In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Talking to kids about difficult issues

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your discussion of Jefferson's Sons raises a question we and our guest bloggers have touched on before (here, here, here, and here, among other places): when and how do we talk to our kids about complex, painful issues, and how do books play a part in those discussions?

This question has come up for me again most recently in relation to September 11th.  HarperCollins is putting out a new edition of with their eyes: September 11th: the view from a high school at ground zero, the play I created with my students after the World Trade Center was attacked four blocks from our school.  (I've written about it in more detail here.)

with their eyes is a YA book, aimed at an audience of high school students and above -- not the kind of thing you'd generally want to share with your 4 year old.  But with the new edition and my revised introduction have come interviews, and opportunities for me to write about the play, and the book has been out on the coffee table,  so at some point I had to explain to Eleanor what it was about.

I told her the story of September 11th very simply: that some very angry, very evil people had flown planes into two tall buildings, and the buildings had fallen down, and lots of people died.  She asked why people had done that, and I said I didn't fully know; that some people believe it's okay to hurt and kill others, but that we know it is never okay.  I told her that my students and I saw some of it, and that we had to leave our school and walk uptown when it happened, and that the play told the stories of lots of different people's experiences.  I reminded her of the tower we've seen going up at the World Trade Center site when we drive up the West Side Highway to visit my parents, and explained that that was where it happened.

Eleanor took the story in stride.  It's funny what upsets her and what doesn't -- she can process stories of great tragedy well, and then something very small will upset her deeply.  I wasn't sure how much of it she'd taken in, but about a week after our conversation, she brought it up matter-of-factly in the bath when I was talking obliquely to my mom about the play: Oh, that's about the people who flew the planes into the buildings and killed all those people.  Her tone was serious -- she knows this is heavy, real stuff even if she doesn't fully comprehend it yet.

with their eyes appeared recently on a Huffington Post list of children's books about September 11th.  I'm not familiar with any of the other titles on the list, though some of them look powerful.  Have you read any of them?  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Love, Annie


  1. Oh, boy. The two things I dread telling the kids about most are 9/11 and the Holocaust. I probably dread the 9/11 discussion more because it feels recent to me, but to them they are probably both equally ancient history. You are right though, about the unpredictability of what kids are scared of - mine are the same way. My 6yo was anxious but not unmanageably so about the hurricane; the earthquake (which she didn't feel) didn't faze her at all. Do you have any books to recommend about either 9/11 or the Holocaust, both to introduce the subjects and ease any fears, to the 5-7yo set?

  2. Wow, just reading old posts, great to find your blog here. I remember distinctly that you got engaged while creating the with their eyes production, and now you have a little one! Thank you for being a sort of mother to us all during that period.

  3. Thanks, John. Yes, now I have two! It's been kind of crazy these days, remembering so much of what happened ten years ago.