Friday, July 23, 2010

Empowering kids

One of my former students was an organized, dedicated child. He struggled with ADHD, but his method of dealing with it was to carry a box of pencils in his backpack, clean out his locker regularly, and arrive to his classes early. The more he could control of his life, the more he felt in control. The problem was his family. His parents had two other children, busy work lives, and they were stereotypical artist, hippy types. They were lovely people, but house was a mess and the family never made it anywhere on time. It drove my student nuts. Even though his mom gave his brothers a ride to school every day, my student started riding his bike. It took 15 minutes along busy city streets. He rode through rain and snow. Even when he came to school sopping wet, he figured at least he was on time.

I think one of the biggest struggles for children, especially in this day and age, is the lack of control they have over their own lives. They have set times for getting up and going to sleep. They are required to go to school, study a number of subjects, even those which they may find impossible or boring. They eat whatever food is prepared for them. They don't even have control over their own bodies, which are growing and changing, and their minds, which are raging with new hormones.

Not that having shelter, education, food, etc, provided for you is a bad thing. But I get how it can feel overwhelming to never have control.

I just finished a young adult book where the main character is constantly making poor decisions. They're understandable decisions: he's frightened and isn't thinking. But the repercussions are horrible. I was incredibly frustrated for this poor child. He didn't have any friends to help him out, any adults to sympathize with him, and he was never given any opportunities to tell his side of the story or to stand up for himself. He never even got a single great zinger of a line.

Some would say that's good storytelling. The boy was certainly challenged. His character was a realistic 15 year-old.

But as a teacher, and a former child myself, I didn't want a realistic child. I wanted an empowered child. I wanted someone to cheer for, someone who could stand up for himself, tell the adults off, and WIN. Children's books don't need to be completely unrealistic, with genius children working for the secret service (*cough* Anthony Horowitz *cough*). But I would argue children's literature is one of the few places left where kids can experience life to its fullest and come out triumphant. Or at least get in a good punch on their way down. Perhaps that's the reason I write for kids.

What about you? Do you let your characters win occasionally?


  1. Anne, what a great explanation of what children's book do—empower children. Yes, there should be a good story in there, but the kids reading should see that they can triumph.

    I also like to write my children as people. I know that sounds odd, but when I worked with kids I would get upset at how many adults treat children as ignorant, dumb, or just plain inferior. (Kind of like how women get treated sometimes.) By not condescending or patronizing kids, we empower them by showing them our respect for who they are.

  2. Thanks, Andrea! And you're absolutely right about children as people, too. It always used to crack me up how my students could tell, a mile away, when someone didn't respect children, and they could just as easily spot it in books.


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