Well, it’s been quite a week. The country is still reeling from the most divisive election in most of our lifetimes, and every conversation with a stranger — or even a neighbor — contains potential fireworks. The children are of course picking up on our individual and national cocktails of stress and anger and fear and suspicion, and there is ripe new fodder for bullying and marginalizing on playgrounds. We’ve all read the stories about what’s cropping up around the country, so the question at hand is, What do we do for our nation’s children that is truly helpful? And helpful right now, right this minute?
(Side note: Publishers and editors, authors and illustrators, we have a HUGE imperative. More on that at the end.)
My own very basic answer is, try to create an environment of safety and empathy around you. It’s helpful to let children know that you hear and understand their fears and worries. It may help them to know that you want to believe in the goodness and kindness of most of our country’s people, and that you and many, many other adults are committed to protecting and supporting those who are vulnerable. And then hand them books that ignite and affirm empathy, books that give them the windows and mirrors we talk about so often. Books that reach their hearts, inspire them to be their best selves, and that let them know they are seen, valued, and loved.
This election and its aftermath made me think of a Rumer Godden novel I read as a child. The Diddakoi is about a child named Keziah, or Kizzy, who is bullied because of her gypsy (now we would say Romany) heritage. She lives with her Gran in a charming little caravan on wheels, and has a horse named Joe. When her Gran dies, and her caravan catches fire, Kizzy is suddenly without protection, surrounded by people whose suspicion of her differences makes her a target for derision and hatred. Kizzy is a little like Katherine Paterson’s Gilly Hopkins, a seemingly tough cookie who is filled with confusion, anger, well-earned caution, and a yearning for unconditional love. I remember this book being an uncomfortable read for me as a kid. I liked for people to be happy. I wanted people to see who Kizzy really was, even though I didn’t always like her myself (like Gilly, she is a flawed and all-too-human character). It may have been an uncomfortable read, but it stayed with me forever and, like Eleanor Estes’ powerful little book, The Hundred Dresses, forever influenced my understanding of bullying and privilege. The Diddakoi ends happily, with Kizzy in the care of a stable, kind adult who loves her, and she blossoms, finally safe, loved and protected. The adult also happens to be wildly wealthy. It’s a fantasy ending, unlike the more realistic outcomes of The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Hundred Dresses, but after Kizzy’s struggles, my child self was not unhappy with a bit of Little Orphan Annie luck and hope at the end of the story.
I believe that if we had done a better job for the past several decades in creating books and television shows that respect, celebrate, and reflect ALL of our nation’s citizens, we might not be in the state we’re in right now. There are huge pockets of our country that are homogeneous, not just racially, but economically and ideologically. Some people’s only exposure to people different from what they’re used to comes from television, magazines, newspapers, the internet, and books. When TV shows only have non-white characters as cardboard representations of “the other,” we create, well, the culture we have.
We create the culture we have. Publishers and editors, authors and illustrators, we have a HUGE imperative to catch up right now with the world we’ve got: a multicultural, diverse, glorious nation. We can do so much to normalize and celebrate that diversity, and we are only just now scratching at the surface. We are seeing the price of ignoring this opportunity, this essential and urgent call.
The Wall Street Journal recently released an article, Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that fiction is more effective than nonfiction at creating empathy, because it brings us inside other people’s minds and hearts and souls and gives readers the experience of reading other people’s emotions through subtle cues of gesture, body language, and behavior. Reading fiction actually teaches people how to better understand others. The effects of the empathy we feel while reading a book actually last far beyond the reading experience, as well. Something surprising: “In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation, specially among men.” I’m chewing on that.
Back in June, I wrote a ShelfTalker post called, Books That Spark Empathy, which provided a few of some of my own favorite titles and invited readers for suggestions. The New England Children’s Booksellers community also created a list of Windows and Mirrors Books. (The link is to Edelweiss, and I think you have to be a subscriber to access it, but I’ll create a public list from it for you readers.) And, the ALA just sent out a press release containing this helpful item: “The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has released a new booklist to share the message of creating unity, acting with kindness toward others, and promoting peace. ALSC’s Quicklists Consulting Committee developed this list for librarians, parents, caregivers, teachers, and other caring adults faced with children asking tough questions about the recent election and looking at positive ways to take action.” Here is their Unity. Kindness. Peace. book list.
One book that is essential for all elementary classrooms at the moment is I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, which introduces readers to three New American children, from Korea, Guatemala, and Somalia.
Please share in the comments below the books you love sharing with children to spark empathy and community, and I will create a LibraryThing database we all can use.
P.S. There are many helpful articles to help adults talk with children about the election, including What Do We Tell the Children and How to Talk to Children about the Election, both in the Huffington Post. And I just read a good Salon article with an additional take on how to support our kids through a stressful time by helping them learn to cope with uncertainty. Please feel free to share other resources that are helping you with your children and students.