What should we write?
by: Rachel Stofocik
Recently, there was an article in The Guardian about snails. It seems the stay-at-home orders across the country have instigated a new trend where people are welcoming common garden snails into their homes as pets. I thought, imagine that, individuals forced into a new frontier are able to find companionship in a slimy friend.
How do we write or illustrate for children right now? It seems that children’s books have a tendency to never go too far. There has always been a veil over that which was too unpalatable, too shocking, too scary, and often too truthful. Even as a child, I perceived a tacit understanding that the stories and versions of history presented to me were altered to somehow protect me. However, most of the children in the world are aware of injustices and inequities from an early age. Ta-nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me made that point more pronounced in recent years and the conversation has continued.
Even those children who have an idyllic childhood, are now in a world where they are experiencing obstacles and hardships. “Wear a mask” is like “brush your teeth,” and staying six feet apart is the new “keep your hands to yourself.” Kids learn from home, isolated in their rooms; they have lost the comradery and refuge that they used to find in their favorite club or sport; they do not go to the movies, parks, concerts, or even to the grocery store. Some children are actually in more danger and are fed less now that the world has been turned upside down. In August, USA today reported that “new estimates from Northwestern University based on Census Bureau data indicate the percentage of families who are considered food insecure has increased during the pandemic, is much higher than during the Great Recession, and, of great concern, disproportionately affect children and families of color.”
So, how do we write or illustrate to speak to children living through such challenges? How do we best support them? I have been told that writing anything that speaks to the pandemic would be unwise and fruitless for several reasons: (1) it would never get published in time; (2) it’s too serious; or (3) this will all go away soon. It’s been eight months however since the pandemic began, and so much has changed in our social landscape that I am not sure I agree with those notions. I say that we simply remove the veil and use the opportunity to be more creative and simultaneously, maybe more truthful, in our storytelling and in our art.
During the Great Depression, and after, American authors became more interested in socially conscious stories. These writers empathized with the proletariat, the working-class citizens who were experiencing tremendous hardships. Realism and modernism emerged in American literature. Similar to that time, we are experiencing our own national crisis. Left at home, some of the world seems slower, and because of that new pace, individuals are forced to face problems in society that they may have overlooked before, and in turn, maybe they are more open to considering that which they thought was never possible.
I hope to use the opportunity to adopt a snail in my writing and illustrating. I hope to tackle that which is somewhat sticky. I know that the process will be slow, and in many ways unfamiliar, but I think in the process I can also bring more truth to children. I hope I write to something that helps children cope with the realities, the injustices, and the hardships that they face. I hope we can all decide that it is time for change, not only in children’s books, but in the world.