ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Children's illustrated books on war

When children ask about war, children's books help to explain. With war ever present in our world, Alison Padley-Woods asks members of SCBWI to share their favourite illustrated children's book on war and the effects of war.

A few years ago, when I was completing my Creative Writing MA in Children’s Fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, I wrote a short story about an evacuee in Tatton Park during World War II. The University published it in a children’s anthology called Timelines together with an illustration. The picture imagined the wartime landscape, not just for me, but for the young reader to whom war – hopefully – was unknown territory. 

Today, 8th May, and tomorrow, the United Nations marks a time of remembrance for those who died in World War II. It’s a time to reflect on the past when war is all too present in our minds right now – not just in Ukraine, but in so many parts of the world. So how do we teach children about such a difficult subject?

Through storytelling and the powerful interplay between words and pictures, children's books help to explain. We asked members of SCBWI, whose own brilliant stories are set against a background of war, and the effects of war, to tell us about their favourites.

A.M. Dassu, author of Boy, Everywhere and soon to be published, Fight Back (out 2 June 2022)

I have two books that are illustrated that I would like to choose. First is Escape from Syria, by Samya Kullab and Jackie Roche. This graphic novel succinctly shows six years in the life of a Syrian family who are forced to flee the war through intense dialogue and vivid images. Similarly, When Stars Are Scattered, a graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed tells the story of Somali refugees, Omar and his brother, Hassan. It is a heart-breaking and inspiring true story which I hope everyone will read to learn more about how slowly time passes in a refugee camp, and the difficult choices children from war-torn countries have to make.

Cover of Escape from Syria

Cover of When Stars are Scattered


Vanessa Harbour, author of Flight. Its sequel, Safe, will be published in September 2022

My favourite illustrated book about war is The Day the War Came written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. It was published by Walker Books in 2018. This book is a poignant and powerful tale that can be used to open a dialogue about being involved in war and the idea of what it means to be a refugee, plus how important it is to be kind and welcoming. The illustrations are beautiful and subtle, drawing the reader in as we see the little girl go on her journey. You cannot help but have empathy with her. Every school should have a copy. This book was inspired by the story of a refugee child being refused entry to a school because there wasn’t a chair for her. Plus, in 2016, the UK Government refused to give sanctuary to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees. Unforgivable.

Cover of The Day the War Came

Rowena House, author of The Goose Road

My choice, Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier, by the French illustrator and author Barroux, is a strange and beautiful graphic book from the Great War. It is a found story: the real diary of a French civilian, called to arms in the earliest days of the conflict to defend his homeland. A typical everyman story, discovered by chance in Paris and raised to art by the blending of authentic words and Barroux’s deceptively plain and poignant drawings. It is enigmatic, with no ending; we do not know what happened to the man. But it is also true – a witness statement, as Michael Morpurgo called it in his introduction. It may not be to every reader’s taste, as it raises so many unanswered questions, but for those willing to engage it is, perhaps, a doorway into an achingly sad, yet fascinating place in our collective past.

Cover of Line of Fire

Matt Kileen, author of Orphan Monster Spy and Devil Darling Spy

There is a gratifying number of refugee stories for children in print now, but it is 2012’s Azzi In Between, by Sarah Garland, which resonated with my five-year-old. This graphic novel follows the titular Azzi as she flees her war-torn home and makes the dangerous journey to a safer, but stranger, place. The story does not end there, but we see Azzi’s difficulties in school and home as she makes sense of things. There are more visceral and frightening depictions of the refugee experience, but it is the familiarity of Azzi’s new world, coupled with a charming art-style, that make this book so powerful. 

My neurodiverse child recognised the struggle for acceptance, the difficulties of making herself understood and of making connections, even with the good-faith efforts of others. Then, as Azzi puts down roots in the new soil, literally and figuratively, she bridges the two cultures in a way that he understood. It’s an ultimately optimistic conclusion that feels earned and never facile.  

Cover of Azzi In Between

Elizabeth Wein author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire (naming just a few). A tenth anniversary edition of Code Name Verity is out on 10 May.  

With pictures and text perfectly married in a joint husband and wife production, Peepo!, by Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlbergwas one of my favourite bedtime books for my own children. It was first published in 1981 – as distant in time to us now as its World War II home front setting was to us then. But it’s timeless in its portrait of an extended family all crammed into a tiny house (I love the utter slovenliness of the unnamed parents – underwear hanging out of drawers, toys all over the kitchen floor, a tube of nappy cream on the hall table).

The war is never mentioned in the bouncy, rhyming text. It’s only when you look carefully at the pictures that you notice a gas mask hanging from a bedpost, Spitfires in the sky overhead, a bombed house at the edge of a busy park.

Mother, father and ready-for-bed baby reflected in “the landing mirror with its rainbow rim” never fail to choke me up, even to this day. Peepo! gives generations to come an enduring and unspoken message that love and hope are stronger than war. That’s a magical achievement.

Cover of Peepo!

Finally, Words & Pictures’ Illustration Features Editor, Tita Berredo, shares her favourite – War by José Jorge Letria, illustrated by André Letria. Published by Greystone Kids. 

Illustration (single soldier and spiders) from War

Illustration (rows of soldiers) from War

In an almost sepia tone and stained smoky pages, we watch the metaphor of Man’s greatest evil. In War, the ink acts like a black disease that sneaks and spreads through the pages and before you know, it is filling the book's spreads. The running paint splatters and stains, defiling the purity of soul represented by a bird. Internally eaten by the worms and vermin of disgrace, the bird hovers in silence carrying destruction, feeding in angst. The dark bird of war travels rapidly, seizing fear, sensing where it is secretly wished for. The long-legged spiders of corruption and small insects of despair crawl across the pages, fully bleeding through the spreads, maps, cities, countries. War has no face or size, its impact indefinite and unmeasurable. War feels nothing, it drains everything.

With profound words and intense brush strokes, War expresses a powerful narrative that evokes the most intense emotions. Unsettling as it is, it is a perfect portrait of its subject. In crowded pages we hear deafening noise, and in absence we feel silence. War is like a nightmare that wakes you up and leaves you shaken in the dark.


Such disturbing topics are often avoided in children’s books. But it is important for children to be challenged. Picture books do not always have to be comfortable. War is not light, or pretty, or colourful. It is part of our history, and it is very much in our present. Regardless of age, it is necessary to communicate about the world around us. As seen in War, silence does not equal protection, and what is not spoken cannot be healed. We must remind ourselves that picture books are a sophisticated and creative medium that helps introduce life to children from the safety of their parent’s lap.

My personal favourite is War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, a more traditional tale perhaps, but books are so often entwined with memories. This one for me brings back bedtime storytelling with my own three children, their hanging on my every word. I read them the original middle grade version, but the story was adapted into a picture book in 2020, and the illustrations by Tom Clohosy Cole perfectly bring to life the relationship between the boy, Albert, and his beloved horse, Joey, which is of course the magic of the story. 

Cover of War Horse

Thank you to everyone for sharing these incredible books with us. We would love this list to grow so if you have a favourite children's book on war, please share it with  us in the comments below. 

*Header image, War by José Jorge Letria, illustrated by André Letria. Published by Greystone Kids


Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Find her on Twitter

1 comment:

  1. Really amazing article!! A fantastic read


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