Thursday, November 6, 2014

Approaching Hiroshima: A Challenge for Children's Literature and Peace Education

My Hiroshima by Junko Morimoto
As best I can remember, it was 1971 when I became my mother's typist.

She was 50 years old and was making the heroic trek several days a week from our home in New Jersey into Manhattan to attend classes at Columbia University. She was working toward her Master of Library Science (M.L.S.) degree, so that she could begin a new career as a librarian.

I was 11, and had barely learned asdfjkl; but when it came time for Mom to do her masters thesis, I set up on a card table in the "sun room" and started to type.

Mom's thesis was on children's literature, and she had researched dozens of versions of a single story: Little Red Riding Hood. The thesis contained a synopsis of every single book, and a long bibliography.

And so I learned at a very early age that every story gets told in many different ways. And to love lists of books.

My Hiroshima

When I had children of my own, books became one of the major ways we spent time with each other.

I have a very clear memory of being in the children's section of a Border's store in Philadelphia (where we lived at the time) and laying my hands on My Hiroshima by Junko Morimoto. Its bright colors and social purpose appealed to me. My two sons were about 8 and 5 at the time.

Junko Morimoto, author of My Hiroshima
(Read more at "80 year old artist paints the horror
of atomic bombing live" on Japan in Melbourne)
I'm not sure My Hiroshima made an impression on either of them. It is a beautiful book, and I love it. I think its value for us was really the impression it made on me. It started me thinking about the difference between what appeals to an adult and what appeals to a child.

I went down to the children's section of the main branch of the Chicago Public Library a few weeks ago and refreshed my memory about My Hiroshima. I had forgotten how interesting it was in the way it mixed many styles and genres: the depiction of everyday life scenes during the prelude to the bombing reminded me of anime; a section of pictures of the aftermath closely resembling drawings by survivors; and a very activism-oriented section at the end, providing facts and figures about the consequences of the bomb and explaining about the growth of the modern peace movement centered on Hiroshima.

For me, My Hiroshima stands for the proposition that educating young people about the threat of nuclear weapons is a multimedia endeavor, and is an ongoing proposition.

Hiroshima No Piko

I first came across Hiroshima No Piko by Toshi Maruki because of a book for adults by the important historian of the U.S.'s 20th century conflict with Japan, John Dower: Hiroshima Murals: The Art of Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki. That led me to a video -- Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima -- and then when I got to the children's section of the library, I found Hiroshima No Piko.

There is a wonderful reading of Hiroshima No Piko -- showing all the illustrations -- on Youtube.

I was struck in particular by the image of the aftermath of the atomic bombing shown here:

Hiroshima No Piko: aftermath of the bombing

In the lower right quadrant of the picture, a woman hunches over the child she cradles in her arms, protecting it. This posture was strikingly reminiscent of a sketch that my daughter did when she was about 8 years old:

Parents escaping Pompeii, cradling baby (after Benzoni)
(Sketch by Alanna Huck-Scarry)

The story of my daughter's sketch is in the blog post "The Children Are Waiting." The experience of seeing my daughter develop that sketch led me to realize how perceptive children can be about the most terrible disasters, particularly when they view it through the lens of the children involved, and that of the relationship of those children to their parents.

The rest of the shelf . . . 

My trip to the library reminded me that there are lots of books for children about Hiroshima and the issue of nuclear weapons.  (Two additional examples are Shin's Tricycle and Sadako and the Thousand Cranes.) There is so much to sort out . . .

The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki by J. Pools
in the "Great Historic Disasters" series
* There are many books proffered to children that provide justifications for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The discourse on the use of atomic weapons is certainly a worthy topic of study for young people of a certain age. However, there is a distinction between critical reading of atom bombing history and passive receiving of atom bombing dogma. I am wondering about how this can be effectively broken down.

* There are more and more materials about the atomic bombing being offered online. (See, for instance, Hiroshima: A Survivor's Story, offered by Scholastic.) Quite apart from the dogma embedded in online materials, it seems important to question the pros and cons of the online medium itself for this kind of teaching. On the plus side, there are huge advantages to the kind of interlinking that can be done online, giving access to enormous quantities of resources to everyone. On the other hand, there are benefits associated with physical books, including the way in which families and other groups experience them together.

* There are many books and other resources -- lists and lists, and lists of those lists -- about the atomic bombing. (Perhaps compiled by people with MLA degrees?) Just two examples are "Nuclear Holocaust in Contemporary Children's Fiction: A Surprising Amount of Agreement" and "New Miseries in Old Attire: Nuclear Adolescent Novels Published in the United States in the 1980s", and I'm sure there are many more.

There are abundant resources for teaching children about the problem of nuclear war.

I think that what we need now is curation. In particular, we need people who will carefully sort out what kinds of materials can best be used with children of various ages. (Perhaps all of this curation can be coordinated through a website or blog?)

In Chicago on November 22, 2014, there will be a social justice curriculum fair. My next step is to go to this fair and investigate what materials are being provided for teaching children about the problem of nuclear war. (Is anyone holding a "social justice curriculum fair" anywhere near you?)

Related posts

I don't think Alanna and I ever talked about what it must be like to be trying to escape a shower of sparks and hot ash. But she seemed to know that the sparks and hot ash are too important a part of the picture to be left out.

(See The Children Are Waiting )

It is the combination of the fire and the fact that it is a couple of children that are up against it that makes the reality of Grave of the Fireflies so undeniable.

(See Can We Confront the Fire and Blast of Nuclear War and Still Remain Human? (Watching "Grave of the Fireflies") )

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )

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