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Changing the world one book at a time

Lately I’ve been pondering the meaning of life. If everyone took their very best skills and traits and put those into the universe, think how amazing the world could be. I’ve also been considering what the future holds for my two boys and other children. With melting glaciers, yelling politicians, sports heroes dying in helicopter crashes and bizarre, deadly viruses spreading across the globe, it’s a wonder our youngest generations wake up hopeful each day.

Truthfully, though, there were similar tragedies and global disasters when I grew up in the 1980s. I remember being glued to the TV when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded or watching those gaunt, haunting faces of AIDS patients. Later in the 1990s, I recall some of my teachers crying at school as family members were called to The Gulf War. I remember the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and the car accident that killed Princess Diana. 

To make the point, every generation has its share of historical and societal heartaches that define a particular zeitgeist and influence a person’s coming of age years. As a mom, it’s different watching the world affect my children as opposed to it impacting me. 

It makes me curious how we adults can influence younger generations to be better, smarter and more aware, to live with intention and optimism instead of apathy and defeat. 

Recently I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City. As a former middle school teacher, mom to two avid readers and a picture book author, I was in heaven being around other like-minded individuals and having the opportunity to hear legends in the industry such as James Patterson, Lin Oliver, Jerry Pinkney and Kate Messner, among many others. 

The conference focused on picture books, middle grades books (ages 8 to 12) and young adult books (ages 12 to 18). One theme resonated. Yes, we write because we love the craft, but authors of children’s and adolescent books mainly write to inspire future generations. 

It’s a beautiful thought that children reading a book in the early 1900s felt a similar joy as modern young people. Written stories always have and always will transform young hearts. They have helped generations of children and adolescents learn empathy, love, kindness, tolerance and compassion, concepts that are universal and timeless. 

Beyond overarching themes, today’s books help kids understand challenging situations and moments such as death,  divorce, climate change, gun control or feelings of being transgendered or gay. 

At the conference I learned that while young adult novel sales have somewhat flat-lined over the past few years, the middle grades industry is flourishing. 

At ages 8 and 11, both of my boys are in those precious middle-grades years. They don’t yet have phones and have no interest in social media or streaming TV shows. They both love to read the old-fashioned way. When traveling in the car, I love looking in the rearview mirror and seeing their little faces buried in the pages of a book. 

My older son has been on the Junaluska Elementary Battle of the Books team for two years. He loves many genres including historical fiction, realistic fiction and fantasy. My youngest son is more into graphic and comedic novels. It’s fun to watch them develop a sense of what they enjoy. 

As opposed to middle grades, adolescents in the young adult group have phones and spend a lot of time listening to music, audio books or streaming TV shows and movies. My generation didn’t have these options. The propensity to be on phones is showing in book sales for this cohort. When I see kids in this age range holding an actual book, it makes me happy because there are so many distractions to pull them away.

I’m trying to hold on to this precious stage my boys are in, especially my older child who starts middle school next year. As a sixth-grader, with a lot of new experiences and stimulation, I hope his love of books and reading continues. I will be doing everything I can to help, such as being an ardent reader myself, ensuring books are around the house, encouraging book buying at book fairs and bookstores, continuing to visit the local library and gifting books at holidays and birthdays. 

It’s easy to feel helpless in a world like ours, but when I see a bright-eyed child reading a book, I feel a sense of peace. Even with all the technology available, kids are still choosing to read books. That alone tells me that all is not lost. When it comes to using our talents and skills to make the world a better place, we can do something as simple yet profound as encouraging a child to read, because ultimately, so much is at stake in those black and white pages. 

(Susanna Shetley is a digital marketing specialist, editor and writer for Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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