A Picture of Freedom?

Curator's Note

We Shall Never Forget: The Kids’ Book of Freedom / A Graphic Coloring Novel on the Events of September 11, 2001 positions itself as an antidote to a "world of constant motion and instant media" and purports to tell the complete and cautionary story of the attacks.  Notwithstanding this lofty ambition, it is something of a fringe object.  Compared to more mainstream children’s books about 9/11, its production values are low, and the limited attention it garnered was due primarily to the controversy provoked by its obvious Islamophobia.  But We Shall Never Forget also documents, inadvertently, an anxious effort to stabilize the meaning of September 11th on the unsteady terrains of memory and mediation. 

Published in 2011, the book speaks to an audience born after its titular event occurred.  Accordingly, it provides detailed descriptions of September 11th and invites young readers to embellish them with their crayons.  It is an unsubtle text.  "Children," one page reads, "the truth is, these terrorist attacks were done by freedom-hating radical Islamic Muslim extremists.  These crazy people hate the American way of life because we are free and our society is free."  Jingoism like this pervades the book, but I interpret this stridency as confessing a fear that the significance of September 11th will slip or recede. 

Near the end, a prompt asks, "Can you draw a picture of Freedom?  What does this mean?"  The query is simultaneously open-ended and didactic, but the blankness of the page reflects the relative emptiness of the idea of "9/11" for the generation born after it, young people whose geopolitical horizons are shaped by an event they know only as history.  Doubtless, "what does this mean?" is an invitation to extol the virtues of America.  Indeed, an earlier page instructs kids to write a "story about what freedom means to you" and suggests they send it to someone in "China, Russia or the Middle East."  But we might also read something uncertain or even plaintive in the question. 

For the vast majority of Americans, September 11th was a mediated event; for the people born after, it was doubly so.  What is the status of a memory produced in these conditions?  Can children be properly said to 'forget' something they never remembered in the first place?  Might the passage of time, and the processes of remediation, have diminished the overdetermining power of "9/11"?  And if so, what new possibilities—pedagogical, political, or otherwise—might be opened up in this long aftermath? 


Rebecca, I had not heard about this book before. The fact that children are asked to interact and 'color' in the pages, thereby engaging with the text on a more interactive level than a traditional book that only gets read may open up a discussion on different ways of informative, persuasive, social conscious and propagandistic communication/storytelling. Posing the question to older students: what type of communication does this children's book present? And asking them to articulate their reasons for why they would classify it as one approach over another (e.g. one student arguing that it is persuasive and social conscious communication while another might view it as propaganda.)

On a side note: I find your final two questions to be the perfect end to this week of September 11 reflection in this space.

Thank you, Monika, for your careful read and kind words.  I think you're absolutely right about how the nature of the coloring/activity book might mean that it works as a different, and perhaps more compelling, form of interpellation than narrative alone.  It's curious to me, also, that the creator of this coloring book did this work on his own initiative - it would read very differently, for example, if this was a DHS publication or something.  It's essentially an individual activist project by a man who has tasked himself with the work of educating young people.  Obviously, this means it has far less reach than an official document would, but in some ways, I find the DIY nature of this even more unsettling.  

Hi Rebecca,

Thanks for sharing this resource - I hadn't heard of this book before.  I go back and forth about how comfortable I am or in what way I am comfortable with my kids' discussing 9/11 in school (they're both in elementary school now).  My son had a really extensive day discussing events after they watched a 3 minute video.  I was first, stunned by the amount of info he uptook from watching that video and second, curious as to whether that was the right way for him to learn about it.  Then I realized with my emotional responses, it was going to be difficult for me no matter what they did.  He was fascinated by the exhibit on 9/11 at the Newseum in DC this summer (which is closing at year's end).  I'll have to check this book out!


Thanks, Andrea, for sharing your experience.  I can only imagine how complicated this must feel as a parent.  I talk a bit about the question of children's classroom encounters with images like this in a couple of articles and my recent book  (please pardon the shameless self-promotion!), but always from the perspective of an academic rather than a person with children, which I am not.  Another complex intersection of the personal and the political ... 

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