For most of the last year, I've been hearing a lot of angst in the writing community. The political situation – especially shocking events like the Nazi rally in Charlottesville – can leave people feeling angry, depressed, and discouraged. This can interfere with our ability to write.
A few months ago, Janet Lee Carey and I had a great online conversation about Art and Activism. I'm excerpting and adapting some of those thoughts here.
A lot of people have been suffering in recent months because of the political situation. Hate crimes and bullying seem to be increasing, as kids learn from what they see adults doing. On the bright side, many people have been inspired to fight for social justice. That’s wonderful, but the challenge is using your time in the most effective way. You could make a full-time job out of signing petitions and sending messages to politicians.
Political activism is important, whether that means marching, calling/writing your representatives, donating to good causes, or attending town hall meetings – or even running for office. But it’s physically and financially impossible to do everything, and trying leads to burnout. We need to use our time wisely.
As creative people, we have something special to offer the world. Young people need to see themselves in our stories. They need to see children who are different from them, to build empathy. They need to see people acting with kindness and integrity, or making mistakes and then making amends.
A child can be inspired by a fictional or nonfiction hero who works to make the world a better place. One of my favorite letters from a young reader was about my Mayan historical drama, The Well of Sacrifice. She said, “The book helped me think to never give up, even in the worst of times, just like what happened to Eveningstar.” Maybe that inspiration will fade, but hopefully, she’ll read another book, and then another, that will inspire her in the same way.
Kids also need strong nonfiction that recognizes what’s happening in this world, such as global climate change. And they need books that help them understand the difference between fact, opinion, and fiction. (Many adults could use these lessons as well.)
Finally, children and adults need books that are beautiful and funny, books that make them feel wonderful. Writing something silly and playful might seem frivolous, but some days you need to ease the pain, you need laughter. Those can be the books that help a child fall in love with reading, which is life-altering power.
Diversity is a big topic in children's literature today, with good reason. We need diverse books, and more #OwnVoices books – books featuring diverse characters written by authors from that same group. Sadly, there aren’t enough publishing slots available for all the great books being written, and it’s hard enough for each of us to build and maintain our own career. Still, we can combine our kidlit camaraderie with social justice by supporting diverse writers and stories: Make sure those writers feel welcome at writing group meetings. Find someone to mentor. Share news about publishers, agents, awards, grants and so forth. And of course, buy, read, and recommend diverse books.
Supporting authors from diverse backgrounds is key in making sure everyone is represented and heard. Writing our own diverse characters – with appropriate research and vetting from people in the community – is also important. We may not have lived those lives – or the lives of any of our characters – but we can draw on our own empathy (and research) to create authentic characters.
We take risks when we bring diversity into our work when we are not from that group ourselves. Sometimes people make mistakes, and it’s healthy to discuss the problems and encourage people to do better in creating honest, non-stereotypical diverse characters. But if we become too critical, people become afraid to take chances, and that won’t increase the number of wonderful, diverse topics and characters available.
I’ve written historical fiction set in ancient times, which makes it a little easier. No one really knows how people thought in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala, or in ancient Egypt, so I have more leeway. (And I assume that most people, throughout history, were motivated by the same things that motivate us today. It’s not like the seven deadly sins have gone out of style.)
I hope these stories can inspire kids today by valuing those cultures and showing nonwhite characters having fantastic adventures. My Mayan and Egyptian books also show those kids as the majority, the people in power – a reminder that white American/European culture has not always been the standard against which others are judged.
Of course, in The Eyes of Pharaoh, the Egyptians feel like they are the best, and therefore could never be overthrown by the hordes of barbarians who might want what they have…. And The Well of Sacrifice opens with the main character meeting a scary “outsider” in the jungle (but then befriending him). So contemporary issues do come up, just in a different format. That distance allows readers to see today’s issue from a different angle.
There is value in our writing, whether we directly address social justice, or show characters behaving honorably, or get a child laughing so they’re more likely to pick up another book. We shouldn’t use this as an excuse to ignore all other forms of activism, but we do need to save time for our writing and honor the value of writing and books. They make our world a better place.
What's Your Strength?
Take time to decide how you can best spend your time, instead of chasing the “do it now” demands on social media. Is it worth driving three hours to the state capital to attend a rally? Should you spend an hour signing petitions? Is there equal value in spending your time writing?
How much diversity, social justice, and inspiration do your books include? There's no right or wrong answer here. Books can do many things, and it's important to avoid coming across as "preachy." Still, review your works in progress. How are they going to make the world a better place?
In our conversation, Janet said, "Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to connect each novel to a charity that somehow relates to the story theme, encouraging readers to Read and Reach Out. I began doing that before joining readergirlz, but it became obvious that we all had that connecting literature and charity in common and it became a big part of what we did with the online presence. The Giving Back page of my website like Save the Rainforest shows the books/charity connection for In the Time of Dragon Moon.”
What a great way to celebrate success by giving back!
How else can we support our communities and the values we believe in? Do you think writing children's literature is as important as other social justice action? Does it make a difference if you don't know whether you'll ever get the book published? Is there value in supporting ourselves through following a regular writing practice, whether or not it leads to publication?
Check out the entire Art and Activism conversation between Janet and me
When Picture Book People Get Political by K-Fai Steele on Kidlit Artists
Publishers Hiring Book Readers to Flag Sensitivity by Everdeen Mason, The Washington Post
Write a Book, Save the World by Bryn Greenwood at Writer Unboxed
How to Stay Sane if Trump is Driving You Insane: Advice From a Therapist by Robin Chancer at Politics Means Politics
Anne Lamott Shares All That She Knows, by Anne Lamott at Salon
Why Write During Difficult Times by Monica Bhide at Writer Unboxed
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her writing craft books include Advanced Plotting, and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.