Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Secrets of Kidlit: What's Behind the Curtain

It is widely known that a love of reading is most often developed in early childhood. With many it can wax and wane over the years, and for some of us stories are as required for survival as food and water.

Then there are those of us who write for children. There is a part of our hearts that still dwells in those early years of existence, and we – knowing what we know now – want to help shape and ultimately entertain those who come after us. We remember getting lost in pages becoming temporary best friends with the people we find there. We share their struggles. We go on adventures, make new friends, learn new skills, solve mysteries, and slay dragons from the safety of our reading spaces.

And from the best books, our very favorites with their creased spines and dog-eared pages, we learn something.

We’ve all seen the posts on social media, “I just wish this (insert kids book/movie/television show) wasn’t so political…”

The word “politics” is almost an obscenity nowadays. Like most charged words “politics” or “political” has multiple definitions, and (like most charged words) people often conflate definitions indiscriminate of the situation. When I hear people who are “just gonna stay out of politics” or “not trying to be political” they most likely mean they have no patience for entertaining those who “deal with people in an opportunistic, manipulative, or devious way…” – which is a good thing.

However, politics or “political affairs” are, first and foremost, how people choose to govern themselves.

Every single thing in our lives – from how we make and spend our money to where we live and what we eat – is determined by politics.

Policy is derived from the same root word as politics (surprise!). Policies…rules…laws. Laws (in a democratic society) are determined ultimately by the morals and priorities of its citizens.
In our earliest years, readers, we learned more about the world around us, saw ourselves, and saw what we wanted to be in the pages of our most treasured books. Being introduced to values that challenged or reinforced our own helped to develop our own moral code. The foundations of our belief system can be seen in old fairytales, local legends, and family folklore passed down through generations.

People often refer to books as an “escape”, and while that is no doubt true I think something even more true is that they are an emotional and mental training ground. It’s easy to want to escape the world we live in sometimes. Especially recently. Reality, everything outside of the pages, can be a confusing, nasty, and dangerous place with no final chapter, denouement, or decreasing number of pages to let us know that we’re almost out of the woods – that the worst is over, and it’s all about to be okay again. Reality, above all, is uncertain.

What is certain though, are the truths we learned from books when we were young. That story that opened your eyes to a different worldview, or encouraged you to try That Thing that your favorite character did. Every story redefines and shapes its readers.

Every story you write, every story that is written is a political one. The author’s beliefs inform their character’s choices and world one way or another. All art is political. It is an artist’s mark on humanity that says “I am here! And this is what I believe!”

The most successful stories were intentionally political:

Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy
Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, or The Giver
Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

…the list of intelligently, and intentionally thought provoking works that stand every measurable test of time all have that one thing in common – their unwavering political message. Their message regarding how people should treat one another and question the status quo.

Keep that in your mind as you craft your stories. It’s easy to get caught up in plot-twists and character arcs, but all of those things spring from one place in your heart as an author – and that’s your political stance. How you live your live day-to-day, the things you believe and hold dear, and values you believe our society should protect and preserve are what crafts every word of your story.

I encourage you to be actively political. Seek out new opinions and broader perspectives to not only enrich your own life, but your writing as well. Being intentional and conscious of even the most minute choices your characters make, or the smallest aspect of a fantastic world you’ve built will sharpen your skill as a writer – and hopefully it will challenge you, too.

With those things in mind, it may be you who truly opens a child’s eyes to something new and beautiful. Never be afraid of being “political”. Never be afraid to be intentional in the morals you insert into your story. Art is one of the ways we shape civilization, our nation, our neighbors, and ourselves – don’t waste it.   

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