Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bridges to Compassion: Gripping Books for Young People Provide Handles for Engaging the World-Even the World of Violence and War

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bridges to Compassion: Gripping Books for Young People Provide Handles for Engaging the World-Even the World of Violence and War

Article excerpt

"As we gather here, let us remember the lonely, for whom this company would be a festival of life; the persecuted, for whom this gathering would be an act of physical courage; and the hungry, for whom it would be the feast of a lifetime."

My husband and I often use this table grace, and we use it whether or not young children are at the table. They aren't alarmed--but then again, they aren't starving, either.

How might young readers respond to a more direct encounter children and with disenfranchised individuals, even with teenagers caught in war? It's possible to read viable, gripping, well-written, authentic accounts--autobiographical and fictional alike--about young people who lose their innocence and even childhood because they're in the wake or epicenter of war, whether the war is an actual military venture or one of poverty. Even the venerable Dr. Seuss weighed in with The Butter Battle Book, a Cold War story about the escalating tit-for-tat violence between the Zooks and the Yooks.

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Most literature created for children and teenagers involves a young protagonist, and often that main character tells the story. First-person narrators bring immediacy and credibility to the stories. Ishmael Beah, for example, shares graphic personal experiences in A Long Way Gone, a memoir about his youth in Sierra Leone as a boy soldier. He and other starving boys orphaned by war became crazed by drugs and dazed by the violence they had witnessed, and ultimately caused themselves, time and again. Originally published for adults, A Long Way Gone is also being read by teenagers; last summer it appeared on a few of the required summer reading lists for incoming college freshmen.

Similarly, Ibtisam Barakat remembers her Palestinian girlhood in her memoir Tasting the Sky. She has a remarkable ability to re-create the voice and emotional landscape of a very young child. The memories she recounts bring into sharp focus today's headlines about Middle East conflicts. Both of these authors remember their childhood experiences by incorporating seating details in prose that can be surprisingly lyrical and has the authority of a personal account.

Several successful writers who have not personally experienced war as children or teenagers have met the difficult challenge of convincing readers that their novels involve authentic observations. In Under the Persimmon Tree by former journalist Suzanne Fisher Staples, readers find a believable novel about Najmal's flight from the devastation of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, as well as a parallel story, of an American ,aid worker who befriends the girl in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.

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Deborah Ellis spent time in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Russia before writing what has become known as the Breadwinner Trilogy, in which orphaned children literally trek through minefields to relative safety. Before writing several other gripping novels about young people caught in wars of various kinds, Ellis routinely placed herself in regions where she has become acquainted with young survivors. The Heaven Shop, set in Malawi, involves Binti, who is orphaned after her parents die of AIDS. I Am a Taxi concerns a Bolivian boy, Diego, who with the innocent motive of earning money to assist his mother and sister is coerced into helping harvest a crop that will lead to the global cocaine trade. He is ultimately driven to violence in order to escape.

The Composition, written by Antonio Skarmeta and illustrated by Alfonso Ruano, is a picture story about 9-year-old Pedro, who lives in a police state somewhere in Latin America (probably Chile). When Pedro enters a writing competition, he has the opportunity to win a prized soccer ball. But doing so means he would have to inform on his parents, who listen to nightly broadcasts on a clandestine radio.

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THE VIOLENCE OF poverty and the knowledge that many children in the United States are almost raising themselves are poignantly imagined in a series of prose poems written at a child's level in Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, by Vera B. …

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