September 11th is never going to be an easy day. On our calendar it is printed as Patriots Day. I like that title well enough. On the second and fourth Tuesday of every month I do a bookclub for 1st to 3rd graders (theoretically, we've got homeschoolers so some 5 year-olds sneak in there, if they read the book and participate, they're fine). This September 11th was a second Tuesday. Normally I choose a simple chapter book, occasionally a non-fiction book. They read it before book club, we do some discussion, a game/activity, and often a craft. Then over a snack, I read the first few pages of the next book and they take it home with them. When I realized my book club would fall on September 11th, I had two choices, ignore it or do something about it. I am me, so I chose do something about it.
I chose three books that dealt around the topics raised by 9/11, the children were encouraged to read any two of the three. The books I chose were September Roses by Jeanette Winter, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein, and The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter. The first book most completely talks about the 9/11 tragedy, but in a way a child can understand. The second book tells the story of how in the 1970s a tightrope walker walked and danced between the towers with a rememberance to the fallen towers at the end. And the final book tells the story of an Iraqi librarian who helped to save books from her library (which eventually burnt) during the war.
Some of the parents were nervous, one mother wanted her son to start book club, but decided to wait until after this session. I understand. I was nervous about it too. During the summer my numbers had dwindled to about 11 or 12 kids per session. This session I had 17! A lot of them were new, or this was only their second time. So it was really chaotic. We talked (very briefly) about 9/11. I let them volunteer what their parents/teachers/etc had told them, and summed it up as a "very sad day". (They said the towers fell down, it was a cop out, but it was fine.) Our introduction is always "your name, your age, some random fact". This week's random fact was when was the last time you did something nice for someone without being asked. Then I talked about how the events of that day six years ago made a lot of people think about how we could change our world for the better. And we talked a little bit of that. They all shared ideas about how doing little things in their area (pick up litter, etc) can help make the whole world more peaceful. Around the Gerstein book we talked about civil disobedience (it's a stretch, it's against the rules for the tightrope walker to go between the towers), and when it is okay to not follow the rules (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, jr., stressing that most of the time you should follow the rules). We were going to talk about remembering things and memorials, but we never got to it because we spent so much time on how we can be peace people and change our world.
Then we played a game around The Librarian of Basra. I held up a variety of books two at a time. In each hand there was a different book, and the children had a split second to decide if they could only save one, which one would they save. They ran to the side of the room to indicate their choice. It's fun, very visual to see how the group splits, and they loved it. The hardest choice for most of the kids was Harry Potter versus Magic Tree House. Next we made peace people out of pipe cleaners, ate snack (which sometimes relates to the book and this time was just yogurt in those little tubes kids like), and read from the next book (The Hidden Stairs and the Magic Carpet by Tony Abbott). It was a crazy thing, but it went well. I don't think anyone would have minded had I ignored the holiday, but I think the parents felt that this handled the situation properly for a group of children who were toddlers when the towers fell.
It's funny because even with this plan, I let myself forget a little that it was 9/11. When I was in the car, with the radio on, and they were replaying some coverage of that day set to music, than I remembered. And I allowed myself to mourn again a bit for all those lost.
I wrote up in our library's email newsletter a little thing for parents about using books to help your children deal with tough events. I worked hard on the wording because I didn't want to be condescending (you MUST talk to your child about 9/11 and this is the ONLY way to do it). Read below if you would like...
Many of the children we see at the xyz library were too young to understand what was happening on September 11, 2001, or they were not even born. However that day started a series of events that forever will shape their lives, even as it continues to shape the world climate. As another anniversary draws near, we recognize that talking to children about this and other disastrous events such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean or the continuing conflict in Iraq can be difficult It is our hope that some of these books might be helpful in your conversations with your children.
For the youngest preschoolers:
Mama: a true story in which a baby hippo loses his mama during the tsunami, but finds a new home and a new mama by Jeanette Winter
In this d eceptively simple book that only contains one word of text (“mama”), a small hippo is separated from his mother during the 2004 tsunami and eventually adopts a giant tortoise as his mother. Based on the true story of Owen and Mzee. Even young children can undertand the anxiety of being separated from your mother and the joy of finding a home again – and this book uses that to show the struggle faced by so many after losing their homes to natural disaster.
September Roses by Jeanette Winter
In the simplest of text with basic but beautiful illustrations, this little book tells a big story. Two sisters journeyed from South Africa to New York for a flower show. After the attacks of 9/11, they found a new use for their roses and a beautiful tribute is made both by their flowers and this lovely book.
For older preschoolers and early elementary students:
A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer
Here the story of Owen and Mzee is more fleshed out with beautiful watercolor illustrations that illustrate a young hippo who loves to play hide and seek until the day he can not find his mama at all. Eventually he finds a new person to cuddle with and a new hide and seek companion. While parts of the story are sad, the warm tones of the illustrations and hopeful note of the text present a comforting image.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
One sunny morning in 1974, a young street performer took to the skies in a daring act as he walked a rope stretched in between the two towers of the World Trade Center. This Caldecott Medal winning book tells his story in breathtakingly beautiful illustrations and fold out pages, as he dances and plays suspended in the sky between two of the highest towers ever built. And at the end, we are all reminded that though the towers are gone, their memory is still with us as is the memory of a young man dancing up in the sky.
For more advanced children:
Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff
Here is a non-fiction book that tells in wonderful details and incredible full page photos the story of Owen and Mzee. Readers can follow the trek of young Owen as he is painstakingly rescued and relocated to a refuge where he meets Mzee. This is perfect for older children who always want to know “what really happened”. For those who want to know what happened next, they can also read Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff
The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Witner
As war threatened Iraq, one librarian worried about the library in her charge. Slowly she moved the books to her house, and then, with the help of her friends, to safety. Based on a true story from Iraq, here is one librarian who understood her duty to protect the books and valuable cultural treasures. As war rages, and danger, fire, and bombs come closer, still she protects the library’s collections. The book ends on the hopeful note of telling us that the librarian will continue to protect the books as she dreams for a peaceful day and a rebuilt library.