RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This month NPR is taking a closer look at media for kids. Parents steer their children to different forms of media for all kinds of reasons: as a distraction so they can make dinner, to teach letters and numbers, and when parents aren't quite sure how to approach a difficult topic. In this morning's story, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on how TV, museums, books and other media tackle tough subjects.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Linda Ellerbee, host of "NickNews" on Nickelodeon, is the queen of hard subjects.
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BLAIR: Ellerbee says here's what to do when talking to kids about hard subjects: don't dumb it down.
: Our viewers are smart people. They are merely younger, less experienced and shorter.
BLAIR: They also might have a more limited vocabulary.
: If I'm going to use a word that I think a 10-year-old might not understand, I either explain what the word means or use it in such a way that it's absolutely clear what the word means. I don't change the word.
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BLAIR: Ellerbee also says, let kids do the talking.
LILA: My name is Lila(ph). I was 10 years old on September 11th and my school, PS234, was five blocks away from the World Trade Center.
BLAIR: But Ellerbee cautions, don't do it too soon.
: That's why we haven't gone to Newtown yet, to do a show with those kids or, you know, about what happened. It's about timing. You need to sort of let some things settle.
BLAIR: But for one popular drama on network TV, the right time to do an episode on school shooting was four months after Newtown.
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BLAIR: In a recent episode of "Glee," gunshots were fired in the high school. Some Newtown residents urged people in the community to boycott the show. But psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder says it depends which kids you're talking to.
JENNIFER POWELL-LUNDER: It is not a good show for kids who've been through such a trauma to be viewing. And it's very simple, because it's too close to home, it re-traumatizes them.
BLAIR: But for teenagers who've not experienced such a tragedy, she thinks the "Glee" episode was well done.
POWELL-LUNDER: Really, the way the adolescent brain works is such that bad things happen to other people. So what I think it did is strike empathy amongst that age group and amongst all of us about the fear of the unknown.
BLAIR: But one child psychologist cautioned, television is like having a stranger in the house. Most parents wouldn't want their children learning about the dangers of the world from a stranger, and that includes TV, said Dr. Jerome Singer. At the same time, some parents need help starting the conversation. For young children, the right book can help, since reading together naturally lends itself to conversation.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) When Leonard Lost His Spots: A Trans Parent Tail.
BLAIR: This picture book is about a transgender tiger, written by Monique Costa. With playful rhymes and Disney-like illustrations, the tiger's cub tells how he feels about his father becoming a female.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) I didn't know how to react. Or even what to say. I pretended not to notice him. I wish he'd go away.
BLAIR: The cub feels shame, anger and fear, and that openness is something Cheril Clarke and Monica Bey-Clarke were drawn to. They own a small publishing company that focuses on nontraditional families.
MONICA BEY-CLARKE: It doesn't shy away from the fact that Cub is struggling inside.
CHERIL CLARKE: It's a very honest story. It's not...
BEY-CLARKE: Yeah, it's a very honest story about, you know, from the child's point of view.
BLAIR: But if a book for small children is too depressing, some parents just won't buy it. When Sue Glader was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went looking for books to read to her nieces and nephews.
SUE GLADER: I saw a lot of things that were really very sad and very scary, or really super technical for a young child.
BLAIR: Be silly in the right places. That's Glader's advice when talking to kids about hard subjects. When she was going through chemotherapy, she wrote the book Nowhere Hair.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) A sparrow might have borrowed it to warm her fancy nest. Perhaps she stuffed a pillow to help grandma get some rest. The day I asked her where it went, she had a simple answer: I'm bald because of medicine I take to treat my cancer.
BLAIR: As hard as it might be to talk to a child about cancer, it's relatively concrete and present. Talking about difficult issues in the news is a different challenge.
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BLAIR: Artist and activist Naomi Natale is trying to get young people to understand genocide with a project called One Million Bones.
NAOMI NATALE: Let's see. What bone do we want to make? Do we want to make an arm bone? We want to make an arm bone? OK.
BLAIR: Students at several hundred schools around the country, pre-K through high school, made human bones out of clay for a mass grave on the National Mall to honor the victims of genocide. At Georgetown Day Middle School in Washington, D.C., 12-year-old Cole Wright-Schaner made a spine.
COLE WRIGHT-SCHANER: It was kind of disturbing to make it, thinking of all the people that have died in the African countries. It really opened my eyes to genocide and what's going on in the world. We live in such a safe country.
BLAIR: Young people can get difficult subject better by seeing it, or better yet, touching it.
JOANNE MARTIN: These are authentic slave chains.
BLAIR: Oh, my gosh.
MARTIN: Yeah, really, really heavy.
BLAIR: At the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Joanne Martin is holding a piece of evidence that drives home the brutality of slavery: large, heavy slave chains. Dr. Martin and her late husband, Elmer Martin, assembled a display on slavery that is grim.
There's a replica of a slave ship. Narrow, creaky steps take visitors down below. It's dark. There are life-sized statues of men, women and children in chains and shackles around their legs and their necks. Fifth-grade teacher Damion Samuels brought students from KIPP Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina to see the slave exhibition.
DAMION SAMUELS: Some of them are already significantly affected. Some of them are already closing their eyes.
BLAIR: Samuels says it's easy to find stories about escaping slavery and abolitionists, but he says most media skirt the really difficult parts.
SAMUELS: Even the textbooks shy away from certain images, and I think this museum does a very good job at showing the graphic details. So I think this is a very, very good opportunity for them to really, really appreciate what their ancestors have been through.
BLAIR: The Great Blacks in Wax Museum also includes many stories that celebrate African-Americans' achievements. And whenever media tackle hard subjects, they should leave children with a sense of hope, says Nickelodeon's Linda Ellerbee.
: Wherever bad things happen, you always find good people trying to make it better. And there are more good people than there are bad people.
BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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