Chris Barton Explains How To Discuss Tough Topics with Children

Best-selling author and Sibert Honor-winner Chris Barton talks about his new book, All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, and how parents, educators, librarians, and authors can discuss difficult topics with young children. 

All of a Sudden and Forever coverThe first time I ever visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, I came away in awe of the complex web of tragedy, grief, suffering, heroism, recovery, remembrance, and community spun by the stories it told.

So, of course, I thought, “Picture book!”

Part of that response, I’m sure, stems from the fact that picture books are what I primarily write. As the adage goes, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," and picture books do have a prominent place in my toolbox. 

But as I expect will be the case for many who encounter my new picture book All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the themes explored by the memorial and museum have resonance in lives not directly affected by the tragedy that occurred 25 years ago this April.

These lives include those of young readers.

In the story illustrator Nicole Xu and I have chosen to tell, the details of the terrorist act are not our concern. The text in our book begins:

Sometimes bad things happen, and you have to tell everyone.

Sometimes terrible things happen, and everybody knows.

One April morning in 1995, one of those terrible things happened in Oklahoma City. There was a man with a bomb in a big truck.

He parked the truck in front of a big building in the middle of the city. He walked away.

The bomb exploded.

One hundred sixty-eight people died.

The name of that man, let alone his motivation, appears nowhere in the book. This is not his story.

Our focus instead is on how people, individually and as members of a community, respond to great trauma, stress, and pain. On how we recover from and memorialize an awful occurrence. On the ways we remember our worst times—on how we tell and share the stories that emerge—so that we might make the most of them.

While the process we show and describe in this book is specific to Oklahoma City, the emotions involved are universal.

This isn’t the first time I’ve sought to explore those emotions in a nonfiction book. Years ago, for a project that never made it past the proposal stage, I wanted to interview Americans who had been children when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

I’d hoped to weave together their personal recollections not only of that dreadful, momentous week, but also of how a new sense of normalcy settled in afterward—a pattern perhaps familiar to those whose childhoods were interrupted by Pearl Harbor, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, or 9/11. I thought that the perspective gained would be engaging, eye-opening, and instructive for young readers as new terrible events arise.

I also believe such a book would have been helpful to me when I was in third grade and tragedy—on a much more intimate scale—entered my own life with the death of my father.

A carefully written yet honest account of a real tragedy that touched an array of people in different ways over a long period of time, a telling that respected both my intelligence and my youthful sensibilities, and one that gave me a reason for hope—that’s a book I would have reached out for. 

And that’s the sort of book Nicole and I, along with editor Carol Hinz and art director Danielle Carnito, have tried to create.

The initial inspiration was spur-of-the-moment—it came with an unplanned tour of the memorial and museum after a school visit in spring 2016—but the writing was gradual, taking shape over the next three years.

After nearly a year of my not doing much more than thinking about this project and discussing it with Carol, the first version of those opening lines sprang to mind in March 2017.

I began doing database research a couple of days later, organizing my findings by the names of individuals whose stories struck a chord with me. The spreadsheet where I compiled that information ended up with 761 rows. It included at least one row for each person who had died in the bombing and is individually represented in the memorial’s Field of Empty Chairs.

For instance, there was a row for victim Carrie Ann Lenz. After the Remembrance Ceremony on the 10th anniversary, an article by John Kifner in The New York Times mentioned Lenz, who had been “showing sonogram pictures of her expected baby, five months along, to her colleagues in the Drug Enforcement Administration when the blast struck...The name Michael James Lenz III is also etched on the frosted glass of her chair.”

That detail eventually made its way into the text: “Some lost a cousin, a niece, a nephew, an uncle, an aunt, a grandfather, a grandmother, a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a baby named but not yet born.” It also inspired my choice to dedicate the book to a child from my first marriage—my son Declan, who was stillborn in 2002.

During a return trip for extended research at the memorial and museum in June 2017, I learned of the substantial efforts to preserve an American elm known as the Survivor Tree so that its genetic offspring (including clones) will remain with us. That’s when my focus on the tree began to take shape.

But the book focuses even more on the people affected by the bombing and on their stories, which will endure just as surely as descendants of that elm. That summer I began conducting interviews by phone with survivors, first responders, and members of victims’ families.

One morning I realized it was time to start writing, and my first draft—in a voice more measured and less conversational than my default—began to take shape.

While factual, the nonfiction story I found myself crafting was not so much about facts as about feelings. And it was about much more than the Oklahoma City bombing. It was about how people move forward after something devastating, and how people help and connect with each other through new relationships along the way.

For two weeks, I wrote a little bit each morning, working in short bursts so that the intensity of what I was feeling didn’t have a chance to fade. I sent a draft of the manuscript to my editor on September 11, 2017.

Events around that time—Charlottesville; Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the Las Vegas massacre—gave me occasion after occasion to wonder whether what I had written might be of comfort to a child impacted by the latest public tragedy, or by a private tragedy felt acutely in their own small corner of the world.

Meanwhile, my words continued to gradually take shape. One fall afternoon, the phrase “all of a sudden and forever” occurred to me out of nowhere while I was jogging, and it quickly became our book’s title. By January 2018, Carol and I were talking about the “final polishing” of the manuscript. But we weren’t done.

Fifteen months later, she and I—along with Danielle and my wife, Jennifer Ziegler—attended the Remembrance Ceremony on the 24th anniversary of the bombing. We had originally expected the book to be printed by that point, but it was important to all of us that we get this story right, and to gain any insights that might better enable us to do so.

I witnessed, among the reunions taking place, a current of joy I had not anticipated. I welcomed the opportunity to meet some of the people I had interviewed only by phone. And I silently rooted for one of them as she overcame her nervousness and resolutely read aloud her daughter’s name and the names of others who had died at that place but whose memories live on.

Read: SLJ's Review of All of a Sudden and Forever

Soon after, I revised the text for the last time. And with the completion of Nicole’s haunting yet accessible artwork, I believed we had created something timeless—though perhaps more timely, and more relevant, than any of us would like.

While we don’t go into detail about the bombing itself, we extensively address the range of ties severed by the crime, the beloved spaces at least temporarily rendered off limits, the different forms of anguish experienced. Among the people I acknowledge in the text are individuals falsely accused of involvement in the bombing and the parents of those who participated in the plot.

For some readers, these examples will build empathy by providing insight into what those who are suffering may have gone through.

For other readers, our book’s matter-of-factness about intense and sometimes confusing emotions will make them feel seen.

For all readers, we show what helpfulness can look like in a dire situation, both for givers of help and for its recipients, whose own opportunities to lend assistance might loom not so far in the future.

As we present in the book, and as many librarians and other educators experienced in assisting young people during difficult times already know, that help often takes the forms of sharing and listening to stories, rather than problem-solving. Our ability to fix things is limited, but our capacity for stories is endless.

And in those stories often reside the common, familiar, healing elements that bind us together in communities. Communities we could not have imagined, and connections to people we would never have expected to encounter. The kinship between those affected by the Oklahoma City bombing and the people they reached out to in the days after 9/11 is an especially striking example and one I’d never heard of before I began my research.

Grief and tragedy know no boundaries and are not reserved for adults. These are difficult, painful, and very real parts of life, even if adults might shy away from addressing them with children.

Getting the words right, saying exactly what needs to be said and in exactly the way it should be expressed, is a tall order. An unreasonable one. In All of a Sudden and Forever, my narrator’s words falter in one spot and elsewhere are interrupted by a question that will surely be on some readers’ minds: “Why?” But each time, those words find their way forward.

Yours can, too.


Photo Credit: Heather Gallagher Photography

Chris Barton is the author of picture books including bestseller Shark vs. Train, Sibert Honor-winning The Day-Glo Brothers, and Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, which was included on 19 state reading lists.

His newest books are Fire Truck vs. Dragon, illustrated by Shanda McCloskey, and All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, illustrated by Nicole Xu. Other recent titles include the "Mighty Truck" early reader series, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (an Orbis Pictus Honor book), and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (included on the 2020-21 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List).

Chris visits schools by the score and also loves speaking to professional gatherings of librarians, educators, and fellow writers.

He’s married to YA/middle-grade novelist Jennifer Ziegler (How Not to Be Popular, the "Brewster Triplets" series). Chris and Jennifer have one daughter, three sons, and one dog. They live in Austin, Texas, where he has advocated for greater diversity in children's literature by co-founding the Modern First Library program with independent bookseller BookPeople.

Chris invites you to visit him at www.chrisbarton.info.

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Rita Painter

Wow, thank you so much, Chris Barton, for this thought-provoking article. My favorite line that you wrote, “Grief and tragedy know no boundaries and are not reserved for adults” is so true. Children need help in talking about their feelings, and picture books are often the best way to help them express those feelings.

Posted : Mar 27, 2020 02:28


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