Kids play at war but who thinks about a war and how it gets started? Our country is fighting two wars and today's young readers need help sorting through the causes and effects. How do kids cope with the war itself? What happens when a wounded parent comes home as a stranger or a much different person? What kinds of fears, spoken and unspoken, haunt their dreams? In the weeks ahead, I'll suggest titles that could give you and your kids a springboard for discussion. Read these books first and you'll be ready to listen.
RIOT by Walter Dean Myers. Written like a screenplay, this book lends itself to reader’s theater. It tells a little known story set in New York City during the blistering summer of 1863. On July 11, far from the Civil War battlefields, the first federal draft drawing is held in lower Manhattan. Like a match to a fuse, the drawing sets off a race and class war so violent, soldiers are called home from Gettysburg to put down the rioting and looting. They do. Brutally.
The cast of characters is large: Angry Irish immigrants railed at the draft and the New York "swells" who were allowed to pay substitutes to fight in place of their own sons. Struggling white workers shared their rage, but they saw the Irish as job takers and threats to their own survival. Free blacks, already walking a narrow line, became a target for anger. Claire, the fifteen year old daughter of an Irish woman and a black man wonders aloud why anyone must be a black person or a white person. "Why can’t you just be a person?" Her growing understanding of the difficulties of a diverse world nudge the reader to ask a few questions, too.
This book would work well in a classroom or as a discussion in a family made up of several middle grade or young high school readers. What do you think?