“The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise: it hurts to know the children know.”
-- Maurice Sendak, preface to I Dream of Peace (UNICEF, HarperCollins l994)
This blog is about two books: one a picture book (fictional) and one a photojournalism essay (nonfiction).
Philip Caputo’s book 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War (2005, Atheneum) is, to me, a standard in nonfiction writing for children, and a gold standard in writing for children about war. Caputo served as a marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War. Later, in 1973, he shared a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. His 1977 memoir of his service, A Rumor of War, is considered a classic in adult literature.
And Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are is – I’ll just tell you what I really think – the top of the top, best ever. There’s even a movie out now. (Have you heard?) The book – like all Sendak’s books – are infused with shadows from the Nazis and their war.
In just 124 pages, Caputo answers the questions underlying ever key word or phrase you might think of in association with Vietnam. Through short chapters and strong, dramatic, thoughfully-chosen photographs Caputo covers events such as the Tonkin Gulf Incidents and the Tet Offensive, describes the role of settings such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and The Tunnel War, delves into personal issues through such chapters as “The Nurses’ War” and “Prisoners of War,” demystifies talking points such as Agent Orange and the Pentagon Papers, and brings readers up to date by explaining the continuing focus on those Missing in Action (MIA). He pays a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and goes back to Vietnam to talk about what it’s like there today.
I was four in 1964, the year Where the Wild Things Are was published. In that year the U.S. was sending troops to Vietnam. My dad (deaf in one ear) didn’t go. He had served in the army, was on duty in Germany Berlin Wall was raised, and when JFK was assasinated. By the time I was 13, I was babysitting for kids whose father had come home with shrapnel in his legs. I read them Where the Wild Things Are, which, for a work of fiction, sure felt true.
I also inhaled 10,000 Days of Thunder, and wish it had been around when I was younger. Reading it, I realized that, for me, living through this war – hearing the daily casualty count, reading the headlines, watching the news – placed a focus on details that blurred the major stories. Caputo’s book brought me back visually to the on-the-ground dramas between soldiers and villagers, auditorially to the choppers and the radio songs (There’s a chapter called “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”—Music of the Vietnam War), and viscerally to the stories – so many stories, enough to make you proud of our servicemen, to make you grateful for their sacrifices, and to break your heart a thousand times.
Through his structure, Caputo is able to control his material, to mete it out in details no more bearable for being brief, without melodrama or politics. His presentation shows an enormous respect for today’s kids, who are themselves living through two wars. Knowing the way a publishing schedule works, I think it’s highly likely that some of the kids who were middle schoolers – this book’s audience – while Caputo was writing it – may well be heading out to Iraq or Afghanistan. Daily media reports on the realities of war can hardly escape the notice of the most sheltered children. But, like the reports I heard as a child during the Vietnam war, this coverage is built on an adult framework of experience and understanding.
I hope kids have someone they can rely on to translate, even if they can only pose their questions in the indirect way that I did, when I woke from a dream that green-uniformed soldiers had surrounded our house. And I hope that they walk into libraries and see 10,000 Days of Thunder on display. I bet it will get picked up, taken out, and read from cover to cover. I bet parents will notice it and take a look. And I believe that this important nonfiction book will help everybody understand – with respect, and without obfuscation – what war is really like.