Our regional Austin SCBWI conference was stunning as usual, and you can see coverage on Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s blog here. Our dazzling keynote speaker, Lisa Yee, also blogged about her conference experience here.
And every once in a while, someone’s presentation rocks the foundations of the stage they stand on, and finds its way so deeply into every audience member that there’s a palpable CHANGE going on, as if every single person in the audience’s cells are shifting and readjusting to (or deeply resonating with) the information being shared.
So I want to focus on the talk given by the incredible author/university professor Donna Jo Napoli, because I had the good fortune to remember much of what was said, and because much of the speech lies so close to my heart.
This is a totally paraphrased, condensed, summarized version of Donna Jo’s words; please bear that in mind. I will happily throw in any corrections if other conference attendees remember things I’ve forgotten or misstated.
The talk was titled “How Writing About Terrible Things Makes Your Reader a Better Person,” and, although it was basically about censorship, ended up digging far deeper than that.
I understand that parents want to be protective of the ways in which their children meet information about things like sex and religion….and there are some things to consider.
There are protected children—the children who have enough to eat, a bed to call their own, a private area in which to do their homework, and adults in their lives who listen to and love them, people around them that those kids can count on.
Those are the protected children….and we’re going to put them aside for a minute. Then there are children who don’t have enough food to eat, and no bed to call their own, and no place to do their homework. They go to school tired because they didn’t get enough sleep or the right things to eat. And this may not have anything to do with whether they have parents who love them; many times they do, and it’s a socioeconomic situation that keeps them from having what they need. This is one version of the unprotected child.
Then, there are the children who are completely unprotected, and those are all over the socioeconomic spectrum—they are rich and poor and from all ethnicities. All kinds of things go on behind closed doors. They have no adults in their lives they can trust. They have learned that telling what is happening to them does no good, or they have learned that telling is going to make things a whole lot worse for them. So they exist in isolation. They don’t know if there is anyone like them in the world.
Now what can be more powerful for an unprotected child than to read about other unprotected children? They need to know they aren’t alone, and how people in situations similar to theirs have coped…..
When I was little we were poor, and I didn’t know anyone else was poor. I loved the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” because it was about another poor child. In the book, the main character escapes *a man who is at the bottom of the stairs. But you know, I would have given anything to read about the child who didn’t escape that man.
And I would argue that the protected children need books about unprotected children even more. If you are loved, and you are well-intentioned and work hard, it becomes very easy to assume that good things have come your way simply because you worked hard, and not because you were loved. It becomes easy to walk by the homeless man on the street and say, “That’s his own damn fault, he should have worked hard.” It becomes easy to forget the opportunities you had because you were loved. And you become intolerant, and intolerable. If you are loved, books will teach you empathy for the suffering of others. Books give both protected and unprotected children the tools to cope with the world as it is.
We need to learn empathy. Empathy is the foundation of civilization. Without it we’re just animals. And one way for us to do that is through books.
Yeah….(it’s back to me, Salima, now.) Is that not amazing? If ever you have the opportunity to hear Donna Jo speak, I highly recommend it.
*I BELIEVE that’s what Donna Jo said—”a man at the bottom of the stairs.” I have not yet read the book, so if anyone who has read it needs to correct me, please do.