Teachers, parents, writers explore yin-yang of Titanic for kids ahead of wreck’s centennial
John Payne, 11, is a big enough student of the Titanic to have built a Lego verson of the historic ship. — Photo by The Associated Press
Eleven-year-old John Payne has been a student of the Titanic since kindergarten.
He has scrupulously researched the ship, built a model out of Lego freehand and successfully lobbied his fifth-grade teacher in suburban Chicago to let him mark the disaster’s centennial with a multimedia presentation for his class.
What’s not to like? There’s mystery, high technology and heroes. Sunken treasure, conspiracy theories and jarring tales of rich vs. poor.
But there’s also death, lots of it, and that has some parents, teachers and writers of children’s books balancing potentially scary details with more palatable, inspirational fare focused on survivors, animals on board or the mechanics of shipbuilding.
John “doesn’t ask questions about the dead and other darker aspects” of what went on that moonless night in the North Atlantic, said his mother, Virginia Tobin Payne.
“He’s a sensitive kid. We try to temper all of it so it doesn’t become an obsession,” she said. “After the anniversary passes, I hope we can sort of close the book on him looking for more information about it.”
Barry Denenberg struggled with how to depict the horror in his new book “Titanic Sinks!” The sepia-tone hardcover, written as a mock magazine, was released ahead of the April 14 anniversary and has already made it into schools. The book, from Viking, is intended for kids 9 and older and doesn’t hold back much as it blends fact and fiction for a meticulous, realistic feel that draws on the official record.
“There’s only one little line in the book about how most of the people froze to death. They did not drown,” Denenberg said. “Hypothermia is a much longer death. I had to make a decision about what’s accurate and what’s ghoulish.”
Debbie Shoulders teaches eighth-grade English in Clarksville, Tenn., but her new “T is for Titanic” alphabet book from Sleeping Bear Press is intended for far younger children.
“The word ‘died’ doesn’t appear often in the book,” she said. “We softened it with ‘perished’ or ‘did not live.’ The goal was to remember what the people on board contributed, not so much what happened to them.”
Tracey Friedlander in Bethesda, Md., has a Titanic-obsessed 9-year-old, but she doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff. She thinks the story offers teachers and parents perfect real-life lessons on perseverance, loyalty, the dangers of arrogance and the shortcomings of technology as kids learn to sort out the complexities of their own lives.
“Kids like Kade have grown up in the shadows of 9-11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a red, yellow, green terrorist alert colour code system,” Friedlander said. “Like most of us, he’s trying to make sense of the world around him and the accompanying human tragedies. The Titanic happens to present an incredible learning opportunity for curious minds.”
Considered a marvel of shipbuilding, for instance, the luxury liner went down anyway after striking the iceberg on her maiden voyage, offering kids a solid and exciting look at the marriage between technology and human decisionmaking, she said.
What of human error? Was the ship travelling too fast? Why, though in line with regulations of the time — 1912 — did the Titanic set off with only 20 lifeboats for more than 2,200 people? Were poor immigrants in steerage prevented at gunpoint and by locked gates from boarding lifeboats, in favour of the wealthy?
The Titanic, Friedlander said, touches on “precarious circumstances and how someone’s socio-economic class can potentially affect the way their life is valued by others and why that’s inappropriate and immoral.”
John Payne’s mom was nervous about him seeing James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, “Titanic,” when a 3-D version hits theatres in April. He’s seen the edited-for-TV version over and over again.
“The people who died, who sacrificed, I think they were really brave to die like that,” he said. “I really liked the movie but the parts I found scary were the parts where Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) were trapped in the sinking parts.”
Karen Heafer, a second-grade teacher in Lincoln, Neb., has been in the classroom for 31 years. She read a fictionalized account of a mascot cat on the Titanic to her students a couple of years ago and considers the story valuable, even half told.
“I use generalities. We don’t go into a specific number of people killed,” Heafer said. “A lot of them are curious about how the people survived, how long did they have to stay on the water, who found them? They’re more drawn to the survivors than the ones who drowned.”
Not so for Will Bousquette III, a 9-year-old at The Browning School in Manhattan. Assistant librarian Susan Levine invited Denenberg to the private Upper East Side prep school for boys after choosing his book for her third-grade reading group for fathers and sons.
Will was especially touched by the story of Isidor and Ida Straus. The co-owner of Macy’s department store and his wife of 40 years went down with the ship together after she refused a spot in a lifeboat.
“It was heart-touching,” Will said. “It made me sad, then it felt sweet. I was greatly surprised. I also didn’t realize how cold the water was. I could feel the emotions but I wasn’t freaked out.”
Lucy Sullivan spares no detail during a Titanic unit for her seventh-grade language arts students in Brookfield, Conn. For seven years, she has assigned each real-life Titanic characters as she slowly lets the tragedy play out in class over a week or so.
She arranges their desks by type of ticket she issues them at the beginning, with first-class passengers assigned prime spots. They journal about the story throughout, learn of the mysterious missing locker key that left a lookout without binoculars and watch as she rolls a cardboard model of the ship around the classroom on a cart to demonstrate the crash itself.
At the end, her students discover whether their characters lived or died.
“When you’re replaying something for 12-year-olds, the amount of information that allows you to put this puzzle together minute by minute is very powerful,” Sullivan said. “Those students who never really liked fiction find this to be delicious and those who hate fiction and love nonfiction find this to be delicious.”
Why? “It’s a combination of gaudy details and tragic events. It doesn’t get any better than that. You own the kids if you use even a small percentage of what’s available on this to teach,” she said.
The effort wasn’t lost on her groups this year. Sam Petriccione, 12, calls the Titanic “a day that will always live in infamy.”
He added: “It shows me that being cocky and arrogant doesn’t really pay off. The people in the cockpit were so positive that the ship couldn’t sink that they refused to shut down the ship and stop because of the icebergs.”
Jasmine Davis in Pittsburgh wasn’t one of Sullivan’s students, but she was definitely a Titanic-obsessed kid. She’s 23 now but at 9 couldn’t get enough of the subject, including Robert Ballard’s 1985 discovery of the wreck strewn half a mile across the ocean floor. The oceanographer and marine biologist’s video and photos ignited interest in the wreck among a new generation of kids.
In fourth grade, Davis wasn’t allowed to bring school library books to recess, “but I convinced my teacher to let me take this massive novel about the Titanic outside. It was such a big book. How else was I going to finish it?”
For 20 years, Ballard’s JASON Project has offered middle school teachers materials and expertise for deeper exploration of the sciences in a variety of disciplines, including his own. More than 10 million students have participated, Davis among them.
“It’s hard for a kid to grasp the scope of the Titanic,” she said. “I remember seeing the images of the wreck taken by Ballard when I did the JASON Project. That was really haunting.”
Children’s writer Mary Pope Osborne began her popular fiction series, “Magic Tree House,” along with nonfiction companions, around the time the JASON Project began.
“I spent the first 10 years asking kids all over the country what they wanted me to write about. They wanted me to write about the Titanic but I kept saying, ‘No, it’s too sad. It’s too depressing.’”
She finally took it on in 1999 with “Tonight on the Titanic,” her 17th book for 6- to 10-year-olds featuring her kid characters Jack and his sister, Annie.
“It has a mythic power. It’s not right next to their lives,” Osborne said. “I’ve had very few children ask me to write about 9-11, for instance. I think 100 years from now they would.”