germany got to remain a country, the treaty stifled any ability they had to govern themselves and to grow their economy over the next 20 years.

ImageA few parts of the Treaty of Versailles:

  • The German armed forces would number no more than 100,000 and the draft would be abolished.
  • German naval forces could only include 15,000 men, six battleships, six cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 12 torpedo boats. Submarines were not allowed.
  • Germany was prohibited from having armed forces in the Rhineland – basically the area closest to France.
  • Germany had to pay reparations that would equal $442 billion in today’s dollars. At the time, noted economist John Maynard Keynes predicted the treaty was too harsh.

The treaty was brutal, especially when you take the Great Depression into account. In America we learn about the Stock Market Crash and the Dust Bowl and John Steinbeck novels as if we were the sole sufferers in the 1930’s. It was a worldwide Depression and Europe, particularly Central Europe was hard-hit. Germany, in particular suffered unemployment as high as 25 percent.

In steps Adolf Hitler.

After all of the punishments from the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler came into office and ushered in a wave of German nationalism. In a way, you can’t blame the Germans – they’d been blamed for every bad thing that had happened in Europe during World War I, but they were still Germans and they were still proud.

Hitler began building up the army, contrary to the Treaty of Versailles – and this is where the children’s book comes into play.

ImageLet’s take a break from fascism and examine the book, “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, it’s a cute story about a boy who gives a cookie to a mouse. The mouse then wants a glass of milk to go with that cookie, then a straw, then a mirror (so he won’t have a milk mustache), then scissors and a broom. Then comes a nap, a story read to him, to draw a picture and to hang that picture on the fridge. By the end of the book, the mouse has gotten everything he wanted and the little boy is run ragged by the endless wants of the mouse.

Now let’s say the mouse is Hitler and the boy is Europe and their policy of appeasement in the mid-1930’s.

Britain and France were basically in charge of keeping Germany in check, but not everybody thought that the Treaty of Versailles was fair, especially the land and military restrictions imposed by the terms of the treaty. Thus, when Hitler ordered the army to re-arm and to begin conscription, France and Britain looked the other way.

The mouse had his cookie. Now he wanted milk.

Then Hitler moved troops into the demilitarized Rhineland near France in 1936 and again the Allies did nothing.

The mouse had his milk.

From there, Hitler kept taking and Europe kept giving (perhaps the Giving Tree would have been appropriate as well?)

The biggest kicker came in 1938. Hitler declared that he wanted the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. By actually invading a foreign country, Hitler would be inviting war – his boldest step by far.

In steps British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He, along with a few French leaders tried to “appease” Hitler. Their (mistaken) belief was that if they gave this to Hitler, he would finally be happy and he would leave the rest of Europe alone. In fact, Czechoslovakia was not even allowed to participate in the Munich Conference that decided this. Britain and French gave Sudetenland away.

ImageChamberlain was so sure, that when he talked about it later, he said the concession meant “peace in our time.” Chamberlain was bad at telling the future, apparently.

The mouse had the run of the house now. Soon, Hitler had his eyes on the rest of Europe, primarily Poland and France.

The slippery slope that Europe had allowed Germany to begin in 1935 had now allowed Hitler to claim part of another sovereign land. In Numeroff’s kid’s book, the mouse became so comfortable in the house that the boy was allowing a nap and actually read a book to the mouse. Hitler had achieved the same on the European continent.

While Chamberlain and Europe thought Hitler was a rational human being, they were wrong. He was simply a mouse that wanted a cookie.

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Favorite Childhood Books — Choose Your Own Adventure

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The words above the title just brought an excitement to my ears — “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Throughout my childhood, I can’t deny that I LOVED these books. I had a handful and re-read them all the time. 

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What were these terrific books? What weren’t they?

There was action, drama, adventure, science fiction, fantasy, romance and pretty much anything else you’d want in a book as a late-elementary student. As I recall, many seemed to start like Indiana Jones movies with the main character (spoiler alert — the protagonist is YOU) starting some adventure with many possible paths to take. Often times you would read a page or two and then would be given a choice. 

“If you fire a rocket toward the Coast Guard boat, turn to page 25. If you try to think of something else to do, turn to page 77.”

Amazing!

A book that you can tailor to your own choices! I loved it. Now, I’ll admit that perhaps these books have spoiled my generation. As I read book reviews these days, often times the poor reviews are from customers who were upset that the author didn’t write the story how they expected him/her to craft it. Those people need to get over themselves — unless you are in 5th grade and reading a CYOA book, you don’t get to pick how to finish the story. 

Oh…and the finish. Or should I say finishes… In the copy I took off my daughter’s bookshelf, I counted 11 different endings, but some of them may have had upwards of 20 or even 30 different outcomes for you. There were good and happy endings for sure (You catch the bad guys and put them in jail while enjoying the spoils of your conflict), but most of the endings were a variation on you being arrested or dying in some tragic accident or planned conspiracy. These books taught me that more often than not, the ending to your story would not be happy. 

Ultimately, we all have our own adventures that we choose each and every day, but its up to us and our perspective to determine whether that journey was a worthwhile one. As for me, I’m glad I read these books and now that am leafing through one right now, perhaps I ought to try my hand one of my own. Maybe one day you can choose your own adventure from my words. 

 

Favorite Childhood Books — Homer Price

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I’ve decided to take a look at some of my favorite books of my childhood. My desire to write stemmed from so many wonderful books I devoured in my formative years. I think I’ll make this a recurring series — I mean, I read so many books there is probably no end in sight. 

For the first, I want to take a look at Homer Price.

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Homer is a boy, presumably 12 or so, who lives in Centerburg, Ohio. The book is actually a collection of vignettes or short stories about Homer and the different situations he finds himself in. I absolutely fell in love with the two Homer Price books when I was about his age and still remember them fondly to this day. 

The author, Robert McCloskey, wrote both Homer Price and a sequel Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price. The first was published in 1943 and the latter in the early 50’s. McCloskey was also twice a Caldecott Award winner, most famously for the 1942 winner Make Way for Ducklings.

I suppose Homer’s stories really may have propelled me into science fiction and fantasy. Homer was always inventing and innovating and somehow became embroiled in new and fantastic situations. A few of the stories from the book, include “The Case of the Cosmic Comic,” and “The Doughnuts.” The second story is one that really sticks in my mind as Homer has to contend with an unstoppable doughnut-making machine in his uncle’s diner. 

Ultimately, I don’t have a perfect memory of the book, but I do remember my feelings and the joy I got out of reading it. It is an amazing set of stories from American small town life in the 40’s and 50’s. Homer was inventive and smart — a great role model for any boy. There was also African-American characters who always treated well and a regular part of the Ohio community where Homer lives. 

I recently purchased a copy for my nine-year-old daughter’s bookshelf, where it and Centerburg Tales sit today. She’s got some great adventures ahead of her when she finally dives into the terrific books, and in that way, I’m jealous. 

As a matter of fact, I may sneak in her room and grab it for myself while I’m thinking about it.