NO!

 

In light of the recent war toys debate, here, which has not faded in our house in spite of my son’s new addiction to LEGO (which does include lots of swords and whips and guns, accessories which I painstakingly pulled out of all his earlier sets but now wouldn’t think of editing out…), I wanted to share an anti-war book for kids.

NO! by David MchPhail is exactly the kind of book that can help define the difference the between real and imagined violence and further complicate the discussion about the consequences of aggression.

Dedicated “to teachers everywhere,” the near-textless book relates the story of a young boy living amidst war and occupation.  There are overtones of the Third Reich and, for me, of occupied cities of Belfast, where young children really did see, everyday, heavily armed solidiers and tanks on the streets of their neighborhoods. Many of the images are disturbing (soldiers kicking down a door, dogs chasing and biting a foot, billy clubs). On his way to mail a letter to “The President” the boy is bullied, and responds with an emphatic, “NO!”

In the wake of this powerful the bully relents, the dog is pacified, the soldiers lay down their guns, presents are exchanged on the street, a war plane parachutes a bicycle, the smoke from the bombed cities is transformed into clouds.

On the one hand, the book might be naive & sentimental dreaming. On the other hand, the poetry of the illustrations and the elemental narrative make this a profoundly moving book.  It demonstrates the visceral horror of war, which is something we actually do discuss with our oldest. I have not shied away from conversations about September 11, Osama Bin Laden, slavery and the Civil War, and, most recently, Adolf Hitler and the reasons for the Second World War.  I try not to frighten, but I do not shelter her.  This book presents war and violence as the reality for some young lives, and it shows clearly that violence and aggression against others might be a matter of degree more than of kind.

But most important, it shows the power of No, which is the refusal to participate in what is wrong, harmful, and unjust. This refusal might be as simple as standing up to a bully on the playground or as complicated as becoming a conscientious objector–or anywhere in between. It’s a book which gives children a voice and begins to show them how they might use it to make a real difference in their very own lives. And this, I would submit is the difference between teaching your children what is right and wrong and allowing them to play imaginatively with light saber on a ship bound for the high seas….

 

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2 Responses

  1. I discovered this book recently in Ben’s school library, where Eli and I tend to spend the half hour between the start of his big brother’s school day and his own. The first time we read it, I worried that it was too much for him (it is very nearly too much for me), but we have read it many times, and he is always wide-eyed and thoughtful, studying the pictures very carefully and continuing to talk about its images and its single important word long after we have reshelved the book and moved on with our day.

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