Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reading for Resilience and Empathy, plus a GIVEAWAY of GETTING SOMEWHERE

I've been thinking about the intersection of my writing and social work careers. As a therapist, I always encouraged kids to journal, and when working with young children, I used play therapy often consisting of acting out stories. I wrote assessment reports chronicling people's lives. Fellow social worker/author Kristen Simmons told me that one of her professors said social work is in everything you do.

My stories tend to venture into realistic dark places, some would say too much, and I've wondered if my social work background has desensitized me. Not that it's made me cold or unfeeling, but that bad things no longer shock me, I've seen them happen again and again.  But I've also witnessed many triumphs.

This summer, a tragedy struck close to home. My ten-year-old daughter's classmate died suddenly and unexpectedly from a health condition - a wonderful little boy who had sat next to her in classes for 3 years. A joyous, talented, friendly boy who smiled and greeted and conversed with everyone - kids and grown-ups alike. The funeral home was filled with his pictures, drawings, and half-filled notebooks, symbolic of his young life cut way too short, and a poignant display of how he touched so many of us in those years. My daughter and I cried and shared memory after memory for days and weeks afterwards. His absence at the start of the school year brought a fresh round of tears, as well as plans for how to honor his memory.

Her classmate's death also intensified my daughter's fears and worries about other friends. The friend who lost an eye to retinoblastoma and the friend battling leukemia, currently awaiting a bone marrow transplant. It made her afraid that some hidden unknown disease could be lurking inside her as well. I never had to deal with death so directly as a child, and the first funerals I attended were for grandparents. But we all know someone who lost a parent, sibling, or friend during their childhood, and maybe you were the one who experienced this loss.

It's natural that as writers we are drawn to exploring these themes in our writing. And as readers, these stories give us a way to safely experience the grief and loss that we'll all confront some day. Still, the urge to protect my daughter is strong. The parents die in that book, the girl is abused, it's too scary, it's too sad. I've hesitated and occasionally objected to her reading certain books because the content was too mature for her. But mostly, I've trusted her to decide for herself. She has read books about a boy with autism and a girl with cerebral palsy. She's read books about families in Afghanistan and slaves during the Revolutionary War. She's read books about war and peace, wealth and poverty, magic and mystery. She's read books about love and hate, friendship and bullying. She's read books about grief and loss, holding on and letting go.

YA Fusion blog partner/author/teacher Bethany Griffin often talks about how reading builds empathy.
 "Readers are better people/citizens. Readers empathize. Empathetic people have the ability to stop and think ‘how would that feel to me’ before they act, therefore, a reader should be less likely to bully or harass someone who is different from them." (From an interview at the Novel Novice blog.)

It naturally follows that reading also builds resilience. If you experience challenging situations in books, you can better cope with challenging situations in your life. Stories are empowering. Stories expand your worldview.  If you haven't read Sherman Alexie's eloquent response to critics of YA literature's dark side, Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood, go here. "I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters."

At the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles this summer, Gary Schmidt spoke about children's writers having a responsibility. "Write the stories that give your readers more to be a human being with." This resonated strongly with me. Yes, there is a place for books that are purely entertaining, but for me, the best stories are also enlightening and empowering.  Books that ask big questions, books that touch a nerve, books that speak to the core of humanity in each of us. Books to build empathy and resilience. Do you have a book to recommend? My list is long, but I'll share a recent debut with you.

Beth Neff is the author of Getting Somewhere (Viking/Penguin, 2012) and the creator of a youth writing program called SEE (Sustainability, Empathy, and Empowerment). She's the best one to explain her program and philosophy, so please check out her website.

Getting Somewhere.  Four girls: dealer, junkie, recluse, thief

Sarah, Jenna, Lauren, and Cassie may look like ordinary girls, but they're not. They're delinquents whose lives collide when they're sent to an experimental juvenile detention program on a farm in the middle of nowhere. As the girls face up to the crimes they committed, three of them will heal the wounds of their pasts and discover strengths they never dreamed they had. And one, driven by a deep secret of her own, will seek to destroy everything they've all worked so hard for.

* I'd love to share my beautiful hardcover copy of Beth's novel, Getting SomewhereTo enter the giveaway, please leave a comment below by Friday, October 5th, and include your email so I can contact you if you win.  This giveaway is for YA Fusion followers with U.S. mailing addresses.

* Banned book week begins September 30th. Check out this wonderful video to get yourself fired up.

* Tomorrow, I'll be at the Literary Rambles blog for Tip Tuesday, sharing advice from editor extraordinaire, Patricia Lee Gauch.  Please stop by and learn why she thinks the "show-don't-tell" rule can cause trouble. 

Have a wonderful week,
Kristin Lenz


Tracy Bilen said...

Thinking of you and your daughter

Katie McGarry said...

Thank you for the amazing post Kristin. My prayers go out to your daughter's friend's family and to the two of you. Also, thank you for reminding me why I write and why I read.

Angela Ackerman said...

I love this post! Building empathy is just one more reason why reading books is so important. As you mentioned here, we all become desensitized by all the things we see each day, and especially kids are susceptible.


Natalie Aguirre said...

Such a great post Kristin. My daughter has also faced a lot of death and serious illnesses of close family members at a young age. It's hard, but she's very mature because of it.

I'm going to let someone else win the book because my TBR list is out of control right now.

Ann Finkelstein said...

This is an extremely thoughtful post with implications that will affect my writing and parenting. My hat goes off to you as a writer, parent, and social worker.

Rebecca B said...

Excellent post. Empathy and reading are very interconnected. In my line of work, I see that teachers are being encouraged to teach less fiction and more expository text. It's great to see some arguments made about how students have as much to learn from fiction as from nonfiction, just a different skill set.

Kristen Simmons said...

Wonderful post Kristin - you know how important I feel it is to discuss empathy and resilience with everyone, not just our children. So right - social work is a part of every single thing we do.

Thank you for sharing this difficult story. My thoughts are with you and your daughter.

Kristen Remenar said...

Thank you, Kristin, for the post, the book recommendation, and the work you do. Thinking of you and your daughter as she struggles with the loss of a friend.

Michele said...

Beautifully written, deeply felt by this social worker and mommy:)

Colette Ballard said...

beautiful post, Kristin! My thoughts and prayers to you and your daughter.

Joanne Fritz said...

Kristin, what a sad and yet lovely post. You obviously knew what I was talking about in my own post. And I sympathize with what your daughter is going through right now. I lost a childhood friend (to a horrific accident) when I was ten, and I think it made me turn to reading to deal with my feelings. Literature can do so much to help people heal.

What would I recommend in the way of YA? Anything by A.S. King. She isn't afraid to delve into serious issues like bullying and abuse and her books help empower teens with the idea of taking action. Start with PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ if you haven't already read it. (That one also involves the death of a friend.)

Beth's book sounds amazing, but please let someone else win, as my TBR pile is overwhelming at the moment.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

oh dear! What a thing for your daughter to deal with - for the community. so young! I love this post, important, inspiring for writers, and a great reminder of being human! Well said.

This debut sounds awesome.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry you and your daughter have had such a hard time recently. No matter how old you are, it can be overwhelming to think about what tragedies may strike. But reading can definitely help us process these (very real) fears and, as you say, help build resistance. Wishing the best for your family.

Adventures in YA Publishing said...

What a great post -- and how tragic about the little boy and the other two children. That is a LOT for a kid to face. I've been so fortunate that my kids didn't have to go through anything like that until they were older and there were several suicides and car accidents. But being a kid is hard these days in so many different ways, and yes, absolutely, I agree that reading makes them more able to deal with difficulty. They can try on situations through reading without having to experience them first hand, and when something comes up, they are more able to deal with it. Empathy is so important, and great books definitely build that by putting the reader into the character's skin, unlike the video games and tv shows that so often take the human emotions only show the surface of a situation and make the emotions easy to dismiss.

Great post! Thank you so much for sharing it!


Angie Kidd said...

I really enjoyed this post. The first part about journaling to help deal with pain really struck me. My older sister was involved in a serious bicycle accident when I was in high school. Journaling while in the hospital waiting room really helped me deal with the situation. Luckily, she is ok now :-)
Loss and other difficult situations are never easy to deal with, but they are a part of life, even for children. You never know how a book can reach a kid and maybe even save a life. Here are two of my favorites: The Barn by Avi about a father with palsy whose children try to reach out to him by building a barn and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper about a girl with Cerebral Palsy who is very smart but can't communicate with her classmates. Understanding differences is key here and a great thing for children to learn at a young age.

Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks to everyone for sharing your stories and kind thoughts. Angie - my daughter read Out of My Mind and it affected her so much, she pushed it on all her friends.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is an excellent post. I write darker themed YA because I want to give hope to those going through the same issue as in my books, and give a sense of understanding to those individuals who aren't dealing with it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this this thought-provoking post. At this point my two young kids' knowledge of tragedy in the world is pretty limited. Sometimes it's hard to know how much of the world to expose them to and how much innocence to let dissolve. I guess in your case, the injustice of life just made itself known to your daughter without your consent.

Tricia C. said...

Completely agree with your thoughts. My student are dealing with the serious illness of a classmates. I know that some of the books they're reading are helping them deal with their emotions surrounding this. We can process so much through reading a story that we can connect with!

Danielle H. said...

I know this subject is difficult for everyone, especially for kids to understand. I think your book will help many kids and parents too. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this post. Empathy and compassion are key.

Best to you and yours,