Patriotism & American Children’s Literature


Among the various historical resources available, children’s literature and the illustrations that accompany it are often overlooked. By studying these illustrations, we can determine which lessons and values American culture deems important enough to teach its children. Patriotism, for example, is one of the most frequently recurring themes in illustrations in American children’s literature. Patriotism in imagery for children becomes particularly direct in nature during the 20th century, reflecting a general pattern of war-oriented culture in America. Even children’s books of this era that are not about America or its history are not free from the nation’s iconography.

The following analysis seeks to examine how children were educated about how to be a patriot through 20th century illustrations from children’s books. There are a few notable distinctions made among the different types of books. The imagery used in books published in and about wartime was more heavy and direct. However, even fictional books not about the war conveyed patriotism through subtler artistic choices. In books for young children, the patriotic illustrations primarily encouraged them to have a good attitude, while books for older children implored them to take a more active role in patriotism. Illustrations from books targeting girls were focused on showing them the role they could have on the battlefield as a symbolic gesture of them holding a place in patriotism, too. Overall, the nuances of the patriotic message delivered to children varied, but the core statement remained the same: Patriotism is an important character trait for future generations to develop.

Image 1: Uncle Sam watches as young patriots demonstrate their pride and faith in their country.  Jasper Leonidas McBrien, America First: Patriotic Readings (American Book Company, 1916).

During World War I, patriotic images in children’s literature were common. The image above is an example of a heavily symbolic image found as the frontispiece for a book intended for school-age children containing a collection of patriotic poetry, essays, and plays that was published in 1916, prior to U.S involvement in World War I. The book containing this image, America First, has strong ties to President Woodrow Wilson and his 1916 presidential campaign that ran under the same slogan. The platform which inspired this America first sentiment was that of isolationism. Wilson vowed to keep America out of the war brewing in Europe, because he felt that the nation ought to put America first. Many Americans wholeheartedly agreed with this, and were drawn to Wilson’s message, as evidenced by his victorious reelection that same year. Further fueling the attraction of American’s to the idea of America first was the passing of the National Defense Act earlier in 1916, which expanded both the peacetime and wartime size of the United States Army and National Guard. It also increased military funding, allowing it to purchase more wartime materials. These changes began preparing the U.S for its entrance into the war in less than a year and indicated to the American public its increased likelihood of going to war.

An analysis of this image exposes three symbols of America: the flag, an eagle, and Uncle Sam. The flag is proudly carried by smartly dressed school children, many of whom are wearing red, white, or blue, as they leave a building labeled ‘Public School’ to parade past Uncle Sam, glancing at him with admiration. Notably, aside from the paternal figure of Uncle Sam, there are no adult figures featured in this image. There are some indistinct forms in the back that could be adults, but they are not in focus, Sam and the children are. It is significant to note that, though the symbol of Uncle Sam could be traced back to the late 1860’s, he had not yet become an American icon when the above image was published. To young readers in 1916, this Uncle Sam would not represent the United States of America as much as the war that America was rushing towards and the uncertainty it represented. By depicting a paternalistic Uncle watching over his children, this image teaches the importance of education and faith in one’s country during uncertain times. It provides a visual representation of patriotism through the attainment of knowledge so that the children seeing it could become the army marching into the future, as the older generations fade away.

Image 2: School children joyfully make comfort kits for soldiers overseas.  Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, What To Do For Uncle Sam; A First Book of Citizenship (A. Flanagan Company, 1918).

Two years later, in 1918 towards the end of World War I, children’s author Carolyn Sherwin Baily produced a government sponsored book for students in elementary school titled, What To Do For Uncle Sam; A First Book of Citizenship, which teaches children how to perform their civic duty. Each section contains photographs depicting children doing activities to help America. The photograph pictured above was captioned, “HELPING UNCLE SAM IN WAR TIME BY PACKING COMFORT KITS FOR HIS SOLDIERS.” Just like the previous image, this photograph proudly displays the ultimate patriotic symbol: the American flag. The first American flag was adopted on June 14, 1777, and it has remained a patriotic symbol of hope ever since. To many Americans, it is the visual embodiment of the nation.  In 1918, as Americans were trying to understand the harsh realities of warfare in World War I, this symbol of patriotic hope was highly significant. It represented what their brothers, sons, and husbands fought for, and it represented the hope they had for the United States to prevail. For a child, the flag was their rallying point as they made a pledge to it every day at school in a display of patriotic loyalty.

Interestingly, just as the children in the earlier frontispiece were happy as they paraded along, these children seem excited to make comfort kits, presumably because they were doing their part for the war effort. Once again, there is an absence of adult supervision within the frame of the photograph, yet, based on the neatness of the project and the careful placement of the flag, it appears to be a posed picture, indicating an off-camera adult presence. This is significant as, to the modern-day viewer, these deliberate choices expose methods of patriotic education through imagery. This photograph exemplifies children teaching other children how to support their country and sends a message to young viewers that, if you choose to help America, you can be as happy and as valuable as the children in the photograph.

While the previous image depicts children that are happy to be part of the war effort, other illustrations in children’s literature, such as the one below, showed the darker side of being at war. Much of post-World War I children’s literature had universal appeal to young audiences, regardless of gender. However, when examining the role images in children’s literature played in encouraging a lifelong commitment to patriotism, it is important to consider images in literature geared specifically toward girls and young women. American patriotism champions the military, an avenue of national pride and service that caters a male audience more than a female audience (considering the limited positions within the military available to women).

Image 3: The young female protagonist of Rena Isabell Halsey’s America’s Daughter, Isadore, traverses the aftermath of a WWI battle wearing the uniform of a fallen soldier.  Rena Isabell Halsey, America’s Daughter (Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Co., 1918).

Yet, illustrations in children’s literature, like this one from Rena Isabell Halsey’s America’s Daughter (1918, illustrated by Nana French Bickford), sometimes depicted young women around or even on the battlefield, performing various roles. In this particular scene, young woman Isadore walks along “ruined fields and long roads” with small dog Skipperee in tow. She is wearing the uniform of a recently buried soldier: “her hair tucked up under the dead boy’s cap, in the ragged blood- smeared uniform” (72). Often, military-related illustrations depicted women tasked with medical duties, smocked and stocked with supplies to aid wounded soldiers in the field. For example, the frontispiece in the third installment of The Khaki Girls children’s book series, (written by Edna Brooks 1918-1919) The Khaki Girls at Windsor Barracks, shows two young women dressed in military uniforms approaching a wounded soldier to assist him. A 1918 Cupples and Leon Co advertisement for The Khaki Girls reads “When Uncle Sam sent forth the ringing call, “I need you!” it was not alone his strong young sons who responded. All over the United States capable American Girls stood ready to offer their services to their country“. An advertisement like that, in addition to the publication of war-related novels written for a young female audience indicate a push for patriotism among girls during World War I.

Image 4: Two happy patriots versus two sad boys. Munro Leaf, My Book To Help America (1942)

Twenty-three years later after World War I, American entrance into World War II demonstrated that children were still targets for patriotic propaganda. The image above was published in 1942, one year after America entered the war, with the encouragement of the United States Treasury Department. It was created by children’s author Munro Leaf while he was working for the Department of War and published in a government sanctioned children’s book, My Book to Help America. Leaf believed in great simplicities, and this comes out both in the simple language of his writing and in his illustrations. This image is simple and poignant, easily conveying its lesson to children that saw it. Through illustration the text on the page is emphasized so that even the young could grasp its meaning.

In the first image, two boys are smiling while pointing to a sign that is encouraging them to buy stamps. The image on the stamp poster is one that would have been familiar to readers in 1942, as posters telling Americans to buy stamps were a part of their daily visual encounters.

The book containing the above image even had a stamp book at the back so that children could begin their own collection as a part of this effort to sell stamps. These stamps encouraged patriotism not only because they helped financially support the war effort, but they also depicted images that honored the United States allies, thus showing collectors the brave deeds of the ‘good guys’ in the war and inspiring faith and morale in them.

The text below the top image tells children to save money and not waste it on unnecessary items. This is followed by an image of two boys holding broken toys and looking very sad because, unlike the children on the top of the page, they had wasted their money on breakable things. In using simple images, Leaf taught children looking at the book that, to help America win the war, children needed to be prudent with their money. However, not every child that had the book could read. Though simple, Leaf’s message impacted the invisible adults who read this book aloud to their young children, thus impressing upon them the importance of their patriotism as well. Yet, because of the straightforward manner of his illustration, whether the child could read or not, Leaf successfully conveyed his (and the United States Government’s) idea of what a patriotic child acted like.

Image 5: Children help their parents put up blackout curtains Munro Leaf, A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans (1942)

Munro Leaf produced numerous instructional books on a variety of topics not unlike the books from which this illustration and the one prior were taken. The illustrations by Leaf that accompany his A War-Time Handbook for Young Americans are juvenile to the point where they appear within the artistic capabilities of children themselves. The simple, childish art style serves the claim in the book’s description that even seven-year-olds are not too young to help in the efforts of World War II. Leaf’s two-color illustration portrays a happy, smiling family working together to put up blackout curtains, likely during an air raid drill.

The most distinctive feature of the image is that everyone, from the parents to the baby sitting on the floor, is wearing a smile. Their smiling faces reflect one of the primary ideas of patriotism presented to younger children during wartime: that the best way to help out their country was to have a positive attitude. Even during as stressful a time as a blackout, the children in the illustration are not upset or crying. This illustration says that by maintaining a positive attitude and helping their parents be patriots, even young children can help America win the war. The two children helping the father put up the blackout curtain, one supporting his stool and the other holding the side of the curtain, represent the latter instruction.

World War II was a time of anxiety for Americans. Children remaining calm removes one item from a list of concerns for adults in the household. Leaf is communicating that, for young children, being helpful and happy is the best thing they can do to be a patriot. The positive attitude as a characteristic of patriotism that Leaf portrays in this image is perhaps more for the benefit of the parents than the children themselves.

Image 6: (Charlotte’s Web, illustrations by Garth Williams, New York: Harper, 1952.)

The image shown on the right from Charlotte’s Web was illustrated by Garth Williams. He was known for promoting American life and values, which helped children understand their nation’s past. Williams took his drawings into a direction that contained both realism and beauty without sacrificing the patriotic message. This can be seen throughout the entire image as well as through his works from other children’s books, such as Stuart Little and Little Fur Family.

At first glance, the image reminds viewers of peace and happiness. This is done so in Williams’ classic realistic approach. The scene is reminiscing America during the 1950s but does not sacrifice the beautiful aspects of happiness and love. This is expressed through a young couple attending a carnival in a small rural town, which demonstrates a peaceful interpretation of America during the Korean War, instead of the aggression and anger that was generated from the war. The Korean War was still clouding American’s home life, but children were able to experience the joys of freedom while the adults were fighting overseas. The war was responsible for the deaths of 36,574 Americans, which put a burden on civilians. Thus, it was crucial for young Americans, primarily those in their adolescent years, to be taught the fundamentals of being American. These fundamentals help to demonstrate a positive outlook during a time negativity and is shown through kids holding hands. Moreover, it is a symbolic representation of peace that children were to accept and believe in hopes of aiding the war effort.

The American flag is clearly drawn above the merry-go-round, but it appears like there is an individual waving a flag on the Ferris wheel as well. This goes to show that it is not only their home that children should believe in, but it is their colleagues, friends, and family whom deserve the faith. A nation is nothing without its people, so this inclusion of the flags helps promote the young American to evolve into a patriotic symbol by itself and not rely on a piece of fabric.

Overall, every detail within this illustration is finely drawn and projects a realistic feel, which works heavily in the favor of Williams’ message that is teaching the core fundamentals of young American life.

Image 7: James and The Giant Peach, illustration by Nancy Ekholm Burket (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.)

Following the previous illustrations from WWI and the Korean War, the Cold War was on a rapid the rise in the 1960s. The formal split of the West and the East occurred in 1961 following the Berlin Crisis, which divided Germany in two. This historical event created a shift in the American outlook of the Western nation versus the Communist East. Therefore, children’s illustrators were demanded of artwork meant to teach adolescent children core American values. This was to greater strengthen the upcoming generation as future Americans.

This image by Nancy Ekholm Burket does excellent work at relaying patriotism to the youth of 1961. Burket is from Wisconsin and is most well known for her illustrations in Snow White. She produces her works to resemble sculptures by using many pencils and shading elements. This is very easily seen in this piece, which helps the reader pick out certain elements. Immediately, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the American flag because of its central positioning and fine detail.

The flag elevates the importance of unity among the crowd. This is effectively executed to create a relatable experience for young readers because it demonstrates the importance of a unified nation. The image bears striking similarities to an image of soldiers returning home from V-Day after WWII. This resemblance can be traced back to just one generation before, so the illustration serves as a reminder of the nation’s previous success. Moreover, Burket’s pencil shadings are very prominent in this illustration. It includes different shades of blue, red, and white that follow a linear pattern, which reproduce the colors of the flag. The lower portion of the image contains a mixture of blue and the middle contains a mixture of red, while the upper portion only contains shades of white. The image mixes the color gradient and the flag to create a correlation between the two for younger readers to grasp. Combing these two elements establishes a sense of pride when an individual or group accomplishes a great feat, such as James returning with a giant peach. This pride develops a positive patriotic belief within the children readership. This belief is very critical during the time frame because of the events that were taken place around the world.

Books for older children and adolescents took a different form in terms of their illustrations. The Western Publishing Company’s I Am an American illustrations take on an appearance that matches their more mature adolescent audience. Western Publishing Company was responsible for Little Golden Books as well, and this book contrasts with the soft, juvenile illustrations typical of that series.

Image 8: Illustrations demonstrating the proper way to raise and march with an American flag. I Am an American (Western Publishing Company, 1971).

The simple one-colored drawings are decidedly subdued. They are not intended to amaze or entertain. Rather, they are instructional. The artwork reflects the premise of I Am an American: that it is an essentially a handbook for how youths can be patriots. These illustrations in particular are demonstrating the way the American flag is to be raised on a flagpole or carried in a parade. They are saying that not only is important that adolescents know the American flag is raised on a pole or carried in processions, but that they know how to do it because it is something that they will be expected to do.

It shows that, at the time of publication, older children were expected to take a more active, direct role in patriotism, or at least prepare to do so in the future. Because its publication date was in the midst of the Vietnam War, the handbook and its accompanying illustrations were likely meant to instill patriotism in children to combat a tide of dissent in response to the war. As it was published in 1971, the book was likely released in anticipation of the Bicentennial, promoting patriotism in children and adolescents and giving them context for the significance of the event. Raising and lowering the flag outside of their school is a task that could have been entrusted to younger children. The procession images, however, show adult men in uniform walking with the flag. This is a less blatant message to adolescent boys specifically that it is positive and honorable for them to serve in the military or law enforcement in their near future. The manual-style flag illustrations from I Am an American represent the attitude that, as children became older, they were taught to be an active part of the patriotic traditions of their country.

Image 9: Yankee Doodle, illustrations by Steven Kellogg (Library of Congress, 1976.)

Here is another piece from the 1970s. This one is illustrated by Steven Kellogg. He is an illustrator from Connecticut and has produced an astonishing number of children’s books. Moreover, he has previously used his illustrations as a tool for promoting a subject of controversy or politics. Most recently, his works in Pinkerton were reworked in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, which took up the issue of gun violence. This can be seen in Kellogg’s Yankee Doodle. Created in 1976, this book is a visual interpretation of the traditional folk song from the 1700s. This image from the picture book portrays the return of the valiant militia fighters after their success in fending off the British soldiers. Beyond the horse cart, the sun is vibrantly beaming down on the vast countryside, while the returning fighters march home. The sun symbolizes the heavens above as it extends its rays across the backdrop, which provides resolution for their success because this land is marked as their divine right. This right consists of a free and independent nation separate from the British Empire. This right can be transferred to the time frame of the illustrated work as the nation was celebrating the bicentennial. It encourages the traditional patriotic behavior of the past, which were guaranteed after the War of Independence. The bicentennial marked the 200th year anniversary of America. Therefore, providing a visual representation of this traditional folklore promotes the importance of teaching young Americans of their nations past.

The image is not difficult to decipher for young readers, since it is vividly drawn and fits the entire page of the book. It is important for children to understand and capture every detail because the message is promoting a nation that is free, but still presenting itself as traditional.  There is a need for children to be devoted full-heartedly towards their country, and this illustration does so by constructing a powerful image of where they began as a nation. Children who read this picture book will accept this interpretation and hopefully pass the meaning of being American to their kids in the future. This is in part of a continuous cycle of raising a proud American youth.

Image 10: The cover illustration for Patriots in Petticoats, which depicts Margaret Corbet, a woman of influence during the American Revolution. Patricia Edwards Clyne, Patriots in Petticoats (Dodd, Mead, 1976)

This illustration, from the cover of Patriots in Petticoats by Patricia Edwards Clyne (1976, illustrated by Richard Lebenson) is similar to the previously mentioned WWI-era image from America’s Daughter in that it depicts a young woman in a battleground setting; however, there are also some important differences to note. Unlike America’s Daughter, a work of fiction grounded in the realities of the World War during which it was written, Patriots in Petticoats is a series of biographies about women who have played a role in US history. The cover art shows, for example, Margaret Corbin, who accompanied her husband to war during the American revolution and manned a cannon at Fort Washington. Compositionally, Margaret dominates this illustration, standing proud and tall against a background of uniformed soldiers and the American flag, holding the cannon rammer as if it were a rifle. This is a highly romanticized view compared to the World War I illustration, which shows a woman facing the fatigue of war rather than handily overcoming adversity to serve her country. Another interesting note is the time of publication for this image – 1976, during the waning years of second wave feminism in the United States, but also the American Bicentennial. Depictions of women like that of the cover of Patriots in Petticoats seem to reinforce that the women young girls should aspire to be are dutiful, selfless, and committed to patriotism. In a time when women were standing up for their freedoms and addressing the conflicts between their interests and U.S. legislation and society, images like these encourage young girls to emulate a more traditional, patriotic view of a revolutionary heroine. Yet an image like this was not uncommon during the Bicentennial, when patriotic fervor was high in celebration of the 200th anniversary of American independence.


Illustrations in children’s literature are especially interesting to study because of the role they play in shaping the youth of the nation. Bedtime stories provide significant exposure to the culture and spirit of America; consciously and subconsciously, young Americans learn what it means to be a good American, and furthermore, what it takes to be a good American.

The power of images gains extra potency in the sphere of children’s literature. The illustration is indispensable to literature for developing readers, who glean just as much or more from an illustration than they do from its accompanying text. Illustrations of famous figures in US history, coupled with their biographies allow children to put a face to a familiar name, but this practice also serves to manifest the iconography of the United States in the mind of its youngest citizens. Children, in turn, develop positive associations towards major tenets of American nationalism, such as the US armed forces. The ideal American, they soon learn, is an optimistic, hardworking, and brave individual who values his/her country above all. Additionally, illustrations in children’s literature are instructional, providing examples of American heroes to emulate, as well as detailing the duties of the American everyman (or everywoman) – that is, what is expected of an ideal US citizen during war time and peace time alike.

[Text by Brianna Moye, Meghan Williams, Eric Wilkins, and Taylor Mott-Smith]

Sources & Credits

[Introduction:  Text by Brianna Moye.  Image 1 & 2:  Text by Meghan Williams.  Image 3: Text by Taylor Mott-Smith.  Image 4: Text by Meghan Williams.  Image 5:  Text by Brianna Moye.  Image 6 & 7:  Text by Eric Wilkins.  Image 8:  Text by Brianna Moye.  Image 9: Text by Eric Wilkins.  Image 10 & Conclusion:  Text by Taylor Mott-Smith.]

All images were taken from books found in the library system at the University of Florida. Excluding Image 6, all are courtesy of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at George A. Smathers Library. Image 6 was taken from Charlotte’s Webb, located in the George A. Smathers Libraries, Main Library, University of Florida.

[Image 1:  Information on Woodrow Wilson and the America First campaign is from:  Kauffman, Bill, “The Meaning of ‘America First'” American Conservative 15, no. 5 (September 2016): 41. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost.  Information on Uncle Sam symbolism and history is from: “The Uncle Sam ‘I Want YOU’ Poster Is 100 Years Old. Almost Everything about It Was Borrowed,” by Andrew Travis (Washington Post, April 3, 2017).  The Library of Congress Digital.  Information on the National Defense Act from:  Center of Military History’s “National Defense Act 1916” by Glenn Williams (May 2016).  Image 2: Information on American Flag Symbolism is from: “Event celebrates American flag’s rich history, symbol of freedom,” (Brunswick News, June 15, 2017). National Museum for American History’s “The Flag in WWII.”  Image 3:  Information on The Khaki Girls :  “The Khaki Girls Series” University of Missouri-Kansas  Image 4:  Information on Munro Leaf from:  “Children’s Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P. D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, and the Private SNAFU Films (1943-46)” by Philip Nel (Journal of Popular Culture 40, No. 3: 468-487).  Information about stamps during WWII from:  “Stick-on war spirit: WWII stamps” by David A. Norris (America in WWII, February 2011).  Image 5: Information on air raids during WWII is from:  “Busy with the Blitz-Proofing” by Carl Zebrowski (American in WWII, October 2005) and “Answers About World War II in New York, Part III” by Richard Goldstein (The New York Times, October 4, 2010). Image 6:  Information on Garth Williams Sarah Larson, “Garth Williams, Illustrator of American Childhood,” The New Yorker, June 3, 2016, williams-illustrator-of-american-childhood.  Information of the Korean War:  “Korean War Fast Facts,” CNN Library, June 10, 2017,  Image 7:  Information on Berlin Crisis:  Neil Carmichael and Brewer Thompson, “The 1961 Berlin Crisis,” Prologue Magazine 43 no. 3 (Fall 2011).  Information on Nancy Ekholm Burket:  “Nancy Ekholm Burket,” Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters,  Image 8:  As cited in text.  Image 9:  Information on Steven Kellogg:  Steven Kellogg, “Steven Kellogg on Why He Reworked a ‘Pinkerton’ Scene in Response to Sandy Hook,” Publishers Weekly, December 11, 2014, news/article/65018-steven-kellogg-on-why-he-reworked-a-pinkerton-scene-in- response-to-sandy-hook.html.  Image 10: Information on Margaret Corbin: Sharon Creeden, In Full Bloom: Tales of Women in Their Prime (Little Rock: August House, 1999).  Information on the Bicentennial:  The Bicentennial of the United States of America: a final report to the people / prepared and submitted to the Congress of the United States by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. (n.p.: [Washington]: American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. Print. 1977).]


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