SHARING LIGHT WITHIN THE DARK

As the eldest of four children, my primary instinct (via nature and nurture) is to protect children. So why would I even consider picture books about such tragic subjects as war, 9/11, and the holocaust. There is a significant difference between protection and deceit. Children know bad things happen. But what they may not yet grasp is that kindness can and does occur within the bad things that happen. Even in the most distraught and distressing settings, the story comes down to the human heart. The following books are only three of the many outstanding picture books that share the heart-felt light within the darkness of human behavior. Each is also based in true events.

Karen Hesse’s evocative and visceral text in THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE shares the life of a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight during World War II.

“I wear my Polish look,

I walk my Polish walk,

Polish words float from my lips

and I am almost safe,

almost invisible,

moving through Krasinski Square…”

Her older sister, the only member of her family left, is active in the resistance. Desperately needed food is to be smuggled in and passed to those in need. But the Nazis have discovered the plan. Both food and people are in serious danger. It is here the seemingly insignificant becomes heroic. From her time playing with the cats abandoned by those taken off to camps, the girl knows the holes where the cats slip through the wall. She can guide the delivery of the food. And when the Nazis arrive with ferocious guard dogs to attack people smuggling the food, the girl knows that the cats will also be able to distract the dogs yet safely escape.

Allen Say’s THE BICYCLE MAN takes place after World War II in occupied Japan. Children are in school and celebrating sports day. But the children also know their lives are surrounded by strangers in uniform. When two U.S. soldiers stop to watch and then join the events, a small yet vital connection is made between two cultures that goes beyond the recent war.

THE BICYCLE MAN Illus. by Allen Say

Creating a picture book dealing with 9/11 might seem impossible.  Yet Jeanette Winter did by centering on true acts of kindness and light within the grief and violence. SEPTEMBER ROSES shares several stories within the story of 9/11. Two sisters from South Africa have flown to New York with boxes of their roses for a flower show. Stranded at the airport, people come to their aid. The sisters offer their roses in thanks. Though it had to have been a difficult journey, the sisters and all their roses are taken to the vigil in Union Square. There they shaped two large rectangles, two towers of roses. It is an act of kindness and respect in the midst of overwhelming pain.

Winter’s text is direct and measured. In the midst of tragedy there is no need to shout. The facts speak loudly for themselves. Her tone (like that of Hesse and Say) is powerful in its reserve and offers space for the reader to quietly share.

SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter

The world of picture books is as varied as that of books for adults. Before you decide a time in history isn’t the proper setting for a picture book, step back and remember that every time in history has involved children. What’s their story? What’s their light within the darkness of human behavior?

Books Discussed and More

THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE by Karen Hesse. Illus. by Wendy Watson. Scholastic, 2004.

THE BICYCLE MAN by Allen Say. Houghton, 1982.

SAMI AND THE TIME OF THE TROUBLES by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland. Illus. by Ted Lewin. Clarion, 1992.

SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter. Frances Foster/Farrar, 2004.

SMOKY NIGHT by Eve Bunting. Illus. by David Diaz. Harcourt, 1994.

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