I just completed my last Skype visits of 2019. Eight months of the year, on the first Friday of the month, I talk to kids all over the country about writing and how my debut book, “Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse,” came to be. I decided shortly after the book was published, that these virtual visits would be a way to connect with kids at schools that perhaps can’t afford to have an in-person author visit (my Skype sessions are free). It’s been tremendously rewarding and more fun than I could have anticipated, plus I don’t even have to change out of my slippers!
Near the end of each session, I do a Q&A and, as you can imagine, I get a lot of repeat questions, such as, “What are you working on next?” “What are your favorite books?” and almost without fail, “What advice do you have for writers?” but this month, I got a variation on that last one, from a group of 5th graders, a question no group had ever asked me before:
“What advice do you have for our class, as readers?”
Wow! It took me a second to realize they’d said “readers,” not “writers,” and I had to pause. It’s such an important question, because if you’re not a reader, you can’t hope to become much of a writer, or at least not a very good one.
This was an interesting Skype visit for me in other ways, too, because for whatever reason, many of my Skypes are booked by schools in urban areas, but this was a 5th grade classroom in rural Kansas. They had never talked with an author before, never done a Skype visit, and the excitement in the room was palpable. When I asked if any of them lived on a farm, many hands went up, and they seemed rather shocked when I told them that I, too, had grown up on a farm and done barn chores after school and showed cows in 4-H.
There was very little racial diversity in my school (or town, for that matter) except for some economic class difference. Some kids, like me, came from blue collar families where both parents worked, and other kids had fathers (the moms in these families stayed home) who commuted into the city for white-collar jobs. But almost everybody was white, Christian and heterosexual (or pretending to be). The books I remember being assigned to read were of the Boy-Gun-Dog variety, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I remember liking the stories based solely on the dogs, but then the dogs died…so I turned away from any book with a dog on its cover for awhile after that (and vowed that if I should ever become a writer, no pet was going to die on my watch!).
I remember as a young child sitting glued to Sesame Street and marveling that there were people who lived in big buildings right next to each other (Apartments! What a concept!). I thought it would be so fun to have friends close by. We lived on 100 acres of corn and soybeans where a playdate with a friend was a complicated and not very frequent endeavor.
In addition to the lack of contact with anyone who was different from us, we did not have many books in our home. We also didn’t travel (my parents were especially scared of the city, so the only way I saw Chicago was on one amazing field trip). Honestly, if it wasn’t for Sesame Street, I would not have had any idea there were kids out there living different lives from mine.
I am so grateful that children’s literature is undergoing a much-needed expansion when it comes to diversity. My kids have so many more book options (so, imagine my disappointment when I see reading lists consisting solely of “the classics,” as though there was nothing valuable being created in the present).
Luckily for my kids, we are frequent library visitors. But many kids aren’t. I never visited the library as a child. And I don’t know much about the lives of those particular kids in rural Kansas, but my advice to them was simple: to read everything they could get their hands on (because you can’t decide what you love until you’ve seen all the possibilities) and, more importantly, to read about kids who are different from them. Read about a female protagonist if you’re a boy. Read about kids who are not white. Read about kids who are growing up in places very different from where they live. I was thinking of “The Night Diary,” and “The Bridge Home,” both books I read and loved this year and set in Pakistan and India, or read books about the immigrant experience in the U.S. like the wonderful “Front Desk,” or books about kids growing up in large cities, like “The Stars Beneath Our Feet.”
While I will always have some favorite books that more closely mirrored by own childhood (“Charlotte’s Web” remains a favorite read, and I felt like Fern was as close to a clone of me as you could get), it’s the books that brought me into a completely new place, books that really made me think, that continue to stick with me as I reflect over my reading this past year.
I hope the students will take me up on the challenge to read widely with diversity in mind. The world is growing smaller and if we want to have empathy for others, we have to first see them. In some places of the country, the only way to do this may be through books.