Finding Compassion in Disaster

How picture books help children understand horrific events like the Halifax Explosion
An illustration by Belle DeMont, from The Little Tree by the Sea

With the centennial of the Halifax Explosion upon us, there’s been an influx of books devoted to the subject hitting the shelves this year and the picture-book market is no exception. Three of these books, Hope and Survival: A Story of the Halifax Explosion with words and quilt art by Laurie Swim; The Flying Squirrel Stowaways: From Nova Scotia to Boston, written and illustrated by Marijke Simons and The Little Tree by the Sea: From Halifax to Boston with Love by John DeMont and illustrated by Belle DeMont, all do a wonderful job documenting this significant event in world history.

They also serve another purpose: they offer a way for kids to process the idea of disaster close to home, while showing them opportunities to find comfort, remain hopeful and build community. These are all relevant topics in a world where kids are grappling with issues like climate change, nuclear war and deportation.

With the right approach, learning about historic catastrophes like this can give kids a glimmer of hope when they overhear heavy adult discussions about world events. These three books do this by allowing young readers to contrast Explosion-era Halifax with the rebuilt Halifax they know today. There’s hope to be found in the story arcs too, particularly in Hope and Survival: A Story of the Halifax Explosion and The Little Tree by the Sea, which both offer first-person accounts of the disaster and its aftermath.

Children’s author and quilt artist Laurie Swim

From the descriptions of medical and rescue aid in Hope and Survival to the story of a fisherman who answers distant cries for help in The Little Tree by the Sea, these stories offer examples of community resilience and human kindness that kids can understand and relate to. The Little Tree by the Sea and The Flying Squirrel Stowaways both tackle concepts of gratitude, remembrance and the importance of maintaining strong relationships between communities during less challenging times.

Finally, reading literary fiction is a fantastic way to build empathy. According to a 2013 study in Science, “the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The worlds of fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.” This means that even when life is relatively peaceful close to home, kids reading literary fiction will develop their ability to truly empathize with people experiencing traumatic or challenging events in other parts of the world.

Of course, finding the right balance when writing kidlit is key. Simply put, how do you write a picture book about a disaster that killed about 2,000 people and injured about 9,000 more without falling into the trap of sensationalism or talking down to young readers?

Each of these books effectively addresses the challenge in a different way. Little Tree by the Sea is told from the point of view of a tree growing near the disaster—but not too close. This bit of distance gives readers a realistic view of the Explosion without exposing them to the finer details. Belle DeMont’s beautiful illustrations help here as well; she doesn’t shy away from images of the explosion, destroyed houses, or the injuries, but her style allows her to brush over more disturbing details.

The Flying Squirrel Stowaways, about a pair of flying squirrels that catch a ride from Halifax to Boston on a Christmas tree, has the benefit of looking backwards. It’s set in modern times but incorporates details of the Explosion, which gives readers some temporal distance. It’s focus on the squirrel’s journey and the gift of the Christmas tree gives kids some breathing room, while showing how a city and its people can recover from trauma.

Since Hope and Survival is aimed at slightly older kids, its intended audience is able to handle a little more—and Swim knows it. Her book takes a closer look at the disaster than the others, by offering a detailed, first-person account of the experience and addressing issues like lost siblings, severe injuries and grief. But it also shows how communities can grow, survive and become even stronger. Despite the franker storytelling, Hope and Survival remains true to its title and nicely sums up the message of all three books.

Written By

Sarah Sawler is a Halifax journalist, book reviewer and author of 100 Things You Don’t Know About Nova Scotia.

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