I am reading Jasmine Warga’s middle grade (for 8-12 year-olds) book THE SHAPE OF THUNDER*. It is a beautiful book. Central to the book’s plot is a friendship between two girls whose older siblings are taken by gun violence. (It’s more complex than that sentence but I don’t want to say more.) In her author’s note, Jasmine Warga says she wrote the book, in part, to understand the repercussion of guns in society and in children’s lives. Read that sentence again. She didn’t write the book to sensationalize guns or make a pro/con case for guns. She wrote the book to understand the real effects of gun violence on the living. In particular, the young survivors.
This mission of understanding is what writers of children’s literature do. We take on the big issues in our world and break them down in real livable stories. Our characters embody and reflect big issues for young people. Some people might try to make the case that if those stories aren’t there, then we wouldn’t have gun violence. Those people are stupid. Some people might say that these books plant ideas of violence in our young people. Those people are stupid. Some people might say we canonize the worst parts of our society in these books. Those people, too, are stupid. (Yes, I am using the word stupid very deliberately. I am furious and it’s my opinion.)
Writers do not write to cause damage. Let me say that sentence again. Writers do not write to cause damage. Particularly, writers of children’s literature. Writers write to understand. I suspect that Warga would rather not have written a book about gun violence. But this violence, this reality of guns in America is where we live. We have created a world with guns and fear and misinformation. It is this world that needs books for young people which speaks directly to them about the pain and violence they are inheriting.
I understand the knee jerk reaction of parents and school boards who think banning books is the way to stop violence and all kinds of proclaimed ills in society. It isn’t. But it’s pretty easy to start with a list of one hundred books and simply remove them from the library, right? It’s pretty easy and simplistic to target books. It’s harder and more time consuming to read those books and discuss them with your child. It’s harder still to invite those authors to your school and talk about those issues. I get it. You are afraid for your children growing up in a divided, violent world. All you want is to stop being afraid. Those pesky books. If I could get rid of those pesky books that might put ideas into my child’s head, then maybe I would feel safer. That thinking is wrong-headed. I understand it but it’s wrong-headed.
Books portray relationships and families trying to understand one another and grapple with the world as it is. Jasmine Warga wrote a beautiful book in which the characters deal with how gun violence affected them. Keep it on the shelves. Do something else to address gun violence in America.
*Please note: As far as I know Warga’s book is not on any banned book list at the present moment.