It can be hard to know how to broach the subject of 9/11 with kids.
They can be so literal-minded, for one thing. On Thursday, I asked my 8-year-old son, Do you know what Sunday is?
Him: Sept. 11.
Me: How did you know that?
Him: Because today is Sept. 8.
Hard to argue with that logic. But of course, Sept. 11 is much more than just another date on the calendar. And he knew that. With scarcely a nudge, he started rattling off all the details he’d learned in the four months since President Obama reported to the nation that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Our family of five had squeezed onto our brown velveteen sofa to watch the President’s surprise announcement, which then triggered from our children a raft of questions about war and hatred and intolerance, about fear and uncertainty, about al Qaeda and why they can’t stand Americans.
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It was all pretty theoretical at the time, but now, with the 10th anniversary of that blue-skied morning upon us, the queries have become more logistical. Where were the planes coming from? Where were they going? Were there passengers on them? How many people died? Were any babies killed? Gulp.
There’s no guidebook to instruct parents on how to explain the enormity of what happened. I worried that I was saying too much, then not enough. According to Richard Rende, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, less is more. He offers the following advice about addressing the subject of Sept. 11 with children:
- Don’t wait for your kids to approach you; let them know the lines of conversation are open.
- Set aside a time to do this when you won’t be quickly interrupted.
- Answer simply and directly. Less is more. Be honest without being graphic.
- Listen to the kids and let their questions guide you. Don’t broach new subjects they haven’t asked about.
- Be reassuring. Give them the confidence that they’re O.K.
- Monitor their exposure to media as best you can.
- Be prepared for the conversation to continue after the anniversary.
Books can be another avenue for children whose parents feel they’re hungry — and mentally ready — for more information. Search for “September 11” and “children’s books” on Amazon, and there’s a long list to choose from. Perhaps the newest is America Is Under Attack, released last month and written and illustrated by Don Brown, a Long Islander who dedicates the book to the 13 “neighbors” his town of Merrick lost that day.
It’s the perfect book for kids who really want to know what took place and in what order. Brown chronicles the events in a straightforward way, recognizing there’s no need to hype this tragedy; it’s awful enough as is.
Here’s how he begins:
A bright morning sun lit a cloudless blue sky.
America started its day. Highways filled with traffic. Railroads rumbled with trains. Airports roared with jetliners.
Among the hundreds of planes rising into that flawless blue sky were two from Boston, one from Newark, New Jersey, and one from Washington, D.C. Among their ordinary passengers were nineteen deadly men.
They were followers of Osama Bin Laden, leader of an organization known as al-Qaeda. The group hated America’s power and influence. Bin Laden promised violence against America. The nineteen men had pledged their lives to fulfill that threat.
At 8:00 AM on September 11, 2001, they acted.
Brown threads stories of real people into his narrative, including the tale of Stanley Praimnath and Brian Clark, two of just four men who made it out alive from above the 78th floor of the south tower. In some of those stories, the characters — a man in a wheelchair, a firefighter ascending endless steps — die. Others — a blind man with his guide dog, a window washer — survive.
“The trick,” says Brown, “is to distill information and present it in a way that a young reader can consume without frightening them. But what are the limits?”
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Brown had spirited discussions with his publisher and editor about how to handle the people who leaped from the towers. They leaned toward including nothing; Brown disagreed. After much back-and-forth, Brown ended up drawing a group of people trapped on a ledge, staring at smoke pouring from a gaping hole in the building. The accompanying text manages to be incredibly evocative in its simplicity: “Some of the trapped people jumped.”
There was no need to use a more colorful word, to say people “plummeted,” no need to detail the carnage or call a person who saved another a “hero.” “I consciously decided not to use words like ‘heroic’ or ‘self-sacrificing’ because I think the description of the people’s behavior is by its very definition heroic,” says Brown. “The implication is as powerful as what you might say explicitly.”
As for figuring out whether children can handle the literary re-telling, Brown says it’s up to the parents; the publisher recommends the book for kids 9 and up. My oldest isn’t quite there, but he’s been so curious that I felt it was appropriate. I took Brown’s advice, though, and read it along with him so I could answer questions as they came up. “A parent is a child’s gatekeeper in terms of what they want their children to know about the world,” says Brown, whose kids were 11 and 14 on 9/11. “We help them make some sense of it. That’s what parents do.”
Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.