As I’m writing this, I can hear breaking news being televised in the next room, reporting that police officers in Baton Rouge have been shot and killed. After I first heard about this and had a chance to process my now all-too-familiar shock and disgust, it occurred to me that our country has reached the point when the mourning periods during which we lower the American flag to half staff are now overlapping, due to the frequency of such tragedies. These events of extraordinary violence have become so familiar we use the names of their locations as shorthand: Orlando. Baton Rouge. Minneapolis. Dallas. San Bernardino. Charleston. Newtown. All of this is to say nothing of the wider problems also occurring throughout the world.
When I was a kid in the age range of the middle grade reader, our most immediate access to the events of the day was either the evening news, the newspaper that arrived the following morning, or occasional thirty-second bulletins on the radio. Social media and a twenty-four hour news cycle defined by divisiveness, hatred, and fear has to make it harder for kids these days. Even if they don’t closely follow what’s happening, they live in a world saturated by all variety of things going wrong. As they get older, they become more aware of the boundaries that separate people as lines are drawn between ideologies that don’t agree. Talking about things like politics and religion have become conversational third rails, since expressing beliefs or aligning yourself with any kind of strong opinion too readily invites conflict.
When thinking about problems like these, it’s hard for me to separate my roles as a teacher and a writer, because, for better or worse, I see them both as much as who I am as what I do. Teachers can have a great deal of influence on their students. They plant seeds regarding character. They try to act as role models worth emulating. When the school year is done they send their students into the future and usually will never know how much difference they made, if any at all. It’s frustrating, but it’s something you learn to accept. In the end, all you can do is hope you made a difference.
One way teachers work to make that difference is through books. They put a lot of thought into what they read to their classes, and what titles are included in their classroom libraries. They’ve all seen students unable to choose a new book to read, and usually can figure out which books those perplexed students will enjoy. They help desperate parents of reluctant readers find books their children might connect with.
This is where writers come in. We need to give those kids books to read, and ideas to think about. We make our characters handle difficult situations and resolve the conflicts that follow. Some of those conflicts are things middle grade readers might experience in their daily lives, or are only aware of from a third-person distance. Some might even be so utterly fantastical they could never happen in real life, but they can still give readers things to consider.
We also give them examples of consequences that follow certain decisions and actions. I think it’s fair to say that most writers have favorite books from when we were younger. How many of those books might have helped shape our view of the world as adults?
Even a book intended to be little more than a fun story has merit. Maybe silly is exactly the kind of thing that will win over a reluctant reader, and convince them to broaden their horizons and try reading something new. Maybe it just provides that reader with a welcome escape from what they’re facing in the real world.
Not every book that makes it on a library shelf is going to change the trajectory of the entire human race, but that doesn’t mean it won’t challenge some reader out there. Even when we’re frustrated enough to scream from all of the work that comes with our drafting, and revising, and editing, and revising again, everything we do is a small step in the direction of someday making a difference. When we write, our goal is to communicate an idea or provoke an emotion at some level. Isn’t that ultimately the purpose of art?
It’s easy to feel helpless when things in the world are going so wrong, and so many problems feel like they’re beyond our control. The next time you sit down to outline, or stress-spiral through your notes, or hack away at your current work-in-progress, remember that each paragraph you write is a contribution to the greater cultural thumbprint of literature. Writing something can make a difference, whether it ends up on bestseller lists, or is only enjoyed by a small circle of people, or just helps you understand your own world better. You probably won’t ever get to know what kind of reach your work has or how many people could be influenced by it, but that’s okay.
Regardless of where you are on your own writing journey, there will always be value in the effort. Your effort could someday plant an idea with someone, and help them find the tools they need to make their world a better place.