Children's book authors Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy, and Walter Dean Myers, the country's current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, participated in a discussion on writing about war for young readers Thursday evening. The discussion, which was moderated by Scholastic editorial director David Levithan, drew about 300 booksellers and librarians to Scholastic's headquarters in Soho.
Both Collins and Myers emphasized that they write about war to educate young people about its realities. "I feel driven to make war real to kids," said Myers, the author of Fallen Angels and Sunrise over Fallujah. Invasion, an October release, is set in WWII Europe. Not only did Myers spend time in the military as a young man, but his son also served in Iraq. "I kept seeing romanticized versions of war," he explained. "I want young people to know what war is really about."
Collins, whose picture book, Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front, is based upon her sixth year (1968), when her father went to Vietnam, talked about its impact upon her young self. For instance, her initial perceptions of the jungle being filled with friendly animals changed into fear for her father as time passed. James Proimos, who illustrated Year of the Jungle, used for inspiration objects Collins saved from that year, including postcards and letters, such as a card from her father that ended with the chilling words, "Pray for me." Collins also interviewed her siblings in writing the book, including her older sister, who was 12 at the time. It was a book that she has long wanted to write, but did not know how to conceptualize until she discussed with Proimos collaborating on the project.
"A lot of things I kept from that year, because [it] was so intense. I felt I had to hold on to [them]," Collins said, disclosing she also kept jewelry her father gave her that year and other objects.
Collins said that, while there are many excellent books about war in print, such stories must be "refreshed" for each generation of readers.
"A realistic sense of what war is about is essential on so many levels," she said. "If kids don't understand conflict, how can we expect them to know how to resolve conflicts?" She credits her father with "integrating" an understanding of war into her and her siblings' lives after he returned from Viet Nam. He gave his children a "unique education" of the realities of war, which included visits to battlefields and discussions about war, such as the idea of necessary wars versus unnecessary wars. The Hunger Games, she pointed out, dealt with a necessary war; by Mockingjay, it had come "full circle."
Such literature serves another purpose, she said: the necessity to question authority. "If you have no idea what propaganda is, how do you know to question what the government is telling you?"
"Young people, it will become their time to make decisions about war," Myers pointed out.
"People should read Myers's books before enlisting," Collins said. "It should be mandatory reading."