I hardly think Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes, a book of interviews with Palestinian and Israeli kids, is “age inappropriate” for kids in Grades 4 to 6, as the Canadian Jewish Congress claims. The world our kids live in is age inappropriate, but they have to live there. So do schools, libraries and authors.

Kids that age today, and younger, are already living with war; they are war babies — in the sense that they were barely coming to awareness on 9/11. Maybe their parents turned the sound down and tried to shield them from those collapsing towers, but they saw the visuals, endlessly. They are more war babies than I was — born in 1942 but not subjected to the media barrage of war images and news they saw, while they were learning to walk and talk. I know a seven-year-old who often says, Will I still be alive when the war in Iraq ends? He can’t recall it not being there.

I know a five-year-old who, given a choice of places to visit in London, chose the Imperial War Museum over the Eye. He related to it instinctively. Are you going to deny them a rare book that can engage their sense of war in an empathic, utterly age-appropriate way, given what being their age means?

The CJC says the interviews “demonize both sides as murderous and irrational.” Now it’s true there is mutual demonization when kids on each side say that the others are bad, and that they want to fight or kill them. But the effect on readers, I’d say, is the opposite — because the words are quoted respectfully, in larger texts that include many normal kids’ qualities along with hate and fear. When kids here read those phrases, coming from kids with whom they can otherwise identify, they realize not that both sides are demonic, but that they have tragically demonized each other. The honest presentation of a demonization that happens on both sides tends to undermine it. Both sides can’t be demons. Demonization gets de-demonized.

Or take a much-cited interview with the sister of a suicide bomber. It’s just three pages, spare and expressive, with an intro that discusses suicide generally, then describes the bombings that have occurred. The girl talks mostly about her own life and despair and, at the end, tries to find some solace in her sister’s end. It is the voice of a kid trying to make it through a hideous, confusing life, of which her sister’s act is another bewildering piece.

There is no implied approval of the bombing, but a reader might begin to comprehend the despair and want to help alter the situation that produced it. For Canadian kids between 9 and 11 who have lived through so much senseless violence in the news, TV and video games, it gently starts to provide some context and understanding. Why would anyone want to take that away?

The book takes no stand on politics in the region, yet something may come through. The Israeli kids take trips to the United States or South Africa, the Palestinians yearn to visit grandparents a few clicks away but can’t, due to checkpoints. Israeli kids have no checkpoints, their homes aren’t bulldozed, they are not, in other words, occupied. One is reminded of these things only incidentally.

But by hearing about lives so different, one gets the sense of a power imbalance. Young readers won’t lack empathy for the Israeli kids, who fear death and die cruelly and unjustly, but there is a tendency for kids to sympathize with the underdog because, as kids, they’re small in a world of those larger and more privileged than they (well, it’s a theory).

The CJC has never questioned the appropriateness of The Diary of Anne Frank or Hana’s Suitcase in the schools, but, in those books, Jewish figures are clearly victims and entirely sympathetic. In Three Wishes, both sides are victims, but also victimizers; so questions of power and justice, though not raised, may arise.

Yet, all a good book can do is help take kids into such a world, not tell them what to conclude about it. If conclusions were the purpose, you could skip the book and go straight to the manifesto. The purpose of a book is to enter into the experience of others, to be affected and altered by it. If it teaches anything, it’s how to think about the world, not what to think about it.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.