Interview Across a Breakfast Table: One That Got Away?

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The latest in a series from me and Jennifer Ziegler, part of it here, and part of it there.

Jenny: Can you tell me about a story idea or manuscript that never took off for one reason or another? A big one that got away?

Chris: I could tell you about lots (and lots, and lots) that have gotten away, both fiction and nonfiction. But most of them are still in the process of getting away, which means there’s still the possibility that I’ll be able to get some of them back through some combination of fresh perspective (from a new editor, perhaps, or from my own older-and-wiser self) and effort (all mine, I’m afraid).

There’s one, though, for which I believe the opportunity has passed. This November is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, an event that fascinated me as a boy. Predictably, the anniversary will be getting lots of attention, and I wanted to make my own contribution with a book for young readers called The Week the World Changed.

It was going to be an oral history of recollections from prominent Americans who were between 8 and 13 years old at the time of the assassination. I had a long list of people I wanted to interview, and I actually did get interviews with TV personality Al Roker, singer Rosanne Cash, and physicist Frank Wilczek, along with my children’s book pals Kathi Appelt and Tom Lichtenheld.

Editors were pretty consistent in viewing such a project as an exercise in nostalgia that wouldn’t have resonated with today’s young readers. I disagree, of course. There was much more to the project than that, a much bigger picture I wanted to show, and I’m still disappointed that this book never came about. It’s the kind of book I would have loved reading as a kid and still love reading as an adult — to say nothing of the amount of fun I would have had interviewing all those folks and weaving their stories together.

Would you like to read the introduction I’d written for the proposal?

Jenny: Why, yes.

Chris: OK, then. Here goes:

“I was in school when I heard JFK had been shot, at my piano lesson. I was in third grade. I was sitting on the piano bench and my piano teacher, a nun, was sitting next to me in a chair. An older girl came in to the room, and said to the nun that the President had been shot, and she burst into tears.”

– Rosanne Cash

When something big – something huge and tragic – happened in the middle of an ordinary Friday in November 1963, there was no tweeting or messaging or posting or texting the news. It was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and for tens of millions of Americans your age, word most likely came in a shocked, tearful rush from someone at their school who had just heard it on the radio.

It was the beginning of a bewildering several days. The nation got a new president. The suspected assassin was captured. The accused shooter himself was shot and killed. And finally, Kennedy was buried, with his own young children – and the rest of the nation – looking on.

Back then, people got their news from AM radio stations, the three TV networks, a local newspaper or two – many cities had one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and weekly magazines. If they learned anything on their phones, it was because someone called to say, “Did you hear…?”

That weekend in 1963, the news came closer to being delivered round-the-clock and in real time than it ever had before. But most of the information that spread was delivered by adults and intended for other adults. It focused on grownups’ views of what had happened and questions about what it meant to them.

Young Americans were not experiencing and dealing with that tragedy the same way older people were. From the moment that kids first heard what had happened – not at the office or at home or in their cars, but in their classrooms – it all looked and sounded and felt different to them. What upset and scared them – or didn’t – wasn’t the same as what upset and scared Mom and Dad.

And after the assassination, when life returned to normal, even this wasn’t the same for young people. Maybe it happened faster. Maybe it happened more slowly. However it happened, there’s no reason to think that things would go for a 12-year-old just as they did for someone who was 32, or 42, or 52. Yet the memories of those days and weeks and months, passed back and forth and shared ever since in books and on TV, have tended to be those of people who were already grown.

But what about those 40 million Americans who were around your age? For that matter, what about those who were kids on 9/11, or when the Space Shuttle disasters occurred, or back when Pearl Harbor was attacked? And what about those who will be in a classroom when they first learn of some future national tragedy?

Young people’s stories about these sorts of events – no matter how quickly they are shared, whether it’s the next instant or five decades later – are simply different. This book is about finally listening to those stories from Americans who were your age when President Kennedy was killed.

I had also prepared excerpts from several chapters in The Week the World Changed, based on those five interviews I did.

Jenny: Please share!

Chris: Hmmm…

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One Response to “Interview Across a Breakfast Table: One That Got Away?”

  1. […] Another post in the series between me and Chris Barton… […]

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