What We Talk About When We Talk About Today

Today is a tricky day to be blogging. Children’s literature doesn’t seem like a fitting topic. But it is.

Thirteen years ago, I was in sixth grade. My classmates and I were in the middle of our standardized testing. Our teachers chose not to tell us what happened that morning–though inevitably rumors were making the rounds by lunchtime–lest it disrupt our concentration and skew our test scores.

Yet we all wanted to know what was going on. We knew something was going on and we wanted to be able to talk about it, to understand it. At a basic level, we wanted to learn.

Of course, eleven- and twelve-year-olds are generally not great at processing national tragedies. The next day there were a lot of brutally casual conversations among my classmates, as if what had happened had been the plot of a TV show that didn’t make much sense. But in our defense, we had little encouragement to think deeply or critically or even compassionately about these events. Most adults were, I think, afraid to discuss them with us.

I get that. Especially in the immediate aftermath of something so horrifying and unexpected, adults have enough trouble coming to grips with the facts, the opinions, and the unanswered questions. The only thing more daunting than wrestling with those issues for yourself is helping a child grapple with them.

But it has to be done. Kids need to be able to talk and listen and think and ask questions. They need to be armed to seek the truth, even when the truth is ugly and scary and complex. Because the world is a scary place, on many days other than this one. And my sixth-grade standardized test scores in no way reflected my ability to deal with that.

Now we come back to children’s literature. Books don’t answer all the questions about our scary world. But they can help teach us how to ask questions. And they can help teachers and other adults engage with young readers, young thinkers, on that rocky ground. They offer knowledge, but more importantly they encourage the pursuit of knowledge, which is one of the foundations of good citizenship.

So with that in mind, I think I’d better get back to work.