By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati and Marilyn Carpenter, Professor Emeritus, Eastern Washington University
In April’s MTYT, Holly and Marilyn chose the theme: kindness is always an alternative and perhaps the only realistic alternative for survival. This week, they look at The Day War Came to consider the tragedy of war, displacement and how to present these realities in a classroom.
HOLLY: I loved reading this picture book, and I am touched by the sentiments. It paints a realistic picture of people living their lives, and then, suddenly, everything is gone. The first few pages give readers the security of a child living her uncomplicated life. She goes to school, and then — BOMBS! Everything is shattered! Worst yet, her parents are gone, and she is alone in the world.
The illustrations are simple yet give a real sense of the young protagonist’s attempt to survive first in her war-torn homeland and then in a place that does not accept her . . . until it does. As people, as citizens of a nation that have not recently experienced such close encounters with war, we need to start thinking about how we can welcome those who have. Yet while we have not experienced such devastation on our doorsteps, we have a tiny sense of what it means to have our home community destroyed if we have lived through the horror of a tornado or hurricane, or have experienced a school shooting. Perhaps that is where we can connect with those who are displaced. But even as I say that, I know there are still many of us who have not expanded our thinking to be empathetic or even sympathetic to the children who are attempting to survive the terrors of war or other catastrophes that displace them from their homes. What did you think of this book, Marilyn?
MARILYN: I found The Day War Came to be a powerful and disturbing book. It is a story directly from today’s headlines. The illustrations and the age of the child suggest the story is for children in kindergarten through second grade. Instead, I would share it with children in third grade and up. Even reading it aloud in high school classes would encourage a discussion about refugees throughout the world that are victims of war.
Recently, I read aloud to a class of second graders. Before I began, one child asked me not to read any sad books. The other students join in the discussion and agreed — no sad books. Several children stated that the world is sad, and they only wanted funny books. Almost a third of the children in that class were diagnosed as severely traumatized, so their desire to hear only funny books was understandable. Since I had planned to read several books in The Elephant and Piggie Series by Mo Willems, it wasn’t a problem.
I recalled that discussion when I considered The Day War Came. Even though there have been few war-like experiences that children born in the U.S. have experienced, many immigrants to our country lived this travesty. The media also frequently focuses on desperate stories of victims of war and refugees across the planet. The author demonstrates the coming of war by turning the girl’s town into rubble. She loses her family, her home, her school and “was ragged, bloody, all alone.” She travels far by herself and doesn’t find anyone who cares for her or offers a new home. Even though the book ends with an act of kindness that allows her to become part of a new school, it is still a devastating story. How can teachers share books on such topics to build empathy, but not add to students’ trauma, especially when they want books that are not sad? I find this a complex question. For many years we tried to shield children from difficult stories. Now with a new wave of books that show tragic realities, we have more choices about sharing such books. Should we read aloud stories with tragedies to classes with young children? What do you think, Holly?
HOLLY: That is a tough call, Marilyn, and I don’t think we can determine one answer for everyone. Context matters, as well as the sensibilities of the young people involved. Your question makes me think about the illustrations done in a minimalistic, rather than realistic, style. Illustrators often use this technique to teach a more generalized message. Rebecca Cobb also chooses a style similar to a younger child’s own drawings. I wrestle with knowing young children are living (and dying) from political, religious and ethnic attacks all the time. And those who are not are shielded from these realities because they are too young. It seems we should think about that before we decide to destroy each other. Marilyn, do you have anymore thoughts about this book?
MARILYN: I keep coming back to the dedication: “This book is dedicated to children who are lost and alone and to those who help them.” The author’s note at the end states that half of the 22.5 million refugees in world are children. She ends with this statement:
I want this story to remind us all of the power of kindness and its ability to give hope for a better future.
This book is essential to prepare young people for the tragedies in our world and to encourage help and care for those who experience such traumatic situations. However, my caution is that as educators we need to know our students and carefully select books to help them obtain a clearer, more accurate view of the world while not adding to their trauma. As Davies writes, it is essential to give them hope.
Title: The Day War Came
Author: Nicola Davies
Illustrator: Rebecca Cobb
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
This is the second of April’s MTYT. Add to the conversation, and check out last week’s installment, which discussed a new, interesting perspective on WWII.