- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - Eleven-year-old John Payne has been a student of the Titanic since kindergarten.

He has scrupulously researched the ship, built a model out of Lego freehand and successfully lobbied his fifth-grade teacher in suburban Chicago to let him mark the disaster’s centennial with a multimedia presentation for his class.

What’s not to like? There’s mystery, high technology and heroes. Sunken treasure, conspiracy theories and jarring tales of rich vs. poor.

But there’s also death, lots of it, and that has some parents, teachers and writers of children’s books balancing potentially scary details with more palatable, inspirational fare focused on survivors, animals on board or the mechanics of shipbuilding.

John “doesn’t ask questions about the dead and other darker aspects” of what went on that moonless night in the North Atlantic, said his mother, Virginia Tobin Payne.

“He’s a sensitive kid. We try to temper all of it so it doesn’t become an obsession,” she said. “After the anniversary passes, I hope we can sort of close the book on him looking for more information about it.”

Barry Denenberg struggled with how to depict the horror in his new book “Titanic Sinks!” The sepia-tone hardcover, written as a mock magazine, was released ahead of the April 14 anniversary and has already made it into schools. The book, from Viking, is intended for kids 9 and older and doesn’t hold back much as it blends fact and fiction for a meticulous, realistic feel that draws on the official record.

“There’s only one little line in the book about how most of the people froze to death. They did not drown,” Denenberg said. “Hypothermia is a much longer death. I had to make a decision about what’s accurate and what’s ghoulish.”

Debbie Shoulders teaches eighth-grade English in Clarksville, Tenn., but her new “T is for Titanic” alphabet book from Sleeping Bear Press is intended for far younger children.

“The word `died’ doesn’t appear often in the book,” she said. “We softened it with `perished’ or `did not live.’ The goal was to remember what the people on board contributed, not so much what happened to them.”

Tracey Friedlander in Bethesda, Md., has a Titanic-obsessed 9-year-old, but she doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff. She thinks the story offers teachers and parents perfect real-life lessons on perseverance, loyalty, the dangers of arrogance and the shortcomings of technology as kids learn to sort out the complexities of their own lives.

“Kids like Kade have grown up in the shadows of 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a red, yellow, green terrorist alert color code system,” Friedlander said. “Like most of us, he’s trying to make sense of the world around him and the accompanying human tragedies. The Titanic happens to present an incredible learning opportunity for curious minds.”

Considered a marvel of shipbuilding, for instance, the luxury liner went down anyway after striking the iceberg on her maiden voyage, offering kids a solid and exciting look at the marriage between technology and human decision-making, she said.

What of human error? Was the ship traveling too fast? Why, though in line with regulations of the time _ 1912 _ did the Titanic set off with only 20 lifeboats for more than 2,200 people. Were poor immigrants in steerage prevented at gunpoint and by locked gates from boarding lifeboats, in favor of the wealthy?

The Titanic, Friedlander said, touches on “precarious circumstances and how someone’s socio-economic class can potentially affect the way their life is valued by others and why that’s inappropriate and immoral.”

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