Given our website’s current focus on war, peace and social justice in children’s books, the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai have made me keenly aware that our challenges are many on the path to a more peaceful world. Kids and young adults are cognizant of the two wars America has been fighting against terrorism since 9/11 and of the latest terrorist attacks in India. Understandably, they have a lot to try to make sense of and get to grips with. Clearly, they can’t do it on their own.
Kids ask lots of tough questions in general, but their questions about terrorism and war are especially hard to answer. As parents, teachers and responsible adults, should we protect our children from war- and terrorism-related news, and if not, how should we explore the topics with them?
What to say and how to say it to children clearly depend on their age and maturity level, but however we choose to handle their questions, we must be thoughtful, as times of war and conflict are fertile breeding grounds for prejudice through stereotyping. We adults must reconcile the dilemma of explaining terrorism, and why nations have enemies, armies and go to war, while also promoting non-violence.
An article on Dr. Spock’s website, on how to talk to older children and teens about acts of terrorism and war encourages parents and teachers to ask them questions: “Are those who commit acts of terrorism fundamentally different from the rest of us? Are there circumstances under which we could imagine ourselves acting as the terrorists have? Has our government ever taken actions that might appear, from the point of view of others around the world, to be terribly wrong? Can we understand terrorism without accepting it? Is it important for us to try?”
There are no simple right and wrong answers, of course. What is important is the attempt to understand—a very difficult challenge that books can help make less daunting.The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis, for instance, is a wonderful post-9/11 young adult novel, set in Java, that sensitively deals with issues of faith, hatred, violence and tolerance. It is a story that succeeds in providing a glimpse into the true nature of Islamism—a glimpse that should help readers take the more extreme version the media often presents with a grain of salt.
On the more general topic of war, we have the example of Jennifer Armstrong, “historyteller” and author, who edited Shattered: Stories of Children and War, a collection of twelve stories written by young adult authors examining war’s implications in young people’s lives. She has written a beautiful piece in praise of war books for children—and I conclude this post with her thought-provoking reasoning:
Being a writer, I must acknowledge the richness of war as a subject for fiction. Great stories arise from conflict, and there can be no greater conflict than war. To whom do you owe greater loyalty? To your family, your friend, your religion, your ideals, your country? For what would you die? For what would you kill? These are soul-baring questions, and I think they are as important for children to consider as they are for adults… If you really want to teach young readers about peace, give them books about war.
Children are naturally idealistic and righteous. They have a fine-tuned sense of justice. Literature about war gives young readers the chance to think of what is just and unjust, to develop the capacity for philosophic inquiring doubt. It gives them the chance to contemplate the alternative to peace. When they read Faithful Elephants: A True story of Animals, People and War [by Yukio Tsuchiya] and cry out in dismay, ‘But it’s not right!’, they are absolutely correct. It’s not. This, it seems to me, is the preferable attitude with which to greet war, not, ‘It’s inevitable!’.