Guest blog by Katherine Marsh
Katherine Marsh is the author of the award-winning middle-grade novel NOWHERE BOY. She joined with four other authors on a panel at the recent National Council of Teachers of English to talk about five book that can teach kids to change the world. I'm delighted she agreed to share them with you here.
In 2015, my family and I moved from Washington, D.C., to Brussels, Belgium, for my husband’s job. I wasn’t planning to write another children’s book; my only plan was to help my children transition into a French-speaking Belgian school—a stressful full-immersion experience. But one day, while they were off at the ironically named Ecole du Bonheur (or School of Happiness), I was poking around the basement when I found a tiny door with a skeleton key. What children’s book author isn’t going to follow her curiosity and open that?
What I found was a sub-basement and far in the back, a wine cellar. It was the perfect place for a boy to hide. Hiding had been on my mind ever since I’d learned that a Belgian family on our block had hidden a Jewish teenager in their house during the Nazi Occupation. This teenager had been a German refugee and refugees were on my mind, too. The year we arrived, 2015, was the height of the European Refugee Crisis; over a million refugees were pouring into Europe, including many unaccompanied minors, or children traveling alone.
Sometimes, as an author, you don’t choose your story--your story chooses you. By the end of that year, I knew I had to write my middle-grade novel Nowhere Boy, the intersecting tale of Max, a hapless American boy dragged unwilling to Brussels, and Ahmed, an unaccompanied minor from Syria who finds himself stranded alone in Belgium. In 2018, Nowhere Boy was published to rave reviews and even won some awards (including the Middle East Book Award). Best of all, I started hearing from kids and classes who had been inspired by Max and Ahmed’s story to reach out to new arrivals and to start coat drives and fundraisers for refugees. This year, when I learned that the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference theme was “spirited inquiry,” I was eager to connect this to my book’s heart: How to inspire kids to expand their empathetic horizons and get involved in making the world a better place.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only one. In a panel entitled, From Curiosity to Civic Engagement: Using Literature to Create Social Comprehension and Changemakers, I was joined by four fellow authors whose books not only educate kids on a variety of important topics but inspire them to get involved. In all these books, curiosity leads to a deeper understanding of the world and a clarion call to change it. As our educator-moderator Sara K. Ahmed, author of Being the Change, explained, teachers need books like these to serve as “entry points for social justice.”
In Magic Ramen, the Story of Momofuku Ando, Andrea Wang tells the story of the inventor of instant ramen, a food that saved post-war Japan from starvation and that has become a nourishing, low-cost staple around the world. Wang’s book is an entry point into classroom discussion about food insecurity, which affects millions around the globe, including many American children. Wang’s book—and resources for teachers--inspire young readers to identify problems in their own community and how they would solve them, as well as to create food drives and community pantries. Preschool-Grade 3
In Another Kind of Hurricane, Tamara Ellis Smith tells the intersecting story of two boys, one in Vermont struggling with the death of a friend, the other in New Orleans struggling with the loss of his home in Hurricane Katrina. Smith herself donated clothes to Katrina victims and was inspired to write the book by her young son’s question of who would get his jeans. The book is an entry point into the impact of natural disasters and climate change. To get kids involved, Smith created the Blue Jean Project, an initiative in which one school donates jeans to another school affected by a natural disaster.
In Tree of Dreams, Laura Resau tells the story of a girl with a family chocolate shop in Colorado who travels to the Ecuadorian Amazon where cocoa beans are grown to learn about an indigenous community whose home and forest are imperiled by oil exploration. Inspired by Resau’s own travels and friendships in the Amazon, the book is an entry point into environmental destruction, particularly its impact on the poor and disenfranchised. Resau, whose website includes numerous resources to use with children, encourages students to “grow their hearts” by giving them an anatomical heart print-out whose four chambers they fill with the top things they care about and that they are encouraged to add to throughout the year.
In Fault Lines In the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights and the Flaws that Affect Us Today, Cynthia Levinson and her husband Sanford Levinson, a professor of law, explore twenty “fault lines,” highly debated sections of the Constitution that still impact what we squabble over today. Levinson’s book allows kids to explore contentious topics such as immigration and impeachment by focusing on the structures of government rather than by making these arguments personal. The Levinsons’ book is meant to inspire civic engagement, including a focus on speaking up and voting, and the couple’s blog regularly updates their material.
Middle to Upper Grade
Please feel free to use the comments section to add other books or resources for children and young adults that help teach kids - and grown-ups! - how to change the world. Here are a few more helpful organizations and links:
Why Children Have Such Powerful Moral Authority, Washington Post
Youth Activism Project
Girls Gone Activist: How to Change the World Through Education
Teaching for Change
Unity Productions Foundation
I'm Your Neighbor Books