Talking about War with Kids: Conversation Starter

20901532 My kids have been painfully naive about the refugee crisis and ongoing turmoil in Syria and surrounding nations. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of a TV or the privilege of living their White middle class lives here in Austin, but with Sadie’s love for graphic memoirs growing and my commitment to having these tough talks with kids, I think I found a conversation starter during my last trip to Austin Books and Comics. In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of graphic memoir offerings for 2-5th graders and I believe Abirached’s I Remember Beirut can go on my rolling list. In stark black and white frames, she contrasts moments of confusion, wonder, loss, and discovery, structuring the story through I remember…stems and juxtaposing memories of pop culture, invention, commerce, and play with anxious movements, bullet holes, and shrapnel collecting.

The lyrical collage, while seemingly childlike, offers more of an adult’s protective filter on daily happenings in conflict-riddled Beirut of the 80s during the Lebanese Civil War. Nevertheless, the filter makes this a perfect jumping off point for inquiry into past and present religious conflicts, children in war (times), middle east geography, and other storytellers (authors and filmmakers) depicting war and childhood.

I did wonder about all the ways people might misread the text as dismissing the gravity of living in conflict. I had moments myself as I read that she remembered Kit Kats foil paper double linings. But the book starts with bullet holes in a windshield and ends with a burgeoning shrapnel collection. This is to say that there are opportunities for readers to ignore the gravity of the situation in their conversations and focus on all the trivia in the memoir salad.  Seems the shrapnel is just as “regular” and “everyday” as Kit Kat and I think that’s her point. This trauma gets normalized for some kids and living with that is what kids living in more secure circumstances get a chance to wonder about and try on in this read. I think it forces some perspective taking that can and should go further. It’s a strong, “safe” start.

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Game Changing Read: El Deafo

For a moment this summer, I had the pleasure and pain of peering through a tiny window into a piece of the life my daughter lives sometimes. I devoured it in a plane ride and a late night wrap-up with twins and a five year old in tow, so anyone can do it. Since, it’s served as a family conversation piece; communicating to EVERYONE in our tiny nuclear from age 2 to 39. I get that it’s got a Newberry, so I’m late and it’s a graphic novel memoir, so it’s what everyone’s already been blown away by, but just watching my two year olds and my husband read the same book together, hearing my five year old ask about the symbolism of the protagonist’s imagined identity in the superhero cape, and getting my own insight into some of the awkward insecurities and pure rage my eight year old lives with when she can’t hear us reminds me why I need to read more for pleasure.

This Fall I discovered (as I completed a reading survey alongside my students) that I didn’t spend enough time reading for my own pleasure. While there are certainly elements of my professional reading that give me a little of that jouissance, I mean the kind of self-directed choice making that has no pressure. no requirements. no helicopters. no expectations. And that is precisely why I was so blown away. I did not know what to expect. And there it was, like a rainbow unfolding in our family and beyond. I left a library copy by accident with my friend James who accidentally gifted it to a bereaved family member. We didn’t ask for it back and he didn’t want to return it. Then it appeared in the summer reading rewards bookshelf at the library and Sadie (with a little of my motherly urging), picked it up and brought it home for everyone to fall into as I already had. Thank you, Ce Ce Bell. Thank you to all authors who put themselves and their lives into composition. Thank you to all the artists who push boundaries that are, in my opinion, slowly eroding when it comes to what counts as literature and what counts as scholarship. Your work is a gift.

Visual note taking

It’s one of those things I’ve always known is good for you, but had never really tried to do. Then, all of a sudden, I was reading and taking notes about the (im)materiality of literacies, looked down, and I was doing it – organically – and it felt really useful and I wanted to tell the world all about its power and how it forced me to slow down and really think about how I could capture the mini idea the authors were talking about in a quick sketch I might return to at a later date. It’s one of those things I had always known is good for you. Makes me wonder if there was ever anything to all those doodles I worked on during lectures in high school and college.
  

Where’s the Mom?

One day Sadie just started asking, “Where’s the mom?” We’d be reading along in one of her books – all the gifts and garage sale acquisitions within her reach – and after about 3-5 pages, she’d want to know where all the adults were. This got me thinking about these books where children run things, without adult supervision, quietly busy, compliant, and leaving caregivers alone to attend to their domestic affairs, their heroine habits, or their writing careers? But to my 2-3 year old, these scenarios did not seem natural.

busy timmy 2This “idealized” adult author version of the “Busy Timmy” galavanting about, waking up, getting dressed, fixing his breakfast, brushing his hair, cleaning his room, rocking on his horse, seemingly without caregivers, but with sweater buttoned up tight and hat tied closely beneath his chin was suspect.

This was the beginning of our early critical conversations. While I couldn’t guarantee that there was a mom, I could ask what Sadie thought might be going on outside of the page or beyond the frame. Who do you think wrote this book? Why would a grown up write a book about such a busy little boy? Why do grown ups want kids to be busy? Notice Timmy does not make any messes while he is busy. While we didn’t re-write social injustices with that conversation, we did start our early journey conversations about the constructedness of texts.