Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Reading the World

As I've mentioned before on this blog, my graduate school had a lot of award-winning writers on faculty. They are the reason the program was so renown,and also what attracted me to the school. One such faculty member is Matt de la Peña, who recently won the Newbery award for his picture book, LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET. Unfortunately, I never got to work with Matt directly, but I did get to his lectures and I recall a reading he did when this picture book was in the idea stages and felt honored and amazed that he shared a bit of it with us. I had no idea it would go on to win such an esteemed award.

In his Newbery acceptance speech Matt refers to himself as a nonreader, which might be surprising considering how many writers are avid readers, but when he defined how much of the world he 'read' as a child, I found his speech even more profound. It reminded me of so many kids today, in particular my ten year-old nephew who gets super excited about a book if I read it to him, or if we listen to an audiobook together, but left on his own with a book and he doesn't touch it.

The part Matt's speech that really solidified my nephew's face in my mind was this:
Maybe I didn’t have my nose in a novel, but I read my old man’s long silences when the two of us sat in freeway traffic in his beat-up old VW Bug. I read the way he pulled himself out of bed at 3:30 every morning to get ready for work. How he never took a sick day. I read my mom’s endless worry about the bills. About the empty fridge. But I also read the way she looked at me and my two sisters. Like we were special. Like we could make something of our lives. I read the pickup politics at Muni Gym in Balboa Park. How the best players assumed a CEO-like power the second they laced up their kicks and called out to the crowd, “Check ball.” And I read how these same men were stripped of this power as soon as the games died down and they set foot outside the gym, out of their domain and back into yours...Self-defined nonreaders who spend all day reading the world. My mission as an author is to help a few of them translate those skills to the written word."
Reading comes in so many forms, and kids are excellent intuitive readers of their environments. I don't know for sure why that is other than it must be a survival mechanism that helps them navigate the adult world they live in. I have no science to back up my theory, but I think this is especially true for inner-city youths of color who have low economic resources. They have no choice but to read into everything they see, everyone they meet, every situation they encounter to ensure their safety and that they get their basic needs met. It's sad, but as Matt proves, it can also be the trait that leads them past what they have always known and into lives they have only seen on a screen or the pages of a book or magazine. Matt captures that idea best when he says, "And sometimes when you grow up outside the reach of the American Dream, you’re in a better position to record the truth. That we don’t all operate under the same set of rules. That our stories aren’t all assigned the same value in the eyes of decision makers." 

That last line is so powerful as Americans cheer about bans on Muslims, walls that further divide, and white authors lauded as "fearless" in the New York Times for writing about slavery from a Black POV ignoring the fact that black authors like Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison have done that for decades from an authentic perspective.

This is the world that these "nonreaders" live in. It is what we are gifting them while reducing their education systems to test-prep centers, and cutting arts programs and library budgets across the country. Kids are reading a world that tells them that material things are more valuable than their brains, and that reading isn't worth as much as having a social media presence complete with duck-face selfies. Their intuitive nature is being warped by cops quick to use violence as a means of communication and having fewer and fewer outlets for their frustrations, questions and freedom of expression. 

I am not proud of the state of the world, or that it is part of the legacy that I am leaving to little nonreaders like my nephew who deserve to have their voices valued and respected, their stories told as they live it, and their minds challenged as the incredible magic tool that it is. If books can be a way to alter this course in any way, then I commit to writing past my doubts and insecurities, sacrificing my free time to developing my craft so the written word can serve as a guide for these young nonreaders can turn to when they're overloaded with negative reads from the world around them.

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