Caren Stelson



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Can a Children’s Book Change the World?

Caren Stelson at Valley View Middle School, Edina, MN

On Wednesday, May 17, I had an author’s expe­ri­ence that turned into an author’s gift. I was invit­ed to Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minnesota, to hear what 7th grade stu­dents had to say about my book Sachiko. Valley View media spe­cial­ist Heather Palmer gath­ered the 7th graders into the library for our book conversation.

These Valley View 7th graders had been engaged in a lit­er­a­ture unit with a focus on Jane Addams Book Awards books, of which Sachiko had been one of the titles. These books meet the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award mis­sion:  to rec­og­nize children’s books of lit­er­ary and aes­thet­ic excel­lence that effec­tive­ly engage chil­dren in think­ing about peace, social jus­tice, glob­al com­mu­ni­ty, and equi­ty for all peo­ple.” Heather’s lit­er­a­ture unit not only encour­aged stu­dents to dis­cuss their books in groups, but chal­lenged the kids to cre­ate a cul­mi­nat­ing advo­ca­cy project inspired by the books’ themes.

Caren Stelson and Valley View Media Specialist and the Jane Addams Book Awards com­mit­tee chair, Heather Palmer

I began our book con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing that authors write for two audiences—themselves and their intend­ed read­ers. I was think­ing of mid­dle school­ers as I wrote Sachiko. Middle school is a time of awak­en­ing, when young peo­ple ful­ly real­ize life can be fair or unfair, a time when ide­al­ism and ener­gy can turn into right­eous anger and advo­ca­cy. Heather Palmer’s 7th graders were awake and aware.

What did I hear from the 7th graders when they reflect­ed on their read­ing of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story: empa­thy, crit­i­cal think­ing, a new under­stand­ing of his­to­ry. Students point­ed to the specifics of Sachiko’s story:

Exploration with Jane Addams Book Award titles
  • Sachiko’s inno­cence as a child play­ing out­side right before the bomb exploded
  • the bul­ly­ing Sachiko endured—how unfair it was
  • the hor­ror of the long term effects of the bomb—burns, radi­a­tion expo­sure, cancer
  • the inex­plic­a­ble won­der that a per­son can sur­vive a holo­caust and not hate or remain angry
  • the real­iza­tion that not every­one agrees with their government’s decisions
  • the shap­ing of pro­pa­gan­da through photographs
  • learn­ing that a chain of events can start with one deci­sion then mul­ti­ply, such as the U.S. deci­sion to drop the atom­ic bomb and how it led to nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion and the Cold War

bk_longwalktowater-5430510As the 7th graders shared their insights, I won­dered: Can a children’s book change the world? That’s not my ques­tion or Heather Palmer’s ques­tion, it was award-winning author Linda Sue Park’s ques­tion as she deliv­ered her impres­sive TED Talk. During her talk, Linda Sue Park speaks of the pow­er of books for young peo­ple and the impres­sion these books can make on young minds. Books that take on themes of injus­tice can help young peo­ple “prac­tice life.” Books with cer­tain themes can help strength­en empa­thy and engage­ment. Books can lead to advo­ca­cy. Park’s book A Long Walk to Water is such a book. It’s about a young Sudanese boy named Salva Dut who sur­vives the long, har­row­ing march out of war, into a refugee camp, and to a home of peace and safe­ty in the U.S. But the sto­ry goes beyond peace and safe­ty. It leads to advo­ca­cy, ser­vice, and find­ing a solu­tion to a ter­ri­ble prob­lem. Salva finds a way back to Sudan to dig wells for clean, life-giving water, and young read­ers all over the coun­try have found ways to sup­port Salva’s mis­sion. This is amaz­ing. I hope Sachiko’s sto­ry can be as inspiring.

In my mind, I keep return­ing to the ques­tion, “Can one children’s book change the world?” I know one book can shift the think­ing of a class­room of read­ers at Valley View Middle School. When young peo­ple read a col­lec­tion of titles rec­og­nized by the Jane Addams Peace Association, they are read­ing books that vic­ar­i­ous­ly help them “prac­tice life.” At Valley View Middle School, you can see this pow­er in the stu­dents’ advo­ca­cy projects. Linda Sue Park is right. Books can change the world by chang­ing the hearts and minds of the young peo­ple who read them.

Click on the link of books that received the Jane Addams Award and be changed, too.


Jane Addams offi­cial website

List of Jane Addams Award win­ning titles since 1953

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