Monday, June 14, 2010

The dangers of writing by default

I don't recall what got me thinking about this recently, but the subject of challenging your assumptions in writing for children has been on my mind. Challenging your assumptions is an important consideration in all of life, but those of us who hope to have some influence on a child have a particular obligation to be careful.

Bias can be so subtle. I was forced up against my own failure in this regard a couple of years ago. I was volunteering at my neighborhood elementary school, which has a lot of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Every week, I spent an hour or two with first graders, listening to them read aloud. The children were allowed to choose a book to read to me.

Many times, these kids were baffled by things in the books aimed at new readers. A giraffe? One girl had never been to the zoo, so giraffes were no more real to her than unicorns or dragons. Traveling on an airplane? A boy asked, Is that like a bus? (Well, yes, these days it is...)

These books made assumptions about what the children had experienced that just didn't apply. Seeing the kids' bewilderment compounding their struggles to read reaffirmed my gratitude for the publishers and authors who are ensuring a diversity of voices in children's books.

Then, toward the end of the first semester, I asked the teacher if I might read one of my picture book manuscripts to the class. It was a Christmas story aimed at their age group and I had an idea for an inexpensive gift I could give each child that was related to the story. I wanted to connect with the children around my love for writing and stories. Generously, the teacher said yes.

The lesson came when I prepared to read aloud. As I revised my story with these listeners in mind, I realized it, too, had a middle-class bias. On Christmas morning, my character went downstairs to the living room to see if Santa had come.

Do you see it? Downstairs. Many of these children didn't have a downstairs. They lived in apartments. Somebody else lived downstairs. Those who had more than one floor to their homes didn't have the kind of living room in my story, the kind that's mostly off-limits to the kids and saved for special occasions. Every inch of space in their homes was used daily.On top of that, my living room had a piano. I couldn't be sure, but I very much doubted that many of their homes had a piano.

Thinking of the story in terms of these particular children showed me that the living room I had created was a remnant from my own childhood -- not a room from today. I don't have a living room that sits waiting for company, or a piano. Lots of people don't live that way today. While plenty do, and it's fine to write a scene that fits their lives, I hadn't made a conscious choice. I'd written that scene by default. Unfortunately, my default setting was 1960s middle-class white America.

I wanted a story that these children could relate to. I made some revisions that didn't exclude them, and we had a wonderful experience together.

What's more, I learned to be more careful to watch for assumptions in my writing. I'm sure I don't always succeed, but I know I catch some things now that I didn't before I came to know these children.

Our job as writers is to interpret and reflect the world. For me, one of our most sacred obligations is to build bridges -- to help people understand and connect with each other. That's why we all must be vigilant against the dangers of writing by default.