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War and Wardrobes

Posted on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008.

Kim McKernan and Joan McKernan

At the cusp of WWII Britain began Operation Pied Piper, evacuating children from large cities to the surrounding countryside for safety. My interest in the evacuation grew from the myriad of children’s stories featuring the event (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lord of the Flies). This event obviously makes a wonderful premise for children’s books because it places children in new and exciting environments, away from mom and dad and ready for adventure.

Joan McKernan came into the MobileBooth in Buffalo to share her real-life evacuation story. She remembered growing up in London and indulging in salted peanuts and ice cream. Ms. McKernan was readying to enter high school in 1939 when the evacuation began, and she was sent out into the country to live with strangers. She stayed with a couple who had a swing, a greenhouse, and a car, who took her to the movies once a week, a pleasure she rarely had at home. While the adults were worrying about the terrors of war, Joan was distracted with being young and having fun.

Joan also remembered the initial terror of the air raids in London. The air raid siren sent her family running with gas masks into a neighbor’s bomb cellar shelter every night where they played games and drank tea. The repetition of the raids quelled Joan’s fear, and she would stand at her doorstep and watch the planes drop bombs amidst the Barrage Balloons, lighting up the sky. Joan had her first job during the war, as well as her first date. She recalled the abundance of soldiers and sailors. “London was full of men. We were never without dates. It was lovely.”

Despite her youthful ignorance to the terrors of war, Ms. McKernan remembers its end as one of her happiest memories. She was sent home early from work and asked her father,”What do you do when a war ends?” Joan joined crowds of people in London as they jumped and drank and sang in celebration.

You can read more evacuation stories here.

And find more information on children’s literature inspired by WWII.

Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum London.

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