Children’s Books & Activism

I don’t enjoy living in a world where native women in my home province can be sexually assaulted by police who are not brought to trial for their actions; I don’t enjoy living beside a country that has just elected a self-identified molester of women. I don’t enjoy many things about this world, but I often ask myself what am I doing to change it. At times, a voice in my head says, “Nothing” and at others it says, “Not enough.” Sure, I sign petitions and have occasionally held up signs and shouted out my disapprovals, but I am not a maker and shaker in the world of activism by any stretch.

But this morning, inspired by the words of my fellow children’s authors, and by a blog post by my editor, Barry Jowett, I revised this opinion. I write books for kids. What greater form of activism could there be? I like to think that all my books contain food for thought for my young readers. The characters’ thoughts and actions, though not consciously designed to instruct, might point young readers in the direction of kindness or honesty or empathy (even if our political leaders can’t). Heck, just the aesthetic experience that a youngster gets from reading a book is an antidote to some of the ugliness of the world, where corporate profit is so often put before human value. Words, sentences, like the brushstrokes of a piece of art, can uplift and transport kids to a place of positivity, hope, and understanding. They can inspire change and the desire for better things, all qualities essential for activism.

I recently stood transfixed by the works of Emily Carr, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and, for a few minutes, there was nothing but the vibrancy of the colours of their “Mystical Landscapes” and the deep emotion they inspired. The paintings helped me regain balance and reminded me that there is wonder and beauty in the world.

Wonder and beauty: nothing offers those things better than children’s books. If they are about dark subjects, as so many are, there is still wonder and beauty in the words. I reread Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath in the days after the US election. It’s pure magic, a poetic story of love thriving amidst hatred. It inspired me and I can only imagine it’s done the same for thousands of children. Much has been written about the importance of reading in a child’s life. In Neil Gaiman’s wonderful lecture, “Libraries: Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming”, he says everything I’m trying to say but way more elegantly. This is one of my favourite quotes from his piece: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

In other words, books, by their very nature, are a form of activism because they help change and expand minds, and give a blueprint for change. My guess is that the president elect (I refuse to use his name in my piece) is not a reader of fiction and was probably not a reader of fiction as a child. If he was, he’d know that even little Max eventually went home to love and a hot supper after a day of playing with monsters. He didn’t celebrate the monsters by living amongst them. His power was short-lived and, in the end, he exchanged it for human kindness.

Well, enough said. Back to the writing ….