Op-Ed

Authors Against Terror: More Thoughts

Last week, I raised three questions for authors to consider based on our collective experience with terrorism. We got some informative comments, and I’ve had some additional thoughts as events have continued to unfold here in Boston. And I have a confession to make, later in this post.

What can responsible authors do to help readers deal with actual or potential violence in their lives?

Reading teaches empathy. Children who read learn how to feel for others by immersing themselves in the lives of protagonists. The very nature of what we do helps children learn to care for and understand others. It’s a noble gig.

–Nicole Valentine

Books can be wonderful tools for helping children through their problems, anxieties, and rough patches. As Nicole said, children immerse themselves in the lives of protagonists, and through those protagonists they can explore difficult topics from a safe space. A librarian is often the best person to consult when a child is dealing with bullying, divorce, the arrival of a new baby, the departure of a best friend, or even the death of a loved one.

So what about terrorism?

Terrorists want to disrupt our lives and cause us to fear the places and activities we used to think of as safe. To some extent they have succeeded, even with adults, and especially with the adults in charge of airport security. Children are even more vulnerable than adults, because they have less control over their environment and less experience in determining odds and risks, so we are right to worry about how they can be impacted.

The trouble is, a terror attack is not just one traumatic issue. Victims may be dealing with injuries, permanent disability, lost friends or family members, shocking memories, nightmares, stress, fear, insecurity, and more. No book is going to speak to every victim in the most helpful way. No book is going to turn back the clock and put everything back the way it was. And no book is going to prepare a child beforehand for every possible terror attack they might experience in the future.

Responsible books are the ones that present acts of terror as realistically rare, show that good people are working hard to keep us safe, and let us know that life goes on even after the worst things that can happen.

Can we make things better, or should we just try not to make things any worse?

As writers, we need to [write] with care, compassion, and integrity to developmental needs and not cross the line with information that can increase trauma or secondarily traumatize like the media often does. Knowing how much and how to present is an art and requires research on difficult topics. If you are using difficult subjects and are not an expert, seek out a consultation.

–Diane Kress Hower

Secondary trauma is something to worry about. It’s impossible to entirely avoid. Diane’s advice is important for anyone who is intending to write about terror in a realistic way, but even if we are not, we can never know what might trigger a post-traumatic event in a reader we have never met.

Jerry Spinelli wrote Maniac Magee long before last week’s bombing, and at the time could never have anticipated that someday a child might associate running with the horrible images of the Marathon finish line. I don’t know any children or adults for whom running is now a trigger, by the way, but they certainly could exist. We can imagine any number of possible triggers. In the news today, a child might be exposed to a theory that the elder Tsarnaev brother was a boxer who suffered a drastic personality change, possibly after too many blows to the head, and suddenly any book about boxing could become a trigger for devastating flashbacks. Or a scene with a pressure cooker. Anything we write has the potential to bring back echoes of tragedy in the mind of a particular reader.

We authors do have an advantage over some other media because we are able to deliberate over what we write. We have extra time we can use for research or consultation, as Diane suggests. We can maximize the good we do but there’s no guaranteed way to avoid any chance of causing harm.

Or should this not even be a consideration at all when it comes to telling a good story?

We need stories.

So tomorrow I will start back again. I will get it all as right as I can.

–Lisha Cauthen

Our heroes need villains, and what can establish villainy better or faster than a terror attack? When Darth Vader blows up an entire planet in the original Star Wars movie, it stays with us. When a James Bond villain reveals his or her master plan, it needs to be something a lot more potent than voter fraud or insider trading. Terror is a classic plot device, or at least the fictionalized terror we see in most stories. But thankfully fictional terror is not realistic, because realistic terror makes bad fiction.

Fictional villains need to be smart and resourceful, while real terrorists often succeed through dumb luck and the fact that an overwhelming majority of people are good and trusting of each other. Fictional villains need to have a logical plan and understandable motives, while real terrorists tend to be deranged ideologues who believe they can advance a cause through random violence against innocent people. Our stories promote a larger narrative with positive values and hopeful results, while realistic terror is just random and horrible.

Nobody wants to read about dumb villains stumbling through a half-baked scheme that hurts trusting people for no good reason, but that’s the story that is emerging from the news reports.

So here is my confession.

There’s a fictional terrorist act in one of my middle grade books.

In The Challengers, after Earth first makes contact with aliens, a political movement promotes planetary isolation in order to preserve the traditional cultures of Earth. In the story, some Seclusionist groups are passionate or desperate enough to commit acts of violence. One of them bombs a stadium that was set to host tournament games between Earth and other worlds, on a day when the players are attending an orientation there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene over the past week. I’ve been wondering whether it might cause secondary trauma to readers who have been through an actual terror event. And I’ve been feeling all kinds of guilty. But this scene is integral to a larger story about humanity’s most positive attributes, and that larger story has more potential to inspire and uplift than to cause harm.

And of course, since real terror makes bad fiction, my fictional terror scene is not much like real life at all. For starters, my terrorists call in a warning ahead of the detonation, because they don’t want to hurt anyone. My terrorists just want to damage the stadium enough to prevent its use, which makes the bombing an understandable method to further an understandable motive. My terrorists are taken seriously by competent security forces who evacuate the team and ensure that nobody gets hurt. My terrorists are immediately denounced by other Seclusionist groups who share their goals but find their tactics deplorable. And most importantly, my terrorists do not succeed in stopping the Galaxy Games.

I drew strength from rereading that scene this past week, because it models a victory over terrorism. The Games go on, the people refuse to be intimidated, and humanity proves itself to be on the side of goodness except for the few bad apples who try to ruin things for the rest of us.

Stay strong, everyone!

Boston from my office window.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the “Galaxy Games” series of midgrade sports and science fiction from Tu Books at Lee & Low Books. Visit him at http://gfishbone.com.

Authors Against Terror: The Questions

Monday was Patriots’ Day here in Massachusetts. Offices were closed, the kids were all out of school, and everyone was excited for the Boston Marathon, which has been running through 26.2 miles of Boston and suburban streets annually for over 100 years.

I grew up with the Boston Marathon. On my high school track team, I ran Heartbreak Hill every day after school until my running shoes fell apart. One year, I did volunteer work and passed out water and snacks at the finish line downtown. In past years, my wife and I brought our daughter to cheer our lungs out for every runner who passed. We wanted to share a powerful tradition and to be inspired by ordinary people from all walks of life who chose to do something amazing and then put in whatever difficult training was necessary to make it possible.

We almost went to the marathon again this year, but then it got late, and parking is always tough, and we didn’t have anything to bring for lunch, and we ended up at a movie instead. As the ending credits rolled and we turned our phones back on, my wife and I discovered dozens of urgent messages all asking for confirmation that we were still alive. That’s how we first learned that bombs had gone off at the finish line. There were fatalities and a rising number of wounded victims, all still unidentified at the time, any of whom could have been our family members or friends.

The rest of the week unfolded from there: horrible images on TV on Monday, a friend who complained of ringing ears, bloody memories, and a smoke-smelling jacket on Tuesday; spotting news helicopters over the Federal courthouse on Wednesday; watching the presidential motorcade from my office window on Thursday; dealing with a lack of public transportation during the manhunt on Friday.

It’s been a week of feeling the sense of shock gradually sinking in. Meanwhile, the perpetrators remained at large, the media spun wild conjectures, and increased security measures made us feel unsafe in a city that had never felt unsafe before. But most difficult of all, we had to decide what to tell our daughter that might help her survive in a world that’s mostly peaceful but with a sprinkling of school shootings, terrorist attacks, and random violence. We’re actually still wrestling with that.

The books we write can be an effective tool for helping kids explore difficult topics from a safe distance, which leads me to these questions I’d like to share with the writing community:

  • What can responsible authors do to help readers deal with actual or potential violence in their lives?
  • Can we make things better, or should we just try not to make things any worse?
  • Or should this not even be a consideration at all when it comes to telling a good story?

If you have a blog or a page on your website, send me a link to your thoughts on this issue. I will compile, summarize, and add my own thoughts in a post on Friday, April 26th. Thanks for your help, and stay safe!

Boston from my office window.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the “Galaxy Games” series of midgrade sports and science fiction from Tu Books at Lee & Low Books. Visit him at http://gfishbone.com.

Four children, one story

sederWhen my children were young, my mom wrote a short seder in rhyme. We wanted them to hear the whole story! This is how it begins:

In the Torah it says you shall keep the feast
Of unleavened bread—that’s bread without yeast.
And during this feast we’re obliged to tell
The Exodus story til we all know it well.

Every year, we tell this story to four named archetypal children.

As presented in the Haggadah, the four children are:

The wise child.
The wicked child.
The simple child.
The child unable to ask.

As a child at my parents’ seder table, this part of the book always made me nervous and upset. Dividing us up into blatant stereotypes seemed like a lose lose proposition. Every year I was sure I was going to be pegged as the wicked one. Or was simple worse? Who were these children? What did it mean, unable to ask?

Here is one explanation, which I found in Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander’s gorgeous Haggadah, The New American Haggadah. (Note: everyone should own this haggadah. There are great commentaries, including some by Lemony Snicket.)

Here is what they say about the four children:

Perhaps the Haggadah deliberately provides caricatures of four types of children to teach us something about the care we must take when we answer questions. Each person at our seder is coming from a different place. This one is older and more experienced. That one has never been to seder before. That other one was sick and did not expect to make it to seder, but is there. That one never learned to read Hebrew, and that one knows French.

I like that. Thinking this way, the text is talking about different learning styles. (We Jews are so progressive!!!) It’s about communicating with all kinds of kids WITHOUT judgment.

Or maybe….as we discussed last night…this text is also saying something about the nature of story. (The Exodus is a pretty amazing story, after all.)

As a writer and writing teacher, I spend much of my time thinking about novels and writing and reading. I think about what a story needs…and when I think about the best stories, how they’ve grown with me. I think about the times I have heard a story at just the right time! (I also know that there are some stories that seem to change all the time…that I hear or read them differently each time.) That is what happens at the Seder. Even though the story stays the same, it changes and grows with us. Every year, we seem to focus on a different aspect. Sometimes we are wise. Sometimes wicked. Sometimes, we have no idea what to make of the story. Over time, we also get nostalgic. We think. We talk.

A good story inspires new conversations. They bridge generations.

Last night, my son Elliot, who is on the verge of graduation, heard the story as a transition tale. He wondered about Moses’ fears. He is also interested in leadership and we spent a lot of time thinking about Moses’ development from ordinary man to hero. Another student could only focus on the Egyptians who did not believe in slavery, but were subjected to the plagues. Another young person asked if we always need war to free ourselves of atrocities.

What I love about the seder: that story is still relevant!

My mother’s seder ends this way:

What does this all mean? What’s the larger scope?
Why tell of the Exodus again and again?
It’s the preservation and affirmation of hope
This is our covenant with God. Amen.

It’s been written about many times on this blog. Hope is the foundation–and part of most endings–in great middle grade stories. Hope is essential, like conflict and empathy, whether you are wise or wicked or simple or don’t know how to ask.

Happy Passover!!!! Happy Easter!!!

Is there a book that YOUR family rereads? Why? How has it changed for you and your children over the years?

Sarah Aronson used to be a Jewish educator, but now she is a writer who thinks a lot about the Jewish experience in her books.