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On Maira Kalman’s 2003 acceptance speech for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction

Fireboat“The people on the John J. Harvey who fought the fires of 9/11 are the kind of people you want to know.”

When my older son was three or four, he visited the Horn Book offices and discovered my copy of Maira Kalman’s Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, the 2003 winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. At the time, my son was obsessed with cars, trucks (especially firetrucks), boats, and planes, and that book’s bright cover bursting with pinks and orange and arcs of water was irresistible. He didn’t need to be able to read the title to know that this was a book he needed. He was laser-focused and wanted to read the book NOW.

Kalman’s book tells the story of a retired NYC fireboat and its crew that were called into emergency service following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Kalman’s almost surreal palette helps filter the horrors of that day and those following; a somber, clear-eyed text focuses on the Harvey‘s contributions, providing a safe lens to bear witness the the disaster.

A safe lens for an older kid, who might have some context to understand the story (or for a grownup struggling to process the catastrophic tragedy). But a three- or four-year-old? There was a reason I kept the book at the office: I loved the book and needed to keep it near me, but I wasn’t prepared to expose my kid to such inconceivable evil.

He looked at the pictures and was enthralled. I don’t remember whether or not I read the book in the office, but we brought the book home and read it hundreds of times. Night after night for a year or so (maybe two). He loved every part of the book, including the wavy lines of text on the bluish-green copyright and acknowledgment pages (I had to read those pages every time). I will probably lose my children’s-literature-community membership, but I took advantage of the fact that he couldn’t read yet and changed parts of the text. I couldn’t bring myself to read such lines as, “The news spread. The city had been attacked. Everyone was terrified.” I skipped over “Many people were hurt. Many lives were lost.” My boy was giddy about the double-page spread of one of the towers exploding, and I stopped myself from lecturing him on what was actually happening. I was conflicted about the whole thing, but we decided it was better to send the message that no book is off limits. (I drew the line when he wanted to bring the book to preschool—I pick my battles.)

My son is nine now, and I’m beginning to understand why reading Fireboat with him (and, yes, his younger brother) five or six years ago might not have been the worst parenting decision. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, my kids will learn what happened on that beautiful September morning sixteen years ago. They will come to understand the scope of the tragedy and the significance of the remembrances. And thanks to Maira Kalman’s picture book, they will also understand this (from her 2003 Boston Globe–Horn Book acceptance speech): “The people on the John J. Harvey who fought the fires of 9/11 are the kind of people you want to know.”

That is what I want them to take away from the horror, in addition to the facts. As Fred Roger’s mother told him, in a disaster “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Thank you, Maira Kalman, for your help.

About Kitty Flynn

Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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