I am lucky. My daughters were nowhere near New York, Washington D.C. or Shanksville on September 11, 2001. They were in Nursery School in California. Outside their school that morning, a sign was posted which read:
Today something terrible has happened to our country. Please help us keep this tragedy outside our gates. This place is a refuge for our children to play. They want to learn. They cannot understand the events going on. Keep their routine the same, even as we all grieve the tremendous loss our country is suffering.
At some point in the afternoon my four-year-old asked what her Dad and I were talking about. We had begun to chat in the front seat of the car, oblivious to her attention. I struggled with how to explain the attacks. Should I ignore her question? What would exposing her to such darkness do?
Rather than distract her, I said, “Our country was attacked.”
She asked a lot of excellent questions. I remember saying, at some point, the attacks happened “because we are a free country.” That, although true in many ways, was an altogether unhelpful answer for a four-year-old. I thought speaking in generalities might lessen her fear. And I didn’t want either of us to imagine that much pain.
That night, as I wondered if we would ever board an airplane again, I followed our usual routine. My daughters and I got into bed and read books. Goodnight Gorilla, by Caldecott-Award winning author-illustrator Peggy Rathmann, was our favorite book at that time.
Gorilla wanted freedom. He wanted out of his cage. He wanted his friends free too. What we loved was Gorilla’s ingenuity – he snagged the keys – his persistence and joyful disobedience in pursuit of his goal. Ultimately, as we were, Gorilla was looking for comfort. He kept crawling into bed. My girls loved the page where the lights were turned out and all eyes (including ours) suddenly went wide when the Zookeepers wife finally saw everyone who was in bed.
For us, that night appeared like any other.
But September 11 changed us all, even those of us several times zones away. I couldn’t always keep them inside the Nursery School gates.
On our TVs, we saw tragedy in the sun setting behind the silhouettes of the fallen towers. We saw true beauty in all the stories that began to come out about the rescue workers, Flight 93, and all the families. We understood freedom, sacrifice, responsibility, safety and love of our countrymen in a new way. I knew I hadn’t translated that into four-year-old.
In the intervening time, however, Peggy Rathmann has. She wrote and illustrated The Day the Babies Crawled Away. In this book, the babies want freedom. They want to discover the miraculous butterflies that traverse their picnic.
Parents are eating pie and chatting, obliviously. The babies leave, following the butterflies. They want to learn and play. The busy parents don’t see. They probably can’t imagine – or don’t want to imagine – the things that are about to happen to their kids.
But a young boy, wearing a firefighter’s helmet, notices. He can imagine. Maybe he even worries. He follows the babies while they chase bees, frogs, crawl out on ledges, and practically fly. At the very least, the babies might get stung. For those of us ready to understand, we know the babies want to fly, but don’t see the risk.
Thankfully, the boy catches the babies, scrambles down a cliff, feeds them mashed blackberries, then fashions a sling out of diapers to get them home up the cliff. His ingenuity, his bravery, his imagination, his care and attention saved the babies.
I asked Peggy Rathmann, in 2007, about The Day the Babies Crawled Away. She said,
“I’d been mulling the general idea of a heroic but tender young person leading a band of babies to safety but I didn’t begin writing and drawing until shortly after September 11, 2001. The hero wears a firefighter’s helmet in honor of the search and rescue workers who died that day.”
The illustrations in the book are silhouettes. All of the light comes from the setting sun. We only see the characters in relation to each other and to space and time. Once the boy finally returns to sleep in his mother’s arms, his home – and others – is lit from inside.
The Day the Babies Crawled Away faces those fears I hesitate to imagine. Children wander off to learn and play. Their lives can be at stake when they don’t know it. I can easily chat away, obviously, especially if there’s pie.
And my daughters are now teenagers. Thankfully, they pay attention and tend to follow wayward toddlers.