Listening to One Another in Our Nation of Stories

In a time of such fear and division, author Deborah Wiles believes that part of the solution to the anger and worry is to activiely listen to others.

Last winter, as I spoke at the NCTE and ALA Midwinter conferences, I was preparing to tour for my latest book, Kent State. It would publish on April 21, 2020, two weeks before the

Deborah Wiles. Photo: Sonya Sones

50th anniversary of the day—May 4, 1970—that the Ohio National Guard opened fire on Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War and killed four of them, wounded nine more, and effectively ended the Sixties. 

What I didn’t know as I spoke to English teachers and librarians was that we were weeks away from another ending—the ending of life as we had come to know it in this country, and indeed in the world, with the lockdowns and sheltering that came alongside trying to cope with a virus that threatened to wipe us all out if it could.

It has done its best, this virus, to do just that. In addition to the very real and deep loss, grief, suffering, and fear it has brought to us, I have seen a realigning of what is important, a relinquishing of what is not, and a renewed determination to elevate our stories, to make sure our stories matter, to gather them, protect them, find common meaning in them, and celebrate them, even when they break our hearts.

As a writer, I take my life and turn it into stories. In the "Aurora County" novels—Love, Ruby Lavender; Each Little Bird That Sings; The Aurora County All-Stars; and A Long Line of Cakes—I write about my Mississippi summers growing up with a family of wacky relatives that made me laugh, but I also include my heartaches, and, particularly in All-Stars and Cakes, the realities of living in the American South.

In the "Sixties Trilogy"—Countdown, Revolution, and Anthem—I write about growing up afraid during the Cuban Missile Crisis, full of wonderment through the rock-and-roll and counter-culture years, full of disbelief during the Vietnam War years, and full of confusion living through the heart of the civil rights movement as a white kid.

I first noticed this confusion, this cognitive dissonance, as a 10-year-old. My first book, Freedom Summer, captures the privilege—and power—of being a 10-year-old white kid in Mississippi as the Civil Rights Act is passed. I chronicle Joe’s dawning understanding—because he listens to the pain and anger of his Black friend, John Henry—as he discovers an empathy that leads to action appropriate to his age, and to that time and place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings and beginnings in this year of realignment and reconsideration. I’ve been thinking about empathy and action appropriate to age, time, and place. What does it mean to be staring down death by staying home, protecting oneself and others, figuring out how to reach one another in a time that is so scary and a world that is so weary of being scared, and so divisive in the midst of multiple narratives we spin about who is right, who is wrong, what is real, what is not; and furthermore, who do we trust?

I believe some—some—of the solution to our anger and fear is held in actively listening to one another. This is why Comfort, in Each Little Bird That Sings, has Listening Rock to retreat to. This is why Ruby has a bevy of caring adults to remind her that others have suffered as she has. This is why House must learn to accommodate Finesse in All-Stars and why Pip tells the story of Jackie Robinson late one solitary night, and why Franny can forgive Margie in Countdown, and why Sunny and Ray, who never meet formally face-to-face in Revolution, come to deeply respect each other, by listening to the stories of segregated Greenwood, Mississippi in 1964, and learning to think critically about the narratives they have ingested all their lives.

If Jim Rhodes, as governor of Ohio, hadn’t been so drunk with power as to order the National Guard to Kent State without a university request; if he had listened to the students who were exercising their First Amendment rights: “Guard off campus!” and if white students had listened to BUS—Black United Students—and stayed away from the locked-and-loaded, occupied Commons on May 4, 1970, would it have made a difference in the outcome of that fateful day?

Americans have been replaying this First Amendment history in 2020, albeit one that has been crippled by COVID-19 as much as by different warring ideologies in an election year in which long-standing injustices have once again come to the forefront asking for attention, and from all sides of every argument.

What literature for young people does for us, in an age-appropriate way and for hungry minds, is offer us windows into the thinking behind these strong currents of many emotions and points of view, not invalidating them, but unpacking them, so we can listen to them and understand them… and ourselves.

In my work, and I’ll bet in yours, I try to reach young readers where they are, to offer them a vista to consider. “Tell your story,” I tell them. “Sing it, dance it, draw it, write it, tell your story, and listen when others tell you theirs. Because every human being is worthy of dignity and respect, and it’s hard to hate someone when you know his/her/their story.”

We are a nation of stories. Stories of heartbreak, joy, grief, love, gathering, listening, stories that dissect despair and offer hope, stories that affirm us to ourselves, in this time, this place, oldest to youngest, as creators and heirs to this American story.

Deborah Wiles, a Golden Kite winner and National Book Award finalist, is the author of many children's titles from picture books to YA. 

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