Activism Born on the Page (A Book Club Post)

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.

Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more.

Park’s story takes something children (perhaps even most adults) know nothing about, something which happened—is still happening—on the other side of the globe, and transforms it into something tangible, personal, and unforgettable.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article—“Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present”—which discussed the impact historical fiction can have when read in classroom settings. Historical fiction not only offers an invaluable opportunity for eliciting empathy among readers for the suffering of different ethnic or political groups, but it also encourages the development of critical-thinking skills, which can help children connect these events to things happening closer to home. The article goes on:

Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others…[T]eachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”

I witnessed firsthand this transformation among JP and his classmates: over the course of their two months reading A Long Walk to Water, the globe shrank, others people’s problems became human problems, and the kids were left with one of the greatest gifts a book can bestow—wondering how to help. Activism is born in these very pages.

A Long Walk to Water recounts the largely true story of Salva Dut, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who at eleven is forced to flee his country on foot, when his village is targeted in 1985 as part of the Sudanese Civil War. When the story opens, Salva is just an ordinary boy, daydreaming at his desk at school, anticipating the pleasure of getting home to his mother’s snack. Suddenly, he is caught up in one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, escaping gunfire by running from his classroom into the wild bush outside.

Separated from his parents and siblings, whom he believes are dead, Salva embarks on a long and perilous journey on foot across South Sudan, eventually spending ten years in refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, before being adopted by an American family in Rochester, New York.

In only 115 pages, Park manages to pack a lifetime of drama, much of which is as compelling as it is horrifying, including prolonged periods of starvation, animal attacks, and—most distressing for Salva—the point-blank assassination of his uncle, his only remaining family member.

I called my grandmother one day after our meeting and happened to mention the plot of the book we were discussing. She was taken aback: “Is that even appropriate for children? Won’t it upset them? We didn’t read anything like this when we were kids!” If I’m being honest, these same questions had occurred to me more than a few times, especially when one of the girls complained of nightmares. (Later, she told me this was one of her favorite books.)

But then I thought about the palpable excitement during our discussions, how children were checking out books on Africa from the library, bringing in photos of lions crouched in the Sudanese bush, of refugee camps with sleeping bodies inhumanely crammed against one another. How one of the children, who had been too shy to read aloud from our previous book in the fall, was suddenly volunteering to read passages to the group to make his point. How I could hardly get the children back to their classroom after an hour because they wanted to keep talking.

How these kids wanted to understand, wanted to see the world through Salva’s eyes, to appreciate his remarkable, impossible-seeming journey.

I believe two things help children absorb the blows in this story. First, Park’s prose is as lyrical as it is dramatic, deliberately sparse in gory details, and filled with as much beauty as suffering. Salva savoring a mouthful of honeycomb after coming across a beehive following days without food. Salva smiling at the memory of his father bringing home a cherished mango from market, lodged in the spokes of his bicycle wheels. Salva convincing an Irish aid worker in the refugee camp to teach him English—and the game of volleyball.

Secondly, Salva’s story is one of survival—and, ultimately, one of hope. Salva survives the unlikeliest of circumstances because of his grit, because of his perseverance, because—as the real Salva repeats several times in his Ted Talk, which the kids were fascinated to watch after finishing the book, their favorite character amazingly transformed into flesh and blood—“I just kept on walking.” Time and again, the Salva in the story asks himself, How can I go on? And time and again, he finds a way, not just to survive, but to help others do the same.

“Why do you think Salva is able to go on after all these terrible things happen to him?” I asked my group during our final discussion.

“Because he is brave,” one boy answered quickly.

“But was he always brave?” I asked.

“No, not really.”

“So how did he find his bravery?” I continued.

There was a pause, and then one girl raised her hand. “I think he realized he could stand up to his sadness. That he could sort of turn his sadness into power.”

If I had had my doubts earlier, these words cinched a new certainty: these children got it. If there is a better story for children to hear, I can’t think of it.

As it turns out, Salva’s is not the only story in the book. At the beginning of each chapter—set aside in a different type face—is a dual, albeit much shorter, narrative set 23 years after Salva’s story begins. Nya is a ten-year-old girl living in contemporary South Sudan, old enough to go to school but forced instead to spend eight hours of every day walking to the closest pond to retrieve a single jug of muddy, bacteria-infested water on which her family survives. Nya is without shoes to protect her feet from the blisteringly hot and aggressively thorny path on which she treads, and at times she must drag along her tiny, five-year-old sister. (“But this happened a really long time ago,” one of my students said, “right?” I showed him the date at the top above each of Nya’s chapters: 2008, 2009.)

The relevance of Nya’s story—why it’s there and how, if at all, it relates to Salva’s—is not initially apparent. In fact, many of the children in my group admitted to “skipping” Nya’s installments to jump ahead to Salva’s nail-biting adventures, and we often used our discussion time to go back and read these poetic passages together. During one week’s meeting, I brought in a glass of water, set it in the middle of the table, and tasked the children with thinking about how they would allocate 20 daily cups of water if they were heading up a family of five. How much water would go to drinking, cooking, bathing, washing dishes, watering gardens, and so forth? There was much scratching of heads and scribbling on paper and, by the end, one child couldn’t contain himself: “It would be so much easier if they had running water!” Yes. Yes, it would.

Eventually, most of the group felt invested in Nya’s plight, which made the ending all the more gratifying. Where Salva ultimately finds security in immigrating to America, Nya witnesses the drilling of a well in her village, a turn of events which not only offers an assurance of cleaner water and better health for her family, but a wealth of educational and economic opportunities. The novel’s surprising final page—where Salva and Nya’s stories finally intersect, where Salva (now an adult) makes possible this happy ending of sorts for Nya—created a flurry of excitement and more than a few misty eyes from the children (and me).

A Long Walk to Water concludes with two Afterwards: the first an inspiring “can do” message from the real Salva Dut, and the second an Author’s Note discussing Salva’s non-profit organization, Water for South Sudan, which to date has drilled 282 wells. Immediately—before I could even pose the question—the children began brainstorming ways they could support Salva’s efforts. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation broadened: Should they organize a fundraiser to drill more wells in South Sudan, or should they help fund wells in other countries, or should they help contemporary refugees escaping similar violence and poverty? (One child was especially insistent we find a way to bring Wallmarts to Africa.) For nearly an hour, I didn’t do much more than listen to them hash out well-argued cases, using vocabulary I’m quite sure none of them possessed two months ago.

Whatever plan these children decide on—and I do hope we will get something off the ground this spring (I’ll keep you posted)—one thing is for sure: their world view is expanding; they are beginning to glimpse the multitude of complexities and injustices afloat at home and abroad; and they are not going to sit idly by.

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Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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