David Homel and Marie-Louise Gay: How to talk to kids about war
One of our memorable family trips that was just waiting to be turned into a book took us to the coast of Croatia, a landscape of countless islands linked by improvised ferries. The country is peaceful and beautiful today, but the scars of recent ethnic conflict are just beneath the surface.
This new book held a special challenge for us as writers and parents who travel with their kids. Our Traveling Circus takes place in a country recently torn apart by the civil war that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. How do you fit that into a novel for young readers? How do we as parents and writers explain events to our kids? How would Charlie and Max, the two brothers on a trip with their parents, figure out what happened in this place, and how would it affect them?
They would do what any of us would. They compare their new surroundings to what they know from back home. On my street, Charlie says, people speak different languages and have different religions and look different, but they don’t fight. So what happened here? He will get his answers before the book comes to an end, and return home richer for it.
The other thing Charlie does is get a guide. Several guides, actually: his parents’ old friends Fred and Gordana and their grandson Libero, and their friends, the completely bald Bobo and his wife Silvia, who looks like a movie star. These people, part of the traveling circus, are a mixture of origins and backgrounds. They experienced the war, and have stories to share with Charlie and his brother.
But Charlie really begins to find things out when he heads off on his own adventures – with Max trailing behind, as always. On one of the islands they visit, a place where cars have yet to set foot, Charlie and Max come upon a frightening hermit with a few secrets that have to do with the war.
In The Traveling Circus, we mixed drama and humor in the right measure. When the kids discover a village that is half destroyed, half intact, and entirely deserted, they really see what a civil war means. But there is plenty of laughter as they confront fish thieves and ferry pilots who seem to be sailing with their eyes closed. Not to mention the time they almost get thrown into prison for sneaking across a border without their passports (Charlie was only taking Max behind the closest bush for a pee).
The Traveling Circus will take readers of our three previous books in this series to a place that few people see from the inside. We hope our Circus will inspire them to imagine other lives in other places, and widen their view of the world today.