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 Somewhere. To 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,