Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How we handle WWII

Jennifer asked, in a recent comment:
How do your daughters deal with the very serious and tragic stories that are associated with World War II?
I started to answer in the comments, but thought it was worth addressing in a post.

First of all, my philosophy is that there's not a single, "correct" way to approach this, nor is there a particular age at which it must be dealt with. I would not have done much with World War II when my eldest daughter was ten (beyond the American Girl "Molly" books, and the nicely done Welcome to Molly's World.) But, doing it now with Betsy (who is 10) is not a problem. The girls have different temperaments and are affected by things so differently. Anne, for example, cannot hear a sweet, sappy song without crying. She has always been profoundly bothered by any kind of cruelty or injustice, and for quite some time did even not want to read the Addy books (the American Girl series about the Civil War) because she could not bear the way Addy and other slaves were treated. It was simply too hard on her sensitive psyche.

Betsy, on the other hand, is a little tougher and always has been. She's the kind of tomboy who would play pirates with the roughest and toughest boy, but would insist on wearing something sparkly while she's swashbuckling. She handles things very differently, and in her own way.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, I'll move on to one more disclaimer. I have, so far, shielded my girls from any actual photographs of concentration camps and their victims. It's simply too horrendous. I remember my own reaction to seeing such pictures when I was about fourteen ... I could barely fathom what I was seeing and it took everything in me to process it without screaming. I know that the day will come when they will need to see them. But, I decided that the day didn't have to come this year.

So, how did we dive in to this subject? I knew that I wanted to start with something that had "a happy ending." So, we began with Twenty and Ten, which is a really delightful book that was suspenseful, but not frightening. We followed up with Number the Stars, which was a little more realistic, in terms of Nazi cruelty and actions, but it was handled tastefully enough that it was another small step, getting us a bit into the realities of this study.

The Borrowed House came next, and that one was tougher. It's an excellent book, but there were a couple of things I edited out, for Betsy's sake, due to her age.

This book was something of a turning point in our study. It prompted an amazing discussion about free will and the nature of evil. It prompted anger in my daughters when they contemplated, perhaps on a deeper level than they had before, what Hitler actually believed and did. He angered them, and they expressed that anger whenever his name came up in the book. I let them express it with whatever mean, nasty names they wanted to call him, because they needed to get that out somehow.

From there, we read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Winged Watchman, Escape from Warsaw, Snow Treasure and The Little Riders. All of these had the kind of suspense and adventure that the kids loved, without the ugliest facts and details of the Holocaust. They are the perfect way to explore WWII with kids, because they do it through the lives and stories of real people.

The girls have both read The Diary of Anne Frank, as well, and though it is heartwrenching to know what happened to Anne, they both loved her dearly after reading her diary, and I'm glad I had them it.

And, as I look over my page of book reviews, I see that I haven't had time to post about everything we've read -- s o many others, including books about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, a book about Sadako (Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which is a story about the effects of Hiroshima on one little girl ... very sad.) On the lighter side, Betsy loved Tomie de Paola's I'm Still Scared , and the girls both enjoyed learning more about JP II in The Young Life of Pope John Paul II (we're spending the rest of March, as a matter of fact, on our beloved Papa -- learning more about him and putting together a scrapbook about his life.)

This post has been my long-winded way of saying, Jennifer, that you must follow what you think is right for your child. If you sense that a certain subject will be "too much" at a particular age, then trust that sense. Between previewing books and doing them as read-alouds, I've been able to catch what might have been problematic books or passages. And, as always, the beauty of reading aloud with your children is that amazing discussions can and do occur. Things your kids might never mention (if they were reading a book on their own) come up when you're snuggled up together and talking about it.

Careful selection of literature* is the answer ... or, at least, that is the answer that has worked here. And, don't assume that picture books are necessarily gentler than chapter books. Preview, preview, preview! There are so many beautiful and sensitive books out there, but not every book is going to be suited to every child or family. Make the choices that are right for your own dear, sensitive daughter.

For another resource on great WWII books, see this thread at 4Real Learning. The moms there are a treasure trove of information and book recommendations. A couple more related threads are here and here.

*(See this page of posts labeled WWII for all the book reviews.)


Angel said...

A while back I read Twenty and Ten and the Little Riders to my older kids, who were then 8 and 6 years old. I found that even in those books, I sometimes got way more discussion than I bargained for. ("Why did God let that happen? Did the Nazis go to hell?") Our study didn't go on very long, but I think that -- like you said -- we chose what worked for our children at that time, and even though it was a very small slice of what's available, our discussions really stuck with them. In fact, I think we build on those conversations all the time, when learning about things that have nothing to do (on the surface) with WWII.

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much for responding Karen. I have learned so much this year reading about the way you approach history. It is not always pretty and we are easing into some of that.

Beth said...

Yes, thank you so much (again!) for blogging about your WWII studies and books. You are a wonderful resource for me :-)

Karen E. said...

I'm so glad it's all helpful! Thanks.