My kids are now 10 and 12, but around the time they were three and five, I brought home a bag of books from the library, one of which I was sure my son would love. Fireboat was a picture book about, well, a fireboat called the John J. Harvey. My son loved trucks and firetrucks and construction trucks and garbage trucks. In an effort to expand his horizons, I thought he might be interested in a “water-truck” that extinguished fires. I also loved the artist, Maira Kalman, whose quirky, Kahlo-meets-Picasso paintings illustrated some of my favorite picture books as well as The New Yorker magazines. (I only read The New Yorker for the pictures.)
But half-way through Fireboat, I realized it wasn’t simply a nice book about a nice water-truck that extinguished not-nice fires. This was a book about September 11th and the role the John J. Harvey played in fighting the fires after the terrorist attacks.
I was caught off guard. I might not have read this book to my three- and five-year-old children had I known. I might not have read it to myself had I known. Although I was living in Seattle in September 2001, far from the terrorist attacks, I still felt so raw. Although I obsessively read loads of non-fiction essays and articles about the attacks, I wasn’t quite ready to read a picture book about September 11th, even a non-fiction one so beautifully illustrated. I found myself distracted by feelings and memories about the attacks: Where I was when I heard about the first tower. NPR’s coverage as I drove to work. Images of terrified, dust-covered passersby fleeing the area. First responders racing to the scene. People jumping from tower windows. Photocopied faces of the missing plastered on chain link fences.
My children, born after September 11th and too young to understand the terror of that day, looked at this page of Kalman’s book and thought the pilot had simply made a terrible mistake. Then my son turned to me. “Does daddy work in a tall building?” [Read more…]