As the nation pauses to remember 9/11 on its 10th anniversary, like most Americans, I find myself remembering the day and its aftermath. Those of us who worked with small children had one abiding concern—to protect them from the savagery. If the attacks punctured our collective innocence, or at least our sense of invincibility, they also threatened the individual innocence of our children. How could we allow them to know that their world was so fragile?
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This attitude persisted for some time, even years in some quarters. Children just should not know that such things are possible, many of us felt. Of course these things are possible, however, so we had to figure out how to tell them.
My daughter was 4 at the time, blissfully oblivious of the cause of the turmoil in her adults' lives, though no doubt she noticed the change in her emotional environment. As time wore on, there was no need to address 9/11 at all. Like the vast majority of children in America, she was not directly affected by the attacks, and there was no imperative to inform her.
But in the fall of 2003, I was on the American Library Association's Notable Children's Books Committee, and I was in the practice of sharing picture books with her to field test all the publishers' submissions. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein, was one of them. It told the story of Philippe Petit, the French daredevil who strung a wire between the almost-finished towers in 1974 and danced across it during the morning commute.
We snuggled in our chair, and I opened the book. I read how Petit and his confederates planned and executed the stunt, Gerstein's text perfectly pitched to the elementary-school audience in its control of details. We goggled at the astonishing gatefolds that allowed us to peer up, up, up at Petit on his wire from ground level and to gaze down, down, down the urban canyon from Petit's perspective. Gerstein's energetic, scratchy illustrations define "vertiginous."
My daughter giggled as Petit taunted the police and pouted when he finally turned himself in. She was utterly absorbed in the story. And then we came to the blank, double-page spread that just carried these words: "Now the towers are gone." She gasped, then asked, "Why?" (I had Maira Kalman's Fireboat at the ready for that question.)
But it strikes me now that what was for me and all of us who remember that day a seminal, Earth-changing moment, as Pearl Harbor and Kennedy's assassination were for earlier generations, was just another piece of history for the children. They will assimilate 9/11 just as they have absorbed these other events, at a remove.
The genius of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is that it does not focus on a trauma that its audience really cannot feel but a moment of unparalleled joy instead, giving them a hero to identify with in lieu of villains to fear. And it gives them something concrete to mourn.
That's how we talk to our kids about 9/11.
Vicky Smith is the Children's and YA editor at Kirkus.