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Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 09/08/21
A hard story to tell. Ahead of the twentieth remembrance of the September 11th attacks on America by terrorists, PragerU has published Otto’s Tales: Today is September 11th. The storybook arrives just months after the first installment of the Otto’s Tales book series which has quickly become a #1 Amazon bestseller in children’s categories.
This time young Dennis and his dog Otto travel back in time to September 11, 2001, and witness the terrorist attacks in New York City. They watch as first responders risk everything to save others and government leaders to their best to console a stunned nation.
PragerU CEO Marissa Streit says the new edition “gives children the truth (about what happened on 9/11) but focuses on the shining examples of heroism, strength and unity displayed by Americans of all backgrounds in response.”
Director of Outreach for PragerU Resources for Educators and Parents Jill Simonian spoke with me about the book and how she hopes it will help parents approach the disturbing subject in an age-appropriate way with their children.
JILL SIMONIAN: Today is September 11th is our most recent children’s book that we’re doing as part of our PragerU Kids initiative. Obviously, it’s a really tough topic to talk about with kids. It’s a very sensitive topic that you don’t want to introduce to children too early but (is) for those parents who have kids that are around the eight-years-old mark who know that something happened on September 11th and have gotten some lessons about it in school or have heard it mentioned in school or (from) different community groups or people.
We’ve written this book to help parents – and even teachers – to, in an age-appropriate way, tell those kids that are still young – but are old enough to learn what happened – what happened that day…Then the story moves on to show how Americans of all different backgrounds, ages and races really came together to help each other to be strong and to get through the tragedy in the days and weeks and, frankly, now years that followed. The story also takes it to when George W. Bush addressed the nation and, forward another ten years, when New York City implemented the 9/11 tribute – the monument (and) the lights of the Twin Towers. So, it’s really a broad telling for children that leaves them with a sense of how strong America can be.
It’s through the eyes of Otto and Dennis. All of our Otto’s Tales children’s books are through the eyes of a very young Dennis Prager and his pet puppy Otto (as) they travel through time. This is obviously the most serious story we’re doing in this series. The rest of our Otto’s Tales books are about the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, the Thanksgiving holiday, Veterans Day and all of these different American commemorative days. This is definitely the most serious (book) but we felt like it was important to tackle – to give parents a tool that doesn’t exist right now in actually telling what happened (for) the younger students.
JWK: What do you think kids need to hear and know about 9/11?
JS: My own daughters are in elementary school right now. They’re not in kindergarten or first grade or anything like that but they were in early elementary school last year – third and fourth grade – and something that I noticed as a parent through Zoom classrooms was that one of my daughter’s classes did not explain to the kids what September 11th actually was. In seeing the lesson personally that the teacher chose to give, it was very confusing. She never said America was attacked.
At PragerU Kids – and as parents and teachers – we don’t believe in scaring children in any way but America, throughout our history, has been attacked – at Pearl Harbor (and) on 9/11. The fact that we were attacked on 9/11 is something that elementary school students can and should learn. We don’t have to tell them all of the horrific details because they’re children – but it is something they should be cognizant of in terms of American history.
JWK: So what are they teaching in the schools? I gather they keep it as vague as possible. What are they telling kids happened?
JS: Well, every school is obviously different. We don’t know what’s happening in every single school. I know that there are many schools and many teachers and parents – particularly in our PragerU Kids Prep membership group – who really do tell the students what happened and the lesson is told in age-appropriate ways throughout various grade levels. But, in many schools, September 11th is not regarded as a day of being solemn, a day of remembrance, a day of really recognizing that America stands for freedom and to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on that day. It’s really, in many schools, presented in a very vague way. It’s presented in a way that does not offer any sort of historical lesson or context or even pride or love for America.
In some schools in Southern California – particularly, just because that’s where I’m at – September 11th really isn’t mentioned at all as being a day of significance…because – and I’ve had a teacher tell me this exact quote personally – “I don’t want to teach September 11th because I don’t feel the same way about it as you do.” That was a particular quote that was told to me last year when I raised the very honest question of “Why did you not answer students’ questions about who attacked America on this day?” And that’s disturbing to me.
I want to keep repeating (that) we do not want to frighten children. We don’t want to cause them trauma in relaying too many details that are beyond their age (and capability) to understand what happened that day. But remembering September 11th is part of our history and it’s part of our duty as parents and teachers to really teach our kids the history of our nation and how we came together and how America is strong and how we can continue to be strong through so much adversity. I mean even in the context of what’s happening now around the world. America has gone through tragedy but we can continue to be strong and to forge ahead together as a nation – as “One nation under God.”
JWK: I know you’re not in any way teaching kids to hate Islamic people but I gather that the concern of some people is that honestly recounting what happened on 9/11 will lead to an atmosphere of what has been termed Islamophobia in America and create an anti-Muslim backlash among kids.
JS: I’ve heard that and, honestly, I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s wrong to teach kids (what happened)…I can’t understand what the sound reasoning behind not wanting to discuss this tragedy because it isn’t about (being) anti-Islam. That’s not what this is about. America has been attacked by many different countries in the past and many different organizations. It’s not about hating a particular group of people or hating a country. It’s about recognizing that America was attacked by terrorists who do not like our way of life.
JWK: How do you think – or do you think that – Critical Race Theory plays into this?
JS: When you talk about CRT being in schools, I do think that the hesitation to teach about September 11th is tied to the philosophy of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory has a mission to not want to teach the parts of American history that show us being solid and united together. Critical Race Theory continually seeks to divide students by race, ethnicity, gender, everything. Critical Race theory proponents do not want to acknowledge that, through so many horrific things in our history, Americans have continued to want to form a more perfect union together. So, yeah, I do think that CRT does have something to do with the hesitation to recognize September 11th in a lot of schools.
JWK: So, what do you hope parents and teachers will take from the book?
JS: We want parents and teachers to use this as a guide (and) resource to help them tell children about this story – if they feel like their kids are ready to learn about it, if their children are old enough and mature enough to understand…Our whole mission is we want to give resources to help because it is (ultimately) up to the parents to really solidify the pride that we all have in our country – no matter what’s going on in school.
This is a tool for parents to use (and) for teachers to use if it is appropriate for their (class’) age group. We want people and families to understand that…America is strong, America is united (and) America has a very blessed way of life.
JWK: Anything you’d like to add as we wrap this up?
JS: We just appreciate all of our parents and teachers who are members and who continue to support us through their energy (and) donations. Our book is available for purchase on Amazon. All of our videos on our website continue to be free…It’s (through) the support of the PREP members that we are able to keep our videos free…Also on our website, prageru.com/kids, we have a companion video that goes with this book. Our Otto Tales: Today is September 11th video has me reading the story. So, that’s also a companion tool for parents to watch and to deem if it’s appropriate to share with their children. We envision this as parents and children reading the book together while watching the read-along video as a way to navigate through this very hard conversation.