What is your writing’s ripple effect?
As a writer, think about the impact you have. Your words have the power to do more than entertain. Literature is how people make sense of the world. Writers have a tremendous power to change and even save people through stories.
Author Donna Jo Napoli, who spoke at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference August 5-8, said she was once asked, “Why do you take a perfectly good book and put something awful in it?”
The question spurred Napoli to think more about why she writes what she does and its ripple effect.
“I write what I need to write,” Napoli said.
Discouraging tough topics in literature does a disservice to children. We’d like to think that all children are loved, nurtured, safe and heard, Napoli said. But many children lack the basic protection and live in poverty even despite their parents’ best efforts. These children often feel alone because other kids in the same situation don’t want to say anything out of pride or loyalty to their parents. Sometimes, kids even blame themselves.
By reading about other children who experienced tough times, these children can see lousy things happen to perfectly good people.
“Children do not lead charmed lives, and they need to see other kids who don’t live charmed lives,” Napoli said.
Stories with complex and difficult themes also have a place for children who have been nurtured and given everything they need and more.
This child may be intolerable and intolerant, Napoli said. They may think they have what they have because they deserve it. The safest way for protected children to learn empathy is through books. They can learn to be the kind of person who wants to lend a helping hand.
As writers, words can have a far reaching impact that stays with a child and informs who he or she becomes.
Her life as a child, Napoli said, was “very tiny.” She had few experiences outside of books. Her favorite author was Walter Farley, who wrote the Black Stallion books full of adventure and excitement.
“My life was not pure and clean,” Napoli said. “I was very aware of ulterior motives of people around me.”
Napoli’s favorite book of all was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.“It was wonderful to read about someone who was so poor,” she said. “I didn’t know of anyone else who was so poor.”
Her advice to writers: “You must write from places of joy and excitement and delight. Write from what’s inside you — places of joy but also places of fear. You’re doing a service.”
Besides writing children’s and young adult books, Napoli is a Harvard-educated professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. She wrote for 14 years before selling her first book.