Memorial Day is just around the corner, and with it comes an opportunity to discuss the reason for this holiday with youngsters. An insightful story can aid these challenging conversations, and The Wall – written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ronald Himler – is one of the best for this purpose.

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A little boy visits the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his father. They walk the length of that shiny black wall, looking for a very special name. As they go along, searching together, the boy observes other visitors and the memorials they’ve left behind: a wounded veteran, a grieving couple, flags and flowers, notes and pictures. He runs his hand along that wall, noticing how it looks and how it feels.

At last they find it. They run their fingers over the name of their father and grandfather. They take a rubbing, leave a photograph, and talk together in voices thick with emotion. The boy expresses his sadness to his father, who responds with loving sympathy towards his son but also pride in the legacy of his father. The two visitors are proud of this soldier, proud of his service; though they know that such pride can never take the place of the life he might have lived with them.

This book has been around for almost thirty years, but it is just as beautiful today as when it was featured on the old Reading Rainbow program. The boy makes all the observations of a curious child trying to make sense of big issues and jumbled feelings. With the empathetic support of his father – who is mourning his own father – he faces his sense of loss. These understanding exchanges are particularly poignant as the boy admits that he is proud of his grandfather, but would rather he could be with them.

Not only is this a gentle treatment of a difficult subject, it also provides children with a point of reference for respecting the agony and the sacrifice of others. They can see that there is no time limit on the pain of missing someone, but that it is good to talk about it and that there are appropriate ways to honor someone’s memory. And that we all owe a debt of gratitude to service members who perish in the line of duty; that we need not glorify the horrors of war to honor the sacrifice they made.

I find one image particularly helpful for children: as the boy and his father bow their heads before their loved one’s place on the Wall, a gaggle of schoolchildren pass by. Their loud and thoughtless questions contrast sharply with the quiet, more private behavior of the other visitors. The boy follows his father’s example and continues to stand with his head bowed until they are gone. A young reader will easily recognize that many things are turning over in the boy’s heart and mind, and that he needs time alone to be as close to his grandfather as he ever will be. This is very useful for helping children understand the importance of quiet and respectful conduct at any place of remembrance.

The wonderfully accomplished Eve Bunting has given teachers and caregivers an optimum means of presenting young children with reverent awareness of our fallen soldiers and empathy for their families. She does not attempt to convey the political motivations of any war, nor does she stoop to empty patriotism or saccharine emotions. But in the simplest way she does explore the complexities of love and loss, pride and sacrifice. She reminds us that society has given us respectful traditions for honoring the slain, if we will but claim them.

Himler’s soft, smudgy illustrations are a perfect match for the slim, meaningful text. He depicts a cold, overcast day as a backdrop for the enormity of the Wall and the perfect rows of names. The features of the people are slightly obscured within the paint, allowing them some privacy in their grief. This creative team opens up a new space in the heart of the little boy in the story, and will do so for your own children too.

Please don’t be afraid to talk with your children about Memorial Day. Let them take some flowers to the monument downtown, or wave a flag at the parade. After reading this story I hope they will want to.

It is up to us to teach them what has been, so they can grow to determine what will be.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Tucky Jo and Little Heart, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

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