HALIFAX — A fresh generation of children’s books is finding the grace notes in Halifax’s worst moment — a massive explosion that levelled much of the city 100 years ago but inspired acts of kindness that still resonate.
The books vary on how closely they approach the widespread injury and nearly 2,000 deaths that resulted from the massive Halifax Explosion of Dec. 6, 1917, when a French munitions ship collided with a Belgian relief vessel in the city’s wartime harbour.
Still, as hurricanes and earthquakes batter communities around the globe, the retelling of Halifax’s time of trial tend to come together in their desire to find hope amidst the floods and rubble.
“I didn’t want to dwell on the destruction, but more on the help that people gave,” said Marijke Simons, author of The Flying Squirrel Stowaways: from Nova Scotia to Boston (Nimbus), one of two picture books for young children that recall how Boston residents rushed north in a train to assist.
Other books deal with the experiences of a Halifax newsboy, and of an orphaned girl who loses her family.
The Christmas tree given each year as a gift by Halifax to its southern neighbour is a key theme for Simons as well as for illustrator Belle DeMont and her father John DeMont in their book The Little Tree by the Sea: From Halifax to Boston with love (Nimbus).
The main character in The Little Tree by the Sea is an imaginary tree that grows on the slope of Citadel Hill overlooking the city, calling out in alarm as the Mont Blanc collides with the Imo.
Belle DeMont’s fiery depiction of the blast doesn’t shy away from the terror of the event, though the story shows just a few examples of injured citizens.
Canary yellow streets and pea green city buildings prior to the event move into more sombre indigos and deep purple skies and seas afterwards, as the tree’s cry for help drifts across the water to Boston.
The little tree eventually grows tall in the “city by the sea” and offers itself as recollection of…