of Values”: The World War II-Era
Writings of John R. Tunis
Ryan K. Anderson
Publisher’s Weekly tabbed John R. Tunis’s 1943 novel Keystone Kids as a seminal children’s book when it proclaimed that Tunis used the book to translate “the ideals of democracy into the realistic terms of today” (“Keystone Kids” 2098). The author likewise received acclaim for All-American (1942), his story of one high school football team’s triumph over bigotry. John T. Frederick’s Northwestern University radio program, Of Men and Books, highlighted the work during its November 18, 1942, episode, “Children’s Books and American Unity.” Guest commentators picked the story as one that “will make a boy think about a major world problem which is his job to help solve” and added that its “theme … is not national but international” (2). Platitudes such as these derived from the role Tunis’s books on football, basketball, track and field, baseball, and tennis played in affirming American values during World War II. Ironically, however, Tunis did not support the ideas readers divined from his books.
Tunis used juvenile sports novels to demonstrate the relationship between sports and democracy during the late 1930s and the 1940s. He believed that exposing the corrosive influence of mass sports encouraged his youthful readers to use democratic sport to revive a battered egalitarian society and improve it by including ethnic, racial, and gendered minorities. The democratic spirit of “real sport,” he believed, came from player interaction and the desire to succeed. Thus, playing sports helped erode social inequality. Healthy leisure provided the American masses an opportunity to literally “be” democratic. This emboldened their fight against an expanding global problem: totalitarianism.
Educators, parents, and government agencies saw much to applaud in his work, but they hijacked his stories and distorted their messages to support America’s involvement in World War II. Individual characters and fictional teams who chose community responsibility over self-interest proved especially