The Common Good
November 2007

Bridges to Compassion

by Ginny Moore Kruse | November 2007

Gripping books for young people provide handles for engaging the world - even the world of violence and war.

“As we gather here, let us remember the lonely, for whom this company would be a festival of life; the persecuted, for whom this gathering would be an act of physical courage; and the hungry, for whom it would be the feast of a lifetime.”

My husband and I often use this table grace, and we use it whether or not young children are at the table. They aren’t alarmed—but then again, they aren’t starving, either.

How might young readers respond to a more direct encounter with disenfranchised individuals, even with children and teenagers caught in war? It’s possible to read viable, gripping, well-written, authentic accounts—autobiographical and fictional alike—about young people who lose their innocence and even childhood because they’re in the wake or epicenter of war, whether the war is an actual military venture or one of poverty. Even the venerable Dr. Seuss weighed in with The Butter Battle Book, a Cold War story about the escalating tit-for-tat violence between the Zooks and the Yooks.

Most literature created for children and teenagers involves a young protagonist, and often that main character tells the story. First-person narrators bring immediacy and credibility to the stories. Ishmael Beah, for example, shares graphic personal experiences in A Long Way Gone, a memoir about his youth in Sierra Leone as a boy soldier. He and other starving boys orphaned by war became crazed by drugs and dazed by the violence they had witnessed, and ultimately caused themselves, time and again. Originally published for adults, A Long Way Gone is also being read by teenagers; last summer it appeared on a few of the required summer reading lists for incoming college freshmen.

Similarly, Ibtisam Barakat remembers her Palestinian girlhood in her memoir Tasting the Sky. She has a remarkable ability to re-create the voice and emotional landscape of a very young child. The memories she recounts bring into sharp focus today’s headlines about Middle East conflicts. Both of these authors remember their childhood experiences by incorporating searing details in prose that can be surprisingly lyrical and has the authority of a personal account.

Several successful writers who have not personally experienced war as children or teenagers have met the difficult challenge of convincing readers that their novels involve authentic observations. In Under the Persimmon Tree by former journalist Suzanne Fisher Staples, readers find a believable novel about Najmal’s flight from the devastation of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, as well as a parallel story of an American aid worker who befriends the girl in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Deborah Ellis spent time in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Russia before writing what has become known as the Breadwinner Trilogy, in which orphaned children literally trek through minefields to relative safety. Before writing several other gripping novels about young people caught in wars of various kinds, Ellis routinely placed herself in regions where she has become acquainted with young survivors. The Heaven Shop, set in Malawi, involves Binti, who is orphaned after her parents die of AIDS. I Am a Taxi concerns a Bolivian boy, Diego, who with the innocent motive of earning money to assist his mother and sister is coerced into helping harvest a crop that will lead to the global cocaine trade. He is ultimately driven to violence in order to escape.

The Composition , written by Antonio Skármeta and illustrated by Alfonso Ruano, is a picture story about 9-year-old Pedro, who lives in a police state somewhere in Latin America (probably Chile). When Pedro enters a writing competition, he has the opportunity to win a prized soccer ball. But doing so means he would have to inform on his parents, who listen to nightly broadcasts on a clandestine radio.

THE VIOLENCE OF poverty and the knowledge that many children in the United States are almost raising themselves are poignantly imagined in a series of prose poems written at a child’s level in Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, by Vera B. Williams. The author’s knowledge of poverty stems from her own childhood.

Katherine Paterson, an internationally prominent American author (her best-known book is Bridge to Terabithia) and champion of disenfranchised children in all nations, writes in The Same Stuff as Stars about the wonders of creation. At the same time this prominent Christian writer reveals for young readers how the cycle of poverty can be repeated in multiple generations.

Walter Dean Myers often reflects something of his own Harlem youth in his many highly praised books for children and young adults. In the novel Monster he explores the way in which good intentions rapidly lead to disaster for Steve, a 16-year-old aspiring filmmaker whose alleged crime takes him to jail and into a legal system that views him not as a lost sheep, but as a monster who will get what he deserves.

Cynthia Kadohata’s novel Weedflower involves a Japanese-American girl named Sumiko who, with her family, is uprooted and transported to an internment camp on a Mojave Indian reservation during World War II. A similar circumstance unfolds in a bilingual picture story written by Amy Lee-Tai, titled A Place Where Sunflowers Grow. English and Japanese texts are accompanied by Felicia Hoshino’s artwork in this highly unique story for younger children.

Very few books are published about workers and unions, present or past, and when published, very few remain in print for young readers. Fortunately the historical novel Esperanza Rising, a gripping account by Pam Muñoz Ryan, has received several awards and so it has become increasingly well-known. Her superb story recounts and clarifies early 20th-century events experienced by U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage who were farm workers at that time.

The Book Thief, by Australian writer Markus Zusak, is a widely acclaimed, long, compelling novel narrated by Death. Guided through the story of a German child, readers follow Liesel’s experiences as her family harbors a Jewish man and as she herself witnesses Holocaust horrors in her own neighborhood.

Author Beverley Naidoo grew up in South Africa unaware of the white privilege shielding her from multiple signs of racism and the encroachment of apartheid. Her adult resistance against apartheid led to jail and then to her current life in England. The short stories in Out of Bounds re-create life in South Africa during those years.

Human rights and civil rights are rarely handed to disenfranchised peoples, and young readers deserve to know what their foremothers and forefathers experienced in the past to shape life today. During the past two decades, many books have been published for young readers about the enslavement of Africans brought to North America and about the pre-integration years in U.S. history, including Mildred Taylor’s classics such as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken. Many others concern the U.S. civil rights movement and some of its leaders. A book that many people set aside because of its topic should not be overlooked: Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, by Chris Crowe. Tough stuff, and essential history. The same goes for With Courage and Cloth, by Ann Bausum, who didn’t flinch in writing about the human cost of the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States.

Adults might look away when news photographs document the impact of war or of poverty on the young. Do young readers turn away from books bringing them the reality of tragedy in the lives of their peers? There’s no evidence to support this, but of course any reader needs relief from confrontations—fictional or otherwise—with images of war, survival, poverty, and human need.

Preschoolers are still lulled to sleep by Goodnight Moon and delighted at any time of day by picture books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Life-affirming books such as Ashley Bryan’s What a Wonderful World and Lucky Song by Vera B. Williams must not be missed for lap-sitters. The latter is an award-winning book that features in the most subtle, gentle way all the rights every child should have in her or his life: a loving, attentive family, shelter, clothing, food, a place to play, someone to applaud attempts at something new, a safe place to sleep, and a song.

Older children read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which gently introduces the reality of death and what some readers name as resurrection. Independent readers might discover Louise Erdrich’s novels for children: The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence, novels about Omakayas, a girl growing up within an Anishinabe community and a sequence of stories far more realistic about 19th-century North American life than the longtime favorite Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

There are handsome volumes adults can enjoy along with children, such as The Space between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye, in which readers can browse through ways to become acquainted with “the other.” A similar anthology, The Tree Is Older than You Are, features poetry and artwork from Mexico.

The novella Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, unfolds vignettes about urban dwellers widely different from each other who meet during a harvest event at their neighborhood garden. One of the gardeners, Amir, was born in India. Another gardener, who had been particularly unpleasant to him “back then,” tells him as she admires his ripe vegetables that earlier “I didn’t know who you were.” Back then, Amir was “the other.” Seedfolks is now being read as a community-building book in many cities across the nation, even in my church.

Meanwhile, kids who seek to make sense out of the headlines can gain information and courage from books reflecting experiences we all hope they’ll never face firsthand. Such books offer both a window and a mirror—windows through which some readers can see much they won’t or can’t otherwise experience, and mirrors that reflect for others what they already know or have heard about from their elders. Many of these books are not explicitly religious or spiritual, but yet they vividly illuminate the human spirit.

Poet Arnold Adoff writes:

All the colors of the race
are
in my face, and just behind my face:
behind my eyes;
inside my head.
And inside my head, I give my self a place
at the end of a long
line forming
it self into a
circle.
And I am holding out my hands.

Books provide ways that young readers can more clearly see themselves and others without undue alarm, and offer paths to help them become liberated enough in mind and spirit to hold out their hands to the world’s realities.

For 26 years, Ginny Moore Kruse headed a children’s literature research library for adults at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. She has chaired or been a member of book award committees, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Batchelder, Geisel, Coretta Scott King, Jane Addams, and Pura Belpré. She was also a Wisconsin Public Radio and local television commentator on contemporary children’s books.

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