Book of the week: Growing up in the shadow of terror

The Day Our World Changed: children's art of 911
Selected by New York University Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York, with an introduction by Rudolph Giuliani
Abrams pound;13.95

I remember the first time I saw art drawn by children living in African and Middle Eastern war zones.

At the time, I was a young American teenager, preoccupied with learning to draw and paint skilfully, and I had too recently been a little kid for kid art to seem anything but laughable and pathetic.

But when I saw the crayon drawings of the horrors these war children had seen, I couldn't help but be affected by the pathos and power of children's art.

The Day Our World Changed is a fine-art-style volume depicting the work of New York City schoolchildren from five to 18 years old. The pictures broadcast yet another emotional camera angle of the dreadfully familiar events of that day.

A characteristically no-nonsense introduction by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and essays by politicians, museum curators, religious leaders, firefighters and community workers are sincere, but they struggle to add something that hasn't been said about 911 already, apart from their personal experiences.

Having heard little from the kids up to now, I was eager to see what they had to say. It's the art by the very young children that makes the biggest impact. These artists are not trying to impress or mimic some style of dramatic presentation.

Like all folk artists, the very young have that natural ability to depict their experiences without resorting to second-hand imagery. They just show it as they saw it. Or imagined it.

One six-year-old describes his picture: "This is me in bed dreaming my mother is in smoke and fire."

One thing that surprised me was the affection many kids had for the towers. I was 10 when these two boxes went up, unseating the Empire State Building as the tallest building in the world.

The children whose art appears in this book grew up with the mythology well established. Their art gave me a new outlook on the towers; one girl described the way they gave her "a sense of security by the way they stood, standing taller than all the other buildings", almost like parental figures for the city.

Many New York teenagers grow up in a commercially saturated culture, so it's no surprise that some of the contributors expressed the horror of 911 in terms influenced by television, advertising, and inspirational posters.

I point this out not to wag a finger at American commercialism, but to wonder at the way a commercial culture's shallow emotional shorthand, however sentimental, is put to use by children in an earnest and heartfelt fashion.

One criticism I have with the selection of the artwork is that I suspect most of the art was done during class, mediated by teachers and art therapists.

A great deal more would have been revealed if this survey of 911 children's art included graffiti (especially from the school desktops) and the images kids produced themselves at home - the stuff they just couldn't help doing.

Perhaps some selections did come from children without encouragement from an adult; I'd like to know which ones. Otherwise, I'd be willing to bet this book doesn't depict the truest voice of the teenagers and kids old enough to know how to score points with the grown-ups.

Ted Dewan is a picture book artist and former teacher from the US, now living in the UK. To read this article in full, see this week's edition of Friday magazine, free with the TES.nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;

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