Monday begins National Children's Book Week, which is normally a time for publishers to push their latest wares, from giant picture books of trailer trucks to bedtime tales aimed at assuaging children's nighttime fears. But in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many parents, grandparents and teachers _ struggling to explain a terror that far surpasses the monsters under the bed _ are less interested in the usual children's pabulum. Publishers report a surge of requests for books that will help adults help children deal with the trauma of terrorism.
Many Americans are concerned, it seems, about how those violent images, played and replayed on primetime television, are affecting the psyches of the children who witnessed them.
The concerns are real _ and the parental instinct to protect children from harm is heart-warming. They also may help Americans to better comprehend the horrors that children throughout the world experience every day. Millions , after all, have been brutalized by real-life violence even more horrifying than Sept. 11. From Belfast to Sarajevo, from Kabul to Jerusalem to the Gaza strip, children have lived with numbing violence in their daily lives.
Consider these chilling statistics offered by UNICEF:
In the summer of 1993 in Sarajevo, when one child in four was wounded in the conflict, 97 percent of the 1,505 children surveyed had experienced shelling nearby, 29 percent felt "unbearable sorrow," and 20 percent had terrifying dreams. Some 55 percent had been shot at by snipers, and 66 percent had been in a situation where they thought they would die.
In 1995 in Rwanda, nearly 80 percent of 3,030 children interviewed had lost immediate family members. More than one-third had actually witnessed their murders.
That same year in Angola 66 percent of the children surveyed had seen people being murdered, 91 percent had seen dead bodies, and 67 percent had seen people being tortured, beaten or hurt. In all, more than two-thirds of children had lived through events in which they had defied death.
But we need not go to countries at war or even to go beyond our own borders to seek examples of daily violence witnessed by or perpetuated upon children in recent years. According to recent studies reported by the Center for Children Exposed to Violence, every year as many as 10-million children in America witness domestic violence. Approximately 4-million adolescents have been victims of a serious physical assault, and 9-million have witnessed serious violence during their lifetimes. One in 12 high school students in America is threatened or injured with a weapon each year.
In Miami in 1996, more than 90 percent of the high school students witnessed community violence and 44 percent had been a victim of a violent crime, the center reports. In Richmond, Va. in 1998, 88 percent of the children in one neighborhood heard gunfire near home, and 25 percent saw someone killed. In 1998 in New Haven, Conn., 39 percent of sixth, eight, and 10th grade students had seen someone shot at.
What has been the effect of all this violence on children?
After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, children experienced "nightmares, difficulty in concentrating, depression and a sense of hopelessness about the future," says Dr. Albert Nambaje, a clinical psychologist. A United Nations official interviewing children who had been caught up in the war in the former Yugoslavia reported similar traumas: "Memories of the event remain with them . . . causing extreme nightmares, daily intrusive flashbacks of the traumatic events, fear, insecurity and bitterness."
A sense of hopelessness, insecurity and bitterness _ just the ingredients needed, it turns out, to nurture future violence.
Children exposed to violence are left psychologically scarred, the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence explains. These wounds, if left untreated, place a child at greater risk for symptoms of anxiety, depression and a tendency toward criminal and violent behavior of their own. It is a sad and vicious cycle.
That cycle, of course, was repeated the morning of Sept. 11, when zealots offered our children even more images of death. But however disturbing the attacks were, perhaps this time we can learn from the experience and use those images of violence not to continue the cycle but to break out of it. As we soothe our children's fears, we can encourage them to express their anger without turning that anger into prejudice. We can offer them stories about the struggles of other children across the globe less fortunate than they are.
Books can help.
Many publishers, by the way, heeded that call for books to help teach children the right lessons from this tragedy. Several lists of books dealing with subjects _ violence and loss _ not usually associated with the innocence of childhood have been posted on the Internet (www.cbcbooks.org). Among the recommendations of the Children's Book Council, the sponsor of Children's Book Week are: Bill Cosby's The Day I Saw My Father Cry, Shelley Tanaka's Attack on Pearl Harbor and Maria Ousseimi's Caught in the Crossfire: Growing Up in a War Zone. The Society of Children's Book Writers also offers an extensive 39-page list of such books, available at its Web site, www.scbwi.org.
One of the recommended books is a picture book by Jane Cutler called The Cello of Mr. O. The setting is a bombed-out city, and the story is of a cellist who inspires others by refusing to give in to fear. It is a simple tale of courage, one that offers hope while also recognizing the fact that many children in this world are forced to live with war. In the book, Mr. O likes to play his cello for his neighbors. But one day, as he is playing in the rubble-strewn square, his instrument is destroyed by a mortar shell. His cello is lost. The next day, he finds the courage to return. He pulls from his pocket a harmonica, and he plays on.