June 16, 2011

A Stormy Spring

Natural disasters fascinate kids. Books full of violent volcanoes, horrendous hurricanes, bridge-eating earthquakes, and town-trashing tornadoes are popular. Why? Is it awe-inspiring extreme-power-of-nature that attracts? Maybe it's the mind-blowing pictures of flipped cars and flooded cities. Or the fact that many kids like being a little scared—especially when deep down they feel safe in the belief that natural disasters happen elsewhere, not here. They ruin the lives of other people, not us.

This thinking isn't limited to the young, of course. I've lived a good chunk of my life in tornado country. My family hail from the Kansas Flint Hills and my current home state of Ohio sees its share of twisters, too. When the Xenia tornado hit during 1974’s Super Outbreak I was a third grader living in rural Ohio. The spring day was stormy, but the air was spooky still and smelled like garden dirt. The sky had a yellow hue. I remember being outside in the yard after the storm passed and watching little dustdevils of swirling leaves high above me. But when some fell to the ground, I saw they were actually scraps of wallpaper, ripped from a house many miles away. But someone else’s house.

While signing copies of my new Inside Tornadoes book, kids often say some version of, “Tornadoes are awesome--but they scare me.” My pat response has always been to reassure them that most tornadoes are small and short-lived and that even dangerous ones usually only affect a small area. It’s very unlikely that you’ll even ever see one. Don’t worry about it.

And then came Joplin. So much destruction, so many deaths. The unlikely became a reality to so many, including quite a few members of my own family. An elderly aunt and uncle survived the twister in a closet. A number of cousins had homes and apartments destroyed. Family pets were found blocks away plastered with pink insulation. Photographs, pianos, quilts, diplomas, antiques, wedding dresses, and other keepsakes lost. But no one was hurt and we are a resilient bunch. Proof is in this video of my cousin Gary Mitchell playing the piano in the roofless home of his parents as they searched for mementos to salvage.

(Click on picture to see YouTube video.)

Any unlikely event is only unlikely until it happens to you—or someone you know. Be it a natural disaster, car accident, cancer, or home foreclosure. Now when a young reader confides in me about fearing the storm and what it might spawn, I no longer cite statistics. Yes, storms are scary, I say. Tornadoes frighten everyone. The best way to feel less afraid is to be prepared. Does your family have a plan? No? Make one, practice it, post it. Take care.

Copyright © 2010 Sterling Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

Want to help kids in Joplin? Send books! The Missouri Writers Guild is collecting K-12 fiction, nonfiction, and reference books for destroyed Joplin schools. Send to Deb Marshall, 1203 Spartina Drive, Florissant, MO 63031


  1. I like how you made this personal. Looks like a fun activity!

  2. Thank you for posting this personal account of the tornadoes. Also, I think you're right about why disasters fascinate kids so much - they like to feel a little scared while still being safe. I remember my little brother used to take out every library book on disasters that he could find.