BOSTON — This has been a week filled with stories about Sept. 11, which many of us remember vividly. But what about people who don’t remember that day, like kids who were too young or hadn’t been born yet? For them, a children’s publishing company has put out “America Is Under Attack,” a new picture book about 9/11. That’s right: a picture book for kids about the tragedy. It’s aimed at ages 9 to 13, and its publisher recommends that children under 9 read it in the company of a parent.
WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Don Brown, the author/illustrator.
SACHA PFEIFFER: As I showed this book to people I work with, I found that many had a very negative visceral reaction. They see this book, they realize it’s an illustrated book for children, and they think, “Why do that?” I think some people are more inclined to protect their children and not want them to see a book like this.
DON BROWN: Well, you spoke to one of my fears: how people would respond to it. Because, for lack of a better term, I’m a cartoonist. I had to convince myself that that I could use my cartooning skills to depict what is an unbelievably awful event.
Many of the book’s drawings could be scary to kids, depending on how old they are — pictures of buildings on fire, of people trying to get out of the building on elevators that won’t open. Did you worry about your book being frightening to children?
We struggled with this. There was a lot of second guessing, a lot of third guessing. The most spirited discussions came regarding the jumpers — the people who jumped from the building. My publisher would have preferred little or nothing about that and I wanted more and more detail. There was that tension between the two of us. And in the end we have a picture of people at the wreckage of the building, staring out, smoke behind them. And there’s only, I think, six words.
I have that page in front of me. As you said, it’s just six words: “Some of the trapped people jumped.”
In the end, I think we got it right. And, in the end, I think this is the page that I’m most proud of because it’s the most difficult subject.
This children’s book you’ve drawn and written about Sept. 11 focuses only on that single day. The book starts with a beautiful day in New York City and it ends with firefighters taking bodies out of a building. Why such an isolated part of the story of 9/11?
I didn’t want to get into the motivations of the terrorists. I decided it was beyond the scope of the book. I wanted to talk about that this horrific thing had happened and how people responded. I also decided not to use words like heroic or self-sacrifice. I wanted the actions of the people I portrayed to be so apparently, unambiguously heroic and self-sacrificing that it was unnecessary to say it.
What you don’t seem to try to do is draw any larger lessons or make it a morality story. Was that also intentional?
I don’t know if it started out that way, but it certainly ended up that way. If we’re distilling the story to the events of that day, there is no larger story, in a sense. This horrible thing happened. This is a children’s story with no happy ending. There is no happy ending here.
It was your publisher that initiated this book, and your initial reaction was that you didn’t want to do it.
I was taken aback a little bit and I was hesitant to do it. My first thought was not to do it. The subject was still very tender to me. It was still something of an open wound. I had avoided the subject. When video of the event would show up on television I would change the channel. I didn’t read anything about it. And I had trouble convincing myself, at first, to tackle it and present it to someone else if I had trouble with it.
Why did you eventually agree to get on board and do this book?
First of all, there’s the challenge of doing it. And, second of all, I reminded myself that my audience wouldn’t be me with that horrible memory. It would be children who had no or a very faint memory of the event. They don’t bring any emotional baggage to it. And there’s something implied in those images that can teach kids the scale of the disaster without frightening them that I’m proud of.