“Mattering”

Below an excerpt from the graduation appreciation speech I gave for Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children program.

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Your best work. It matters. I titled this speech ‘Mattering.’ In the broadest possible sense, books matter. One of the first thing any despotic regime does is to ban or burn books. I wrote about this in WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO, about how the Japanese colonists burned Korean books by the millions, and of course that action has been repeated countless times all over the world throughout human history since the dawn of the written word. Tyrants know that books matter, that books give people power of the most dangerous kind: the power to think independently.

And books for young readers matter even more, for many reasons. Books for babies and toddlers matter because they introduce the very idea of the book as a source of wonder. Holding a book, turning the page, looking at the pictures, making connections between the book and the world: Without these skills, pre-readers cannot become readers. And if pre-readers do not become readers, the world as we know it is doomed. I am not exaggerating.

Young readers need books that grow progressively more sophisticated as they do—they need them quite literally for the development of their brains. It turns out that the act of reading triggers brain stimulation in more areas and on more levels than any other sedentary activity. There is a dramatic and visible difference in brain scans between readers and nonreaders. Reading doesn’t just make kids smarter because they learn what’s on the pages. It actually makes their brains more powerful.

Reading nurtures extended thinking, deep and sustained thought. It gets below the surface of mere conscious communication into the deeper levels of imagery and connection. It is on those levels that we humans experience the sudden flashes of insight, and make the intuitive leaps of discovery that end up changing the world. If young people do not become readers, those parts of their brains will shrivel and die; the insights and discoveries will become fewer and less frequent, and that is why I was not exaggerating when I said that that without raising new generations of readers, the world as we know it is doomed.

These days people talk a lot about the inundation of images in our lives, particularly screen images. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m more interested in how we’re all constantly bombarded by words. Texts, tweets, posts, sites, I don’t need to tell you. Words have become our cheapest currency. The great books of the world increase the value of words exponentially. Young readers need well-written books to show them the true value of words.

Books for young readers matter because they explore worlds and ideas that a kid might be encountering for the very first time. When we adults read a book that we love, we might indeed learn something new from it. But the reason we love it is that on either a conscious or subconscious level, it confirms our world view and by doing so, affirms our sense of self.

With young readers, that sense of self is still developing. If the story you write explores an animal-fantasy world in which squirrels are slaves, you may well be introducing your readers to the truth of slavery for the first time. They might have encountered the concept of slavery in textbooks or a television documentary; they might even know some of the facts. They need your story to explore the truth, which is far more than just the facts, ma’am.

Every great middle-grade novel explores the same question: How do we respond to an unfair world? That’s why I love middle-grade so much. Life isn’t fair. The great middle-grade novel shows us how to respond to unfairness with both grit and grace. It is a lesson that most of us have to keep re-learning our whole lives, but the great stories we read as children can give us a head start on practicing. That’s another thing I believe: that reading is practice for life. Life is unfair and can also be bewildering and difficult, and we all need all the practice we can get.

Whatever the age or genre, what young readers need is stories that do two things: engage, and stick. Stories that are so compelling we get lost in them while we’re reading, and then cannot get them out of our minds afterwards. Characters we care about. Plots that intrigue. Language that enchants. Those are the kinds of stories that foster deeper levels of thinking. They are the opposite of disposable culture, of surface amusement created without heart, easily forgettable and instantly forgotten. They are the stories and books that matter.

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This week on NPR, I listened to part of an interview with the author Wes Moore. He was talking about work. He said that work becomes joy when you figure out where your passion meets the world’s needs. Those of you who are graduating today—you’ve proven your passion. You’ve invested time and money and sweat and probably some emotional agony in your degree. And I’ve already talked about why good books for young readers are needed in the world. Those of us privileged to live here in the U.S. have, I believe, a special responsibility to nurture both leaders and citizens with the capability for the kind of thoughtfulness I spoke of earlier.

Jackie Woodson says that she’s trying to change the world one reader at a time. I admit that there are times when I despair of this goal, when the accursed 24-hour news cycle seems to broadcast nothing but hatred and the terrible things we human beings can’t seem to stop doing to one another. But if the choice is to stop trying, to let the haters win, then there is no choice, is there? Never give up, never surrender. (Any Galaxy Quest fans?)

Where your passion meets the world’s needs. The world does not need more chatter, more empty words. The world needs stories that make us laugh and cry while we’re reading, and think and remember when we’re done. The world needs the stories you are passionate about, written as well as you can possibly write them. In this very room today are people who will produce stories like that, in what I hope is the very near future. 

–St. Paul MN, Jan. 18, 2015

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At Hamline, with Dean Mary Rockcastle and grads looking on.

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