Let’s face it friends: lately the news has been full of hatred, violence, war, and general negativity. The ongoing crisis in Syria, in the Gaza Strip, in Ukraine; the increasing ferocity and unpredictability of the weather as the climate bucks our consumerist ways; the ridiculous and shocking events that continue to unfold in Ferguson after a black teenager was shot by a white police officer; the death of Robin Williams. It’s been a lot, don’t you think?
I have been thinking about all these things, and I watch the drooping shoulders of my dear friends as they despair for their world, their children, and their futures; my own shoulders do their share of slumping from humanity’s heavy load. I was thinking about these things and of a particular friend who is feeling heavy this week as I walked to work today. I am lucky to work where I do; for eight years I have been a children’s librarian at our public library, and in those eight years, I have never once wished that I was doing anything else. I truly love it.
Lost in thought, I turned on the lights in the room and began my ritual of walking through the shelves of middle-grade novels, running my hands over them and pulling them flush to the edge so that everyone can see them more easily. The novels are the easiest to do this with, as they are typically close to the same size, and not so tall-and-short, skinny-and-wide like the non-fiction books or the picture books. I do this every shift: this ritual with the novels. It is a type of greeting from me to them, from them to me. I acknowledge them, their stories, their characters, their authors, and every single time this activity makes me feel better about the world, no matter what state I was in before.
Because children’s books represent the best of humanity.
Just when I think humankind is giving up on itself, I am presented with a thousand colorful spines that tell me otherwise. These books are our hope. They stand there, calling out to kids with words of encouragement and support. You can almost hear them: Look at this girl who faced her horrible trials with courage! Look at this hurting child – perhaps your classmate – she needs a friend; you can be that friend. Look at the world around you! You are brilliant and creative and can do great things; we are here to show you how. They serve as the proverbial angel on the shoulder, whispering in young ears stories of kindness, of struggle, of the human condition.
During my straightening ritual, I remind myself of the messages in these books and prepare to help kids find them. That’s my job: connecting positive messages to children. Not a bad gig.
But there is another, perhaps even more significant hope that is reflected in all of these books for children: the adults that write them haven’t given up their hope for our future. They – we – fundamentally believe that we can have a better, stronger, more peaceful world in the days to come. Despite it all, we believe our children can and should have positive tomorrows. We can even imagine what this positive future will look like, because we are producing books as instruction manuals for our kids. These authors are not being naive; they write about dark topics frequently. But within the war, there is compassion; within the dystopia there is courage; within the loss there is endurance and connection.
Children’s books are fundamentally different than adult books, because of the layers therein. By looking at books written by adults for kids, we witness a sub-narrative of the author’s regrets and hopes for a better tomorrow. That mathematician who describes the Fibonacci sequence as a poem? I imagine I am her, regretting that I didn’t know these things when I was a kid, and deciding that I can give something to the next generation to help them appreciate and protect the beauty that is this world at an age much younger than I myself came to it. The gift then is the book itself, the kids whose lives are changed, and the precious peek the author has allowed readers into her own heart.
It is such an intimate offering, overlooked if you’re busy or not reading deeply. But these books – these children’s books – are our generation’s way of saying I know we mess up so many times and that the world feels broken sometimes, but we want better for you, and we believe that together we can create that new paradigm. We want to equip you for a bright and exciting future, one free of hate and violence, one full of exploration and creativity and kindness. Here are our stories of friendship and scientific inquiry, of poetry and the stars, of war and family, of farts and laughter. Read them as they are offered: they are our love-letters to you.
When I end my shift, I am rarely ready to leave. I am moved and smiling, thankful that I live in a world with objects and artists such as these. I put on their words of hope like a comforting sweater, and find myself energized, excited to share my beloved friends with the world. Read to your children. Give them books. And read them yourselves. You just may find that they light up your darkness too.
For more inspiration, be sure to read Neil Gaiman’s essay, Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming.
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