Mini-books by the dozen sent to World War Two troops

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack, a new book is telling the story of how mini-books distributed to America’s serving troops in the Pacific and Europe helped to support and entertain them.

The new book by Guptil Manning, ‘When Books Went to War’ is an historical look at the paperbacks that were produced during the war years. The troops had little home comforts with or around them, and hardly any entertainment, so American publishers decided to create miniature paperbacks that were small enough to fit in a soldier’s pocket. It would mean the soldiers could carry them anywhere, share and swap with other soldiers when they’d finished the book.

Known as ‘Armed Forces Editions’, the books were a variety of classics such as Dickens and Shakespeare, to more modern literature such as crime, mystery, and cowboy stories. Prior to these specifically designed editions, American libraries had run initiatives to try to get books circulated to the troops, but the book topics were not tailored for what the troops wanted – sometimes even books about knitting would turn up! So the Armed Forces Editions initiative enabled the publishers to print exactly what the troops wanted.

The design of the books was crucial since they had to be transportable and withstand the battlefield environment. They were about the size of a smartphone, and so could be kept in uniform pockets. The paper was the same used for newspapers, so could take more than a few readings.

The books were a great success, and the soldiers kept them in high demand with some titles even having waiting lists.

One of the most popular titles was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which made soldiers think of home. The readers would often write to the authors to thank them and tell them their experiences, Betty Smith received a letter from a 20 year old Marine saying that when he was wounded and in a military hospital he read her book. He said it helped to change his mind-set from depressed and devastated to feeling his emotions and hope for life again, the NPR Books reports.

There was even demand for trashy and romance novels. While there was some resistance from officials about whether these titles should be sent to the troops, publishers came together and agreed that if that is what the troops want, then that is what they’ll give them.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE