TALKING TO children about war is terribly hard. Thanks to cartoons and Rambo movies, American kids often are satisfied if they can cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys.
But what about families who want to go beyond that? How do parents explain something they can't make sense of themselves? There are no simple answers to questions of morality; perhaps that's why we feel most comfortable with the easy symbolism of yellow ribbons.
One new book, however, can help. ''The Wall,'' by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Clarion Books, $13.95, ages 4-8) is the story of a young boy and his father who visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
They go to the wall to find the name of the little boy's grandfather, who died in 1967. ''He was just my age when he was killed,'' the boy's father tells him.
The message is personal, not political. It conveys pride and appreciation and sympathy for those who fought in Vietnam, and those they left behind. But it also lets kids know that it's OK to wish that soldiers never had to fight and die. As war in the Middle East continues, it puts flag-waving "patriotism" into perspective.
At the wall, the narrator and his father meet a veteran in a wheelchair. Then an old man and a little boy walk past: ''Can we go to the river now, Grandpa?'' the boy asks. ''Yes, but button your jacket. It's cold,'' the old man says.
Finally, as the narrator and his father stand with heads bowed in front of the wall, a gaggle of school girls rushes past. They're all carrying little American flags on sticks, which they plant in the dirt at the base of the wall before running off to the next stop on their tour.
The boy and his dad are alone again. ''It's sad here,'' the boy says. ''I know,'' his father says. ''But it's a place of honor. I'm proud that your grandfather's name is on this wall.''
''I am too,'' the narrator tells us. ''But I'd rather have my grandpa here, taking me to the river, telling me to button my jacket because it's cold.
''I'd rather have him here.''
For older kids, ages 12 and up, three new books explore the Vietnam war. As adults hope against hope that the fighting in the Persian Gulf doesn't lead to ''another Vietnam,'' these books can help students begin to understand the scars left by that horrible time.
If you're looking for a textbook approach, check out ''Portrait of a Tragedy, America and the Vietnam War,'' by James A. Warren (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, $17.95). Warren gives a great deal of background on America's involvement in Southeast Asia. Rather than blaming the government for blundering into the war, he paints a picture of global pressures -- politicians' fears that the war could escalate into a battle with the Soviet Union or Communist China -- that try to explain why the U.S. military effort was limited and why it ultimately failed.
''Vietnam, A War on Two Fronts,'' by Sidney Lens, (Lodestar Books, $15.95) doesn't hide its intent. The late Sidney Lens was a leader of the peace movement, and the book's jacket includes recommendations from Daniel Ellsberg, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Linus Pauling. It doesn't pull any punches about mistakes made by President Kennedy and President Johnson.
But the majority of the book chronicles the growth of the anti-war movement, and it will help parents who opposed the war explain that divisive time to their children.
''Vietnam, Why We Fought: An Illustrated History,'' by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95) takes more of a middle ground. It devotes more than 30 pages to the history of Vietnam. It humanizes the North Vietnamese, trying to explain why they have been willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives for the independence their country had been fighting for, on and off, ever since China first invaded in 111 B.C.
This book covers subjects that probably won't be included in many high school history textbooks: Agent Orange, the My Lai massacre, the Amerasian orphans left behind.
It also deals with the anger and pain U.S. veterans faced when they returned home from the only war America had ever lost. The country didn't begin to heal those wounds until seven years after the fall of Saigon. In 1982, a parade of 150,000 marched down Constitution Avenue for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of the 58,000 soldiers who died are etched forever in black granite.