Sunday, June 22, 2014

Should there be children’s books about the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre?


"I told them … I love you all very much."
First shared on This Isn't Happiness.


A few years ago, I received the book Good Night, Commander as a gift, inscribed, by the author, to my daughter, who was about five-years old at the time. It tells the story of a boy who lost his leg during the Iran/Iraq war and who constantly imagines himself in battle. We are introduced to him when his Uncle tells him to remove his prosthetic leg in the house, and the boy responds, “But I don’t want to. How can I fight on one leg? My enemy will just laugh at me.”

The book has universal themes. It’s really about a reluctant bedtime and a child with a Calvin-like imagination, but it is a shocking contrast to the more famous book with a similar name Goodnight Moon. It suggests tremendous violence, fear, tragedy, and hate. It is a kids’ book that many American parents, at least, would not consider appropriate for their children. (The book was originally written in Farsi, but published into English. I received it as a thank you for publishing my own book, On MacIntyre, in Farsi.)

I will admit that I didn’t give it to Adina. I think I regret not doing so, but I’m not sure. Five is awfully young. We talk (and talked) about poverty and war, but she’s a fortunate child of immense privilege, and most of the injustices of the world are still hidden from her. At the same time, the children of war are real, their experiences deserve attention, and they too deserve books that speak to their lives and realities. I wonder whether a young war victim would find this book comforting or not. I am also unsure what it would do to the fortunate children like my own. Negotiating the conflict between reality and protection is an eternal parental endeavor. It is what motivated Prince Siddhartha’s aunt and parents as they raised the boy who, when finally faced with the existence of suffering, became the Buddha.

From "Good Night. Commander"

This problem becomes more real to America parents when we think about the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, since it is so much closer to home. Should there be children’s books about school shootings? About this particular school shooting? Should there be kids’ books that recall the experience of hiding in a toilet stall with your teacher as you listen to a slaughter? Or introduce the concept of playing dead next to your classmates? Or of shouting “Help me! I don’t want to be here!” and hearing the response “Well, you’re here,” before being shot? Should there be kids’ stories about the randomness of violence? Should the characters play with the now famous bulletproof blanket, an item whose very existence nauseates me, and which, incidentally, has virtually no hope of protecting anybody?

The immediate answer to this question is that it depends on the children in question; some are more mature than others. Adina and some of her friends enjoy the adventure series I Survived which recounts twisters, September 11th, earthquakes, and much more, including some experiences in Nazi Germany. But this answer, while true, is too simplistic and certainly not philosophical enough for this blog. It ignores the moral questions: how much reality, how much violence, how much randomness should we expose our children to, and how do we negotiate real tragedy with the need for entertainment?

The I Survived books are adventure stories designed to entertain (and educate), but I cannot think of a single circumstance in which it would be moral to entertain people with what happened at Sandy Hook. Of course, I suspect that I am in the minority about this last point. We entertain people with war stories all the time, and the popularity of Game of Thrones has moved rape-as-entertainment from marginalized pornography to a prime time celebration. Our entertainment is vicious by any moral standard.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle asked whether liking tragedy made humans immoral, but even then, he was considering adults, not children. The question before us now is how all of this changes when we are dealing with five-year olds and how it is affected by something like Good Night, Commander, which is more than just a kids’ book, but an impressive work of art.

From "Good Night, Commander"
Good Night, Commander is written by Ahmad Akbarpour and illustrated by Morteza Zahedi. It is published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, (c) 2010).


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5 comments:

  1. I'm not sure if there should be a book for children regarding this specific event. I think violence in general should be addressed in conversation between parents and their children. I grew up reading and hearing, "The Jack Tales." They were filled with violence and honestly, we didn't think a thing about it. I have yet to cut off a giants head. As children, we knew about violence. When I was 10 years old, Dad took me to see a movie. I don't remember the movie, but do remember the "news reel" about the holocaust which preceded the movie. I don't look back on it as traumatizing. Dad assured me it was real and could happen to any group of people. He thought I needed this information. Posted by Susan

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    1. It is always interesting that news is so violent and always on. We have NPR on in the house quite often, but there are definitely stories that I turn off when they come on. I think you are absolutely correct that parental involvement is key, but what about the kids who don't have involved parents? And, if I'm being honest, what about those who do have involved parents but who do it poorly. I assume that Kim and I are healthy educators for our kids, but I suspect most parents think that, and at least some of them (including us), are wrong.

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  2. I think there's a difference between exposing children and talking to them about the rampant violence in our world. As such I'm not sure it to be necesarry to write a book aimed at 5 year olds about events like Sandy Hook. Which isn't to say that they should be shielded from reality completely. But as a kid I read to escape and I suppose I still do to an extent. So writing a book aimed at kids would expose them in the wrong way I think. Kids should be allowed an encouraged to question and I think that might be a better solution.

    Of course I have no kids so this is all speculation on my part.

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    1. I see your point. A book may indeed be too much. On the other hand, I like the idea of having help from experts, and there are certainly things that I myself feel less competent doing or talking about. This is one of the main reasons why I wouldn't home school Adina--I like having people who are trained to educate kids, when I'm not. I think if I, as a parent, vet a book, then I can gauge whether the author brings something to the discussion that I cannot.

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  3. I think I can imagine a book aimed at five-year-olds about this. And maybe only people whose kids had already heard or seen too much would share it with their kids. A book you might like on somewhat similar subject is Smoky Night, about the LA riots (of the early 90s), by Eve Bunting. Excellent book exploring a very scary situation, and racial tensions. I shared it with my son when he was 5 or so.

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