What happened this weekend in Arizona had me despairing about the state of my country. Will we never learn to swim above it all? The violent rhetoric, the us-vs.-them mentality that leads one human being to hate another because of the difference in political affiliation or church membership or income level or skin color?
While the madness has been going on outside my house, inside I have been reading The Help. Even though it’s a “big people” book, I recommend it to you all. It’s a novel about the relationships between wealthy white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi and it takes place in the ’60s. I grew up in the south during those tumultuous times, but the book reads like historical fiction (in 2011, I guess it is). The point I’m trying to make is that it keeps hitting me over and over that the time the author is writing about is MY time–my childhood, my formative years. A time when KKK members stood on the street corners of MY neighborhood in their pointy hats and masks with buckets for collecting money the way firefighters in small towns now stand with their boots to collect change to fund their work.
The things Kathryn Stockett writes about in her novel are so horrific: a teenage boy blinded for accidentally using a white restroom; someone whose tongue was cut out for “agitating”. These things are so awful that every time I remember that these were MY times, I feel as if an electric shock has gone through me.
This is a blog about writing, about books, so let me move on to why I’m sharing these thoughts today. This morning as I read a few chapters of The Help and tried to get my mind around the fact that these things happened during my childhood, I also thought about the fact that in the same lifetime–mine–a black man has been elected President of the United States.
Then I went on to read the announcements from ALA of the authors and illustrators winning awards for their work. On that list were many blacks and hispanics, as well as whites of who-knows-what ancestry. I thought about what a wonder it is to live in this time, this place. Bryan Collier can win a Caldecott honor for Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave; Barack Obama is the man in the White House offering condolences to those who lost loved ones in Arizona. All around me, humanity still exemplifies the best in itself more often than the worst.
Books may not seem important, but they are–in fact, they’re vital. Books are the way we tell our stories to one another in the 21st Century. They are the way we remember our history and the way we avoid repeating it. They introduce kids to Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo as well as Mary Cassatt. They show our children what it would be like today if people had not fought and died to end segregation.
This is why I tell you over and over to write the truth, write the important stories, write the stories that are yours to tell even if it hurts to write them. I tell myself this over and over again, too.
And lest you think I’m saying we all have to write The Help, I’m not. I’m saying bring light into the world. Bring hope into the lives of kids. Bring joy, laughter, friendship, love.
Here are some of my favorite books that show young people what it means to be human, in the best sense of the word:
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy
- Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
- The Hunger Games trilogy
- Where the Wild Things Are
- Maniac Magee
- The Book Thief
- Shooting the Moon
- The Absolutely True Tale of a Part-time Indian
- A Girl Named Disaster
- Number the Stars
This is a very short list; the list could go on forever. Share a few of your favorites with the rest of us and never forget how vital what you are doing is and why it must be done with awareness and care and, most of all, the knowledge that you are writing for the most impressionable of us all: children. Maybe one of your books will be what saves some future young man from being confused by the hatred coming from the mouths of the adults around him. Maybe your stories will soften his heart; maybe your words will show him what it truly means to be human. Maybe your books will be part of what makes future times even better!