Non-Fiction Books: Telling Children the Truth
Protecting Children from “Alternative Facts,” Propaganda and Ignorance
Upon being invited to write a piece about “encouraging readers to think rather than protecting them from difficult truths,” I had to stop and think about whether or not that is in fact my central purpose when writing nonfiction books for children. I certainly believe that children should think for themselves – it’s something I often tell them when I do a school visit: Think for yourselves. Don’t let your classmates do your thinking for you. Don’t let your parents do your thinking for you. Don’t let your teachers do your thinking for you. And definitely don’t let ME do your thinking for you. Think for yourselves. I would hope that my books also encourage children to think for themselves. That being said, I’m not so sure that’s my fundamental reason for writing the books that I write. Nor would I say that exposing children to “difficult truths” is my aim. I’m not sure I believe that one truth is more “difficult” than any other truth, objectively speaking. Some truths may get defined as “difficult” for political reasons, because people’s knowledge of these truths might threaten certain hallowed myths or threaten the gatekeepers who protect these hallowed myths – the myths that keep people in line, keep the powerful in power, keep the citizenry ignorant and powerless. But I say: The truth is the truth. As a nonfiction author, my job is to tell the truth. And my mission as an author is to introduce young children to chapters of history which have been systematically omitted from their education.
For instance, the making of the atom bomb – the topic of my book, The Secret Project.
It’s a picture book about how scientists and the American government created the first nuclear bomb. Their collective motivation as a character, as they were creating their “gadget” (as they euphemistically referred to it), was to conceal. My motivation as a character, in this book and various books I’ve written for children, is to reveal. My goal is to reveal that which the powers that be would conceal. The story I tell in this particular book is essentially very simple, one that I believe young children can understand – and one that I believe would be useful for them in their education about American and world history.
I did realize, in writing this book, that there would be images in it which would go to a place where few picture books dare to go. But, those images – of the explosion – are how the story ends. This is nonfiction. This happened. There are purposefully no words that accompany these images, no explanation. At the point where you’re blowing up an atom bomb, the time for words is over. My hope is that the words will start again once the book is closed – that the knowledge of the bomb will continue to explode inside the minds of my young readers, that the knowledge of this important history might affect the way they look at the world, look at America, look at the American government, look at secret government projects, look at science, look at war, look at the cataclysmic death and suffering that such a horrific weapon could (and did) inflict. Of course, I do realize there is a distinct possibility that some young readers might just think “Cool!” or “Wow!” It’s hard to predict what the response to an atom bomb explosion will be. Robert Oppenheimer, before he chose to shroud all moral responsibility in the mystical poeticism of his famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita, apparently said, right after the first atomic bomb explosion in history, “It worked!”
How a reader responds to my books is beyond my control. The point, for me, is to put this history out there – into the hands of children. I, of course, hope that The Secret Project will inspire something other than patriotism or a belief in “American exceptionalism,” but instead a greater love and appreciation of this good old earth and the sanctity of life – and an appreciation and understanding of the truth, no matter how troubling or inconvenient some truth might be. When we “protect” children from the truth, we do both them and the future of the world disservice. We stunt their moral and intellectual growth. We hobble them at the starting gate. We create another generation of adults without the mental tools for creating a more just and peaceful world. Children can handle so much more than many adults believe they can. And when we try to “protect” them from certain truths, whom are we really protecting? Ourselves – and the myths on which we ourselves were weened. What we need to be protecting children from are “alternative facts,” propaganda, ignorance. I’m reminded of that most chilling scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present who the gnarled creatures are beneath his robe. The Spirit answers: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both…, but most of all beware this boy….”
When one child is ignorant, misinformed and/or brainwashed, it’s a personal tragedy – when an entire nation of children are, it becomes a danger to the entire world.
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Publisher’s Synopsis: Mother-son team Jonah and Jeanette Winter bring to life one of the most secretive scientific projects in history—the creation of the atomic bomb—in this powerful and moving picture book.
At a former boy’s school in the remote desert of New Mexico, the world’s greatest scientists have gathered to work on the “Gadget,” an invention so dangerous and classified they cannot even call it by its real name. They work hard, surrounded by top security and sworn to secrecy, until finally they take their creation far out into the desert to test it, and afterward the world will never be the same.
Ages 5-8 | Publisher: Beach Lane Books | 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-1481469135
About Jonah Winter
Jonah Winter is the author of more than thirty celebrated nonfiction picture books including Diego, illustrated by Jeanette Winter; Jazz Age Josephine, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman; Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez; The Founding Fathers! illustrated by Barry Blitt; and Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, illustrated by Shane W. Evans.
Telling Children the Truth was written by Jonah Winter, author of The Secret Project. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Non-Fiction, American History, History, Jeanette Winter, and Jonah Winter.