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April 5, 2012

Children drawn to Titanic tale; educators use caution

NEW YORK — 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."

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