This past November, the world shifted. For some, that feels like a good thing—they see things in our world that frighten or disgust them and believe that huge changes are needed to set us back on the right course. For others, it feels just the opposite—this new world looks like a dark, dangerous place that threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made. Whichever side of the political divide you find yourself on, one thing is certain: the times, they are a changin’.
Children are feeling those changes, too. Even prior to the election, Time magazine reported that “anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability.” And shortly after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project conducted an online survey of K-12 educators from across the United States. Of the more than 10,000 respondents, “A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.”
As artists, we tend to be even more sensitive to what’s going on around us, and these unsettling times are impacting us as well. I’ve heard many of my colleagues say they don’t know what to write about anymore—that their old ideas feel irrelevant in today’s view. Or they’re worried about how the changing publishing market will value the work they are creating now. Or they wish there was something more important they could contribute to push things in the direction they wish them to go.
Fortunately, as writers, we have a superpower: the ability to make our readers feel, and it is through the experience of those feelings that hearts and minds—particularly those of young readers—are forever changed. Story can serve as a mirror, after all, helping the reader validate and make sense of their own experiences. Or it can function as a window, allowing readers, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, to “slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.” Both can be invaluable in shaping who those readers ultimately become.
They say, however, that with great power comes great responsibility. Does that mean we all need to start writing about heavy, serious topics, to make kids understand? No, absolutely not! In 1968, E.B. White told The Paris Review, “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
Does it mean we have to write happy books with no undue stresses or negativity? Again, no! As Maurice Sendak said, “You must tell the truth about a subject to a child as well as you are able, without any mitigating of that truth. You must allow that children are small, courageous people who deal every day with a multitude of problems, just as adults do, and that they are unprepared for most things. What they yearn for most is a bit of truth somewhere.” (from The Art of Maurice Sendak, by Selma G. Lanes)
What is your role as author, then? To connect with your own deepest emotions and find a way to share them with your readers. You can start by choosing any emotion—happy, sad, scared, angry, excited… you name it (you can even pick a random one from the list here)—then make a list of everything that makes you feel that way and why. Or, simply notice whenever you’re struck by an emotion as you’re going about your day. In either case, ask yourself: Is there a story here?
Once you’ve collected those story ideas, be fearless. Do the work. Grapple with the feeling until you begin to understand it. Write unabashedly from your heart. Be as honest as possible with whatever you are writing, honor the universal humanness of your stories, and make your readers feel the emotions that you feel, whether that’s silly or serious, confident or broken, skeptical or curious, hopeless or optimistic… or the messy reality of experiencing all of those emotions mixed together at the same time. Then leave room for readers to meet you halfway and take whatever they may need from you at the time.
This makes your writing stronger, too. You may be writing about fuzzy bunnies, but your story will only work when you add real human emotion to it. You may be retelling a fairy tale, but readers will only care if they can relate it to their real lives. You may be writing narrative nonfiction, but pieces of why it matters to you–and your reader–must still shine through. The best stories give us something to think about long after we close the book because they gave us something to feel.
My first two books, EMMANUEL’S DREAM and BE A CHANGEMAKER, are quite serious and earnest. My third book, MY DOG IS THE BEST, is a lighthearted, funny picture book about a boy and a dog with mismatched energy levels. I wrote all of them, and I think they work because they reveal some of my deepest feelings, which happen to be feelings most of us can relate to on some level. It can be terrifying to put ourselves out there in that way, but I’ve come to believe it’s worth it. We write, after all, because we have something to say, whether we realize it or not.
So create boldly, share generously, and connect fearlessly. I think having a child connect with and remember our work is ultimately why we do what we do, and that connection might be just what a young reader needs to see the world in a different light. As Jeanette Winterson said in an interview on CBC Radio, “Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”
And isn’t that the most important gift you could ever give to anyone?
Laurie Ann Thompson writes for children and young adults to help her readers–and herself–make better sense of the world we all live in, so we can contribute to making it a better place for all of us. She strives to write nonfiction that gives wings to active imaginations and fiction that taps into our universal human truths, as seen in her books BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS, a teen how-to guide filled with practical advice and inspiration for young social entrepreneurs; EMMANUEL’S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH, a picture book biography of a young man who changed Ghana’s perception of people with disabilities; MY DOG IS THE BEST, a fiction picture book about the bond that exists between a child and a beloved family pet; and the upcoming TWO TRUTHS & A LIE: IT’S ALIVE! (co-authored with Ammi-Joan Paquette), which seeks to help readers learn to recognize the difference between hard-to-believe truths and outright lies. Learn more at lauriethompson.com and on Twitter @lauriethompson.
Laurie is giving away two copies of BE A CHANGEMAKER.
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