Books can open doors to inclusivity

Many of us who write books for children, recommend books for children, and teach children to read books have been wondering lately what more we can do to move the world forward to have more inclusivity, compassion, and empathy. We’ve been wondering if our efforts really make a difference. We may have been tempted to pull back, to retreat, to avoid the difficult conversations and interactions. But sometimes pushing past the discomfort and making an honest connection can make all the difference in the world.
I just read a beautiful article in the Washington Post written by fellow kidlit author and agency-mate Suzanne Nelson. In the article, Suzanne writes about a birthday party that she didn’t go to because the girl was hearing impaired and communicating with her was awkward. She writes about how she still hasn’t been able to forgive herself for making that cowardly decision. And she writes about how we can help others avoid acting similarly:

Every moment we share books, music, conversation, or meals with people who might not be completely like us, is one moment more that we benefit and grow as human beings, that we recognize the beauty, fluidity, and worth of our differences. And the more we do this as adults, the more our children recognize how to interact, how to have empathy. We all have moments when we are less than kind, less than tolerant, less than the people we strive to be. With exposure, contact, and education, I hope my children grow up to have fewer of them. Maybe they’ll walk through that door, and maybe they’ll go to that party.

The article reminded me of a woman I was friends with in college. I met her when I was working as an assistant in the computer lab. She often needed help. She was in a motorized wheelchair. She was elderly. She had cerebral palsy. She could barely talk. She made the letters on the screen so big she could only read a few words at a time. She would type her papers one difficult keystroke at a time, jabbing at the keyboard with a fat pencil. She often missed and had to go back and try again, sometimes shrieking in anger. It was painstaking to watch, and yet I admired her determination. Were any of the rest of us taking our education that seriously? Would any of the rest of us have willingly put ourselves through that frustration and embarrassment every single evening and weekend?
Over time, I got to know her better. I started being able to decipher her slurred speech and have meaningful conversations with her. Despite the communication barriers and the generation gap, we became friends. Sometimes when she saw me outside of the lab she would get so excited that she would smile and laugh, which often resulted in drool and spitting. People around us would recoil in disgust. I had too, initially, but what’s a little spit among friends? When I invited my boyfriend, who is now my husband, to visit me at college, we made plans to go out to dinner with her. She knew how I felt about him and was joyous at meeting him, so pizza and drool were flying everywhere, often spraying us and our plates. I was worried that he’d be upset with me for putting him through this, but the entire meal he treated her with respect and interest. He waited for me to translate her speech so he could converse with her. Afterward, he said something to the effect of, “What an interesting, amazing woman. I can see why you like her.” I fell in love with him all over again because of that interaction.
My life has been forever enriched by knowing her and others like her. So, I urge you to read Suzanne’s whole article, here. I urge you to write, recommend, and teach books that will help children choose kindness and inclusivity and to value all kinds of people of all abilities, races, religions, orientations, identities, etc. And I urge you to take a risk, seek connection over comfort, and make sure you go to that party.
Here are some possible books to start with:

Some recent reads: great narrative nonfiction

Most of my recent reading has been creative or narrative nonfiction.  Before the holidays, I was reading THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I’m in awe of, and frankly a little intimidated by, the level of detail they go into. I don’t think I’d ever be able to interview a subject enough to get that kind of background. Of course, in this case, the subject is also one of the authors, so maybe that collaboration is the secret.

For Christmas, my husband got me Jeannette Walls’ HALF-BROKE HORSES. It’s fiction, but was heavily researched and based on the true life story of the author’s grandmother. I think a nonfiction writer can learn a lot by studying this book. The writing is simple, engaging, and beautiful all at the same time. The biggest take-away from this one, though, is voice. As a reader, you can hear the grandmother’s voice and feel her personality while you’re reading, and that, in turn, allows you sneak peeks inside her character and go beyond what the author is telling you directly.

Santa brought my daughter Jim Murphy’s AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: THE TRUE AND TERRIFYING STORY OF THE YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC OF 1793. (Santa has good taste in books, no?) This book is pure nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. The strong development of the setting feels like you are right there Philadelphia (thank goodness it doesn’t have scratch and sniff stickers!). The tension is rising at a fever pitch (forgive the pun) as the fever itself spreads. And the writing is pure poetry. Check out this closing paragraph of Chapter 2:

“On Saturday, August 25, a savage storm hit the city, bringing winds and torrents of rain. Water cascaded of roofs, splashed loudly onto the sidewalks, and ran in burbling rivers through the streets. The howling wind and pounding rain made a frightful noise, and yet through it all a single, chilling sound could still be heard—the awful tolling of the church bells.” [they rang the bells to announce a death]

My technical writer/journalist tendencies would have been to say something like, “x number of people died that day.” Concise, factual… and boring! The paragraph above does so much more. Then, the closing paragraph of Chapter 3 kicks it up another notch:

“Philadelphia was a city in panic and flight. It did not even help when Mayor Clarkson acted on another recommendation from the College of Physicians. The tolling bells that had so thoroughly terrified everyone were ordered to remain still. The great silence that followed did little to comfort those left behind. It was too much like the eternal silence of the grave.”

Chills, right? And that’s only Chapter 3.
I also love the design of this book. The facing page of every new chapter is a photographic reproduction of a primary source relevant to the chapter: a newspaper page, letter, government report, etc. You can gloss over them if you want without missing any of the story, but you can also find yourself reveling in the thrill of going through the primary source material for yourself. I love that they chose to do it this way, especially in a book for children.

Finally, I recently read the picture book BIBLIOBURRO by Jeanette Winter. This book is so simple, so concise, but yet so beautifully told. The artwork is gorgeous, but it’s also a masterpiece of saying everything you want to say, and nothing more. What struck me as particularly interesting about this one is that she chose to tell the whole story in present tense, even though the point in time changes part of the way into the story! And it works.

Another thing that struck me about this book is the subject. It’s about someone no one (at least in the U.S.) has ever heard of delivering books to remote villages by burro. Having been told that you can’t sell a book these days about someone no one has ever heard of, no matter how interesting their story is, I’m thrilled to see that a respected publisher like Beach Lane Books took a chance on this one. I hope they continue to seek out those interesting yet underreported stories that more of us need to hear about.

What are your recent nonfiction favorites, and what makes them stand out for you?