The Power of Story to Shape Minds

When the school year began I was often the only Black child in my classes and that's where I began to hear the other kind of stories. Sad, bad stories about people who looked like me. I was struck by how feverishly my new teachers and classmates believed in these narratives. It was then that I understood how words and stories could be used to wound.

 



 

My first understanding of the many ways stories are used to shape minds came when I was eleven-years-old. Oh, I had heard plenty of stories before then. Wonderful tales told by my parents about all aspects of life. Like the story my mother often told about how her family was rescued from rising flood waters by neighbors with row boats when she was a little girl living in small town Pennsylvania. "Ooh, that water was so cold on my little bum," my mother would say, while squinching up her face as if she could still feel the wetness on her skin. My parents also shared stories about courageous people like Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery but returned to the South nineteen times and led three hundred enslaved people to freedom without losing even one. And then there were the humorous stories we kids told one another while jumping double dutch or playing jacks. These stories highlighted community and love and light.

But when I was eleven we moved from our Black neighborhood in Philadelphia to the South Jersey suburbs where we were surrounded by people who drew their shades when we moved in and didn't raise them again until they moved out. When the school year began I was often the only Black child in my classes and that's where I began to hear the other kind of stories. Sad, bad stories about people who looked like me. I was struck by how feverishly my new teachers and classmates believed in these narratives that had no resemblance to honest portrayals of Black lives. It was then that I understood how words and stories could be used to wound.

Thankfully, I had a well formed sense of self so I saw these stories for what they were, attempts to create a false narrative. I never for one moment let them define me, but, sadly, I saw the powerful grip they had on others.

This recollection was close to my heart as I wrote my new middle grade novel, The True Definition of Neva Beane, the story of how a twelve-year-old girl uses her keen sense of curiosity about language to chronicle her world and, ultimately, to define herself. My protagonist, Neva, loves words. "I'm into words like some kids are into music or basketball," she says. She dissects words tossed about by others and tries to decipher what they really mean.

Neva's life is in a state of upheaval as her musician parents depart on a summer concert tour in Europe and leave Neva and her brother, Clay, in the care of their very traditional grandparents. Neva experiences a loss of the confidence she had as a younger child as she comes to grips with the changes taking place in her pre-adolescent body, her fascination with the new young activist on the block, and her best friend's preoccupation with her own family's upcoming trip to West Africa.

Neva develops a friendship with the activist and examines the political issues in her community. She contemplates what role, if any, she can play in addressing them and in the process empowers herself. Most importantly, she uses the magnificent power of words to create stories that bring joy and hope and love.

Neva Beane doesn't take the easy way out. She questions the stories she tells just as strenuously as she ponders those told by others, something I encourage my readers to do. I hope they will find the words to speak their own truths. The truths we all need to hear.
 



Christine Kendall is the author of the award-winning novel Riding Chance, which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. Rita Williams Garcia called it a “promising debut” and Sharon Flake called it “a heartwarming tale of redemption.” Her latest novel, The True Definition of Neva Beane, is available now. Christine’s short fiction has appeared in numerous publications. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.

This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights books for all ages that tell the stories of historically underrepresented groups specifically related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental abilities, religion, and culture. Hear from other speakers on this topic and download the Power of Story catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright, Aida Salazar, and more.

 

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Willy Mooy

Si Nice to bear more about hou, Christine

Posted : Sep 30, 2020 07:11


Lisa Sherman

What ages would you recommend this book for? My school includes 5th grade, but not higher.

Posted : Sep 25, 2020 08:01


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