Alibi V.16 No.39 • Sept 27-Oct 3, 2007 

Author Interview

War Has Bad Manners

Alice Walker's latest work opens children's eyes to the realities of war

Alice Walker
Alice Walker

When Alice Walker pitched her idea for a politically charged children's book to Random House, the publisher turned her down.

"War eats everything in its path, and what it doesn't eat, it dribbles on," writes Walker, powerful author, poet, womanist and activist, in her latest work, Why War is Never a Good Idea. Lush illustrations underscore the frightening devastation of war on people, on the planet, on frogs and trees and mothers. Kids and grownups everywhere are lucky Harper Collins was willing to print its thought-provoking eloquence.

Walker's penned a few children's books, including There Is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me. But the poem that trickles onto this book's pages a few words at a time wasn't written with children in mind. It's taken from her collection of poems called Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth. She has faith that 5-year-olds can understand harm and pain as well as 90-year-olds. And while Why War ... is more merciless in presenting its subject matter than your average cutesy children's book, it's also less condescending.

What else would you expect from the woman behind such works as The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar? Imaginative? Yes. Gorgeous language? Sure. But Walker's never been one to shy away from touchy subjects. "Though war is old, it has not become wise." The words are simple, but the message is not.

Why did you choose to frame this topic as a children's book?

Because children grow up thinking that war is OK since their parents buy them war toys and encourage them to play cowboys and Indians, Germans and Americans, soldiers of all kinds. We need to, in order to have a more peaceful planet, encourage children from a very young age to understand that war is not a game, that it is something often lethal, very destructive to family life, very harmful to the planet itself and basically entirely self-defeating. A war is assumed to be against some other people, but really there are no "other" people here. We're all just Earthlings.

You didn't necessarily write it for kids, right?

My first children's book was called To Hell With Dying, but it was really a short story I wrote when I was still in college. I like children's books, the books that are published for children. I read them. I don't get it that there's a real sharp, sharp line there.

Did you write this with the Iraq War in your sights?

Well, with all the wars in my sights. At that point it was the Afghani war. What happened was I was researching, I was doing a piece on my opposition to that war and the bombing of Afghanistan. A few terrorists had passed through there so they were planning to bomb the whole country. I found out that there were 700,000 disabled orphans already in that country.

That really stayed with me and caused me a lot of sadness, because I was thinking about the little kids—the blind ones who couldn't see where they were going, the lame ones who couldn't crawl, the ones without arms couldn't ... I mean, to be disabled and not have parents just seemed to me enough of a deterrent to anyone thinking about indiscriminately bombing the land where the children lived.

Did you have to pitch this book to a publisher? If so, what was the initial reaction?

Well, my regular publisher, which was Random House, declined to publish it. So I took it to Harper Collins, and they were happy to publish it.

Do you think it was because of the subject matter?

I think that's probably true. I don't know. They didn't tell me that. I would assume that had a strong bearing.

Then there are the people who think you can't talk to children about war, which is, I think, so misguided since you're willing to train them to be soldiers and warriors and go into places they've never heard of when they're barely out of high school.

So I don't know. We didn't get into the discussion. I said, "Fine, I'll take it somewhere else," and I took it somewhere else, and they were happy to publish it. I think they've done a beautiful job, and I'm very happy with it.

Do you ever have a particular child in mind when you write for children?

Not really. I think about the globe, and what those children need. As an elder of the planet now, I definitely think of my responsibility and what it is to all of the children, not just to the children I know. They need that. The children of the world desperately need to feel that the grownups of the world see them all as children in need of education and health care and safety and all the things that children need. That's how I see them. Not individual children, planetary children.

Do you remember some of your favorite books from when you were a kid?

I just remember reading almost anything that came around my house as soon as I learned to read and not even thinking about whether the material was for adults or children, but just really understanding as much of it as I could at whatever age I found it.

What is your hope for this book?

My hope as an elder is that the children whose parents manage to get it to them, I hope these children will understand from 4 and 5 and 6 years of age, 7, 8, 9, that there is an alternative vision for the world, for the planet and for how people should live. One of them is that war is never a good idea. And it may be an idea, you may have to go to war, you may have to defend yourself against intruders, invaders, occupiers and colonists, but ultimately every war is a war against the earth. The world is your house. It's as if you're throwing big stones and bombs right on your own heads, which is basically what happens. The pollution that is caused by war endangers every single person, creature, plant on earth, and that's why it's not a good idea.

It seems in some ways more adult and certainly more brutal than your average children's book. Do you think kids can handle it?

I think if kids can watch television, they can handle anything. Many children have seen more murders by the time they are 12 than they will ever see in any war. This is a crime against their spirit. So no, I don't think this is a problem. I think children are unfortunately exposed to so much more than they would ever see beautifully and thoughtfully expressed in this book.

If a person is going to read one Alice Walker book, which one would you recommend?

The Temple of My Familiar. It's a very big book. It's very long. And it's full of journeys, and it's full history, and it's full of dreams. It's wonderful for traveling people. If you have a journey that you're about to embark on, it's very good. The other one for journeying is Now is the Time to Open Your Heart.

What are you working on next?

I'm transcribing 40 years of journals, which is going to take me 40 years to do.

I never really talk about my current projects, because they are private. But I'll work a bit, and I'll travel a bit. I'm looking forward to visiting Vietnam, for instance, to see how people there are after the horrible suffering this country inflicted on them. That will be coming up next year.

Hear Alice Walker speak Monday, Oct. 1, at the Kiva Auditorium in the Convention Center at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) in advance. A ticket comes free with the purchase of Why War is Never a Good Idea ($16.99) . You can also get two tickets and one book for $25. At the door, you can get one ticket and one book for $20, or two tickets and one book for $25.