On Reading, Writing, and Difference-Making

For many of us, it's felt like the past two years have been filled with increasingly-dark political days. It can be difficult to know where to turn, to find what—if anything—can make a dent, can turn a tide. I recently read the Signature Reads article "11 Books Where Poetry and Politics Overlap," on books of poetry that marry beautiful language with large societal issues like imbalances of power, and it got me thinking about how much both poetry and fiction can teach us about our world, and the complex sociopolitical issues we so often face.

Growing up, I devoured Cornelia's middle-grades books like InkheartDragon Rider, and The Thief Lord, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, the Harry Potter series,  L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, and so many more. These stories weren't moralizing, but they did share many common values—the importance of friendship, of doing what's right, of having a good work ethic, treating everyone as equals, and helping those in need. It's difficult to witness the systemic oppression (begun long ago, but exacerbated and perpetuated by the current U.S. administration) without recalling Voldemort's prejudice against everyone but "purebloods" in the Harry Potter series, or seeing the stark contrast between the U.S.' treatment of refugee children and Mo's kind treatment of the young outsider Farid.

In stories, readers see characters who do the right thing—and the wrong. And I think it makes a difference for us to see those examples modeled for us at any age. Particularly as young readers, we learn how to foster empathy, to step outside of ourselves and into others' shoes. In seeing our beloved characters struggle with what's right and wrong, and how they should act, we see the importance of weighing our own moral compasses and standing up for what's right.

We see troubled characters like Dustfinger, who may not always have done the right thing but who is at least motivated by desires for love and belonging, and at least capable of change. Other characters, like Capricorn, are both unable and unwilling to do anything but that which is most cruel, most hurtful, and most inhumane; or Voldemort, a fictional character who said some kinds of humans deserve more liberties and freedoms than certain others, who deserve (in the eyes of those villains) to be crushed underfoot. Of course it becomes clear, for those of us who have long kept our noses in novels, that we must champion the downtrodden, help those in need, and speak up when the rights of others are taken away.

It's no different than so many of the stories within the dystopian genre, popularized by Susan Collins' The Hunger Games: the governing body is corrupt; oppressing its people, and the people rise up against injustice. We see this story play out, over and over again, in the stories that rise to the forefront of our culture. And perhaps with these stories as models and guides, we can turn the tide against injustice in our own world.