One day last week, I was in the middle of reading an innocuous-looking picture book to our preschoolers at Rester Time, shortly after lunch. The book had attracted me in the county library’s online catalogue. Holding it in my hands after actually checking it out, I couldn’t wait to share it with the children.
The front cover showed an old man and a young boy smiling as they walked together. Each of them held in his hand a huge, brightly-coloured ice cream cone. Set on a mostly-white background, this cover gave me a presentiment of wonderful joy that we could all share as I read the book and showed the children the illustrations.
I missed one detail on that cover: two small fighter planes flying across the night sky. Noticing them might have clued me in to what was coming. Because I didn’t, I ran into a big surprise during my reading, as abrupt as a jack-in-the-box popping up with no musical warning.
I suddenly found myself having to deal with “difficult content.” In the middle of the story, the scene shifted away from its opening scenes of people eating ice cream in Italy—some, even in a gondola. The boy from the beginning of the story grows up and moves to Budapest, Hungary. He opens his own ice cream shop. So far, so good.
An unexpected turn of events
I turned a page. Suddenly, in the book, there are people walking with bowed heads. They have yellow stars pinned to their clothing. In the background are dark, shadowy shapes—a military tank and several helmeted soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders.
Expressions of total perplexity come over the faces of several of the children. It appeared they had no context whatsoever for what they were seeing! Shocked at the story’s sudden turn, myself, I tried to maintain a sense of calm while thinking through what to do.
One of the girls in my audience spoke up. “What is that?” she demanded.
“Yes, what?” her friend asked. “Tell us!”
I had to process the nuances of my response in a hurry. Children need to learn, at some point, about the painful history of the human race. It seemed clear, however, that this was not the time for a full lecture on the subject.
I intuitively felt that while I needed to say something explanatory, the best course would be to then refer the matter to parents. The intimacy of an initiation to an awareness of such a “big” topic, I felt, should be left to them.
At the same time, I felt that I owed our children some immediate explanation, out of respect for them. I’d involved them in this story. It wasn’t fair to abruptly close the book or skip right over to the happy, peaceful ending which—quickly looking ahead—I saw did, indeed, resolve the tale.
I told the children, “I didn’t know when I got this book, that part of it takes place during a war!”
“A war? What is that?” the two most verbal girls pleaded.
I thought about how to best say it. “You know the way two people can get very mad at each other? Well, countries can get mad at each other, too. And when they get very mad, they sometimes start wars, and fight! War is a very, very bad thing.
Then I added, “I think that your parents should be the ones to tell you more about this. So I’ll tell whoever picks you two up that you were asking. And they can explain the way they feel is best.”
“What I’m going to do now,” I concluded, “is to go to the part of the story where the war is over.”
So we did segue to the re-establishment of peace and ice cream. As I skipped over several pages showing the seasonally-closed ice cream parlour being used to hide Jewish people, I briefly summarized, saying, “Oh, and they let people hide from the soldiers in the ice cream shop!”
Later, I shared what had happened with the Dads of the two girls on whom that picture had seemed to make such an impression. They appreciated my letting them know what had happened.
The boyhood innocence of Gautama Buddha
I’ll never forget the incredulous expressions on the faces of my two female students. With our present 24-hour news cycle and the input that we all receive from such an early age, I hadn’t realized that perceptive 4.5-year-old children are so totally innocent! I found it inspiring to see this on their dear faces, as troubled as I simultaneously felt for inadvertently showing them such a disturbing picture.
The whole experience brought to my mind the life of Gautama Buddha who, as you perhaps know, was born into a royal family, and whose parents tried to have him shielded during boyhood from the sight of any suffering in the world.
These children have aware, intelligent parents, and I think everything will work out all right. I’ll try to preview books more than I do, at least to flip all the way through each one before bringing it to school. There are always surprises in life … usually, where we least expect them.
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