One of my favorite authors, Robert Fulghum, was in the habit every New Years of writing a manifesto of sorts. One of these essays ended up getting shared. And shared. And shared again until “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” took on a life of its own. That essay was my first introduction to Robert Fulghum and a piece I come back to often.
As 2019 comes to a close I don’t intend to write a manifesto of all that I believe, but I do want to try to capture my reasons for writing stories and poems for children. I don’t know if I’ll write another reflection next year (or the year after that or the following year…), but I want to try to put into words my reasons for loving kidlit.
Put simply, I seek shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word sometimes translated as “peace,” or, in our collective Western understanding of “peace,” the absence of war and conflict. That definition is lacking. Shalom is so much more. Shalom is the way things out to be (I am sure I’ve got that meaning at least a little off; please forgive me; I am far from a Hebrew scholar). So, what I seek in my daily life, and what I strive for when I write isn’t just a pleasant diversion, it’s not only a fun tale, but it’s a quest for a world in which all is as it should be.
In that quest, I believe we must have hope, and not just a superficial hope, not just a fleeting hope, but hope with a foundation. Without hope, it makes little sense to strive for shalom. So, the question becomes this: How do I help kids develop hope, and in doing so, how do I contribute to shalom?
Research has supported the telling of familial tales as a way of helping kids identify with relatives who have overcome obstacles. This identification allows the child to internalize those stories and to adopt the belief that they too can overcome hardships. These stories allow children to tap into a shared history. They give children a sense of identity and belonging. But these stories only work if parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles tell these stories to their children.
What happens when these stories are not told? What happens when grandparents and relatives live in other states? What happens when, even in the nuclear family, life gets busy? Too often, a family’s stories are not retold. Too often, the stories that fill that void are told by media which can relay positive, pro-social stories of hope and growth, but too often focus on negative tales of mistakes and indiscretions, stories that are negative in nature and devoid of hope.
In lieu of familial stories, children are often read books. These books, for better or worse, can take the role of a shared cultural identity. When I think back on the books I loved as a child, every one of them was a story other people my age still know and recognize. These stories have helped form our common identity. If a book I ready thirty-some years ago still resonates with me, how much more so will the stories a child hears today resonate with them. In writing for kids, I want to help shape that cultural identity and, in doing so, give children an image of people with whom to identify, people who are filled with hope and who model the actions and the nature I hope all of society will emulate.
The stories and poems I write cannot and should not take the place of stories told by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, but they can supplement those stories. I write for children because I believe the stories I tell can and will give kids examples of others who have struggled and overcome, examples of others who have questioned and discovered answers, examples of others who have faced challenges and experimented with solutions, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, but never giving up, examples of others who have wondered about their place and role in this world and who have found meaning and purpose.
As a teacher I strive to promote hope and a growth mindset in my students. I look for ways to help them build hope, to help them see their potential for growth. But it’s different in a classroom. With books, with stories and with poems I get to manufacture a world in which we get resolution, a world in which we see perseverance paying off by page 30, a world in which we don’t have to wonder if we made the right choice, we get to see the consequences by simply turning the page. I love kidlit, and I write for children because I want to create the world as it should be, a place of shalom. I want to create a world that shows kids how, with time and perseverance and hope, they can mold the world into something closer to shalom, the way the world is supposed to be.
And now, as I finish this essay, this snapshot into my writer’s mind, I can’t help but wonder what I will write next year. What will be my reasons for writing as 2020 draws to a close? What hopes will I have for my work? Will I see the world slowly becoming a place of shalom? And will I, in my small way, be an instrument of shalom?
It is my hope that this coming year will be one of shalom for my readers. I hope it is a year of shalom for me and my family. And I hope that this year sees you and your family constantly seeking, constantly striving and drawing ever closer to shalom.
Happy New Year.