In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slavery: Talking About It With Younger Students

Why didn't I think about it ahead of time? I guess it never occurred to me that I'd be trying to explain what American Slavery had been to people who had no clue -- I've talked about THE SECRET ROOM (my 2011 Vermont adventure novel, history-hinged) with middle schoolers and high schoolers and lots of adults. But the day I found myself conversing with an audience that included children in third grade, I realized that I couldn't explain the Underground Railroad to them -- the focal point of Shawna and Thea's investigations in The Secret Room -- without saying something about what slavery was.

And it occurred to me that some of these kids didn't know.

What would their parents say about the words and images I chose to present?

Not until that moment had I realized how hidden our American history can be. Moreover, I realized that explanations of American Slavery could wound the children gazing at me. One, the entire phenomenon could be a frightening nightmare to them. And it ought to be, although I didn't want these children waking with night terrors. The idea that humans could "own" other humans and treat them as if they were farm animals is horrifying, terrifying, shameful.

I worried, too, that because the group of children in front of me included a wide range of skin colors, any bullies in the group could use my narrative of slavery to justify mistreating other children. Or, the very imaginative ones could experience within themselves a shadow of what slavery did.

In some ways, I wish I'd recorded the words I chose that day, so I could reexamine them and improve them for the next child who asks me about it. As a novelist, I'm in almost the same situation that Harriet Beecher Stowe experienced when she realized she was going to write Uncle Tom's Cabin: No matter how many histories and memories I read (and I strongly recommend Julius Lester's To Be a Slave as a starting point for teachers and other readers, as it provides the actual words of people who experienced slavery), I'm still an outsider, looking on with shock, shame, and determination to remind people of what's happening.

What's happening -- not "what happened." Because my conviction is that American Slavery continues to mark us all, and to make us responsible for our actions today.

So I'm especially glad today to share the news that a parent of a seven-year-old who heard how clearly her child failed to grasp the tragedy of the Middle Passage and American Slavery has created a "game" to teach some of the the emotional underpinning in a way that children and adults can grasp. The parent is game designer Brenda Brathwaite, and I hope you'll click here to listen to her TED talk about why this was a MUST DO game for her, and how she and her daughter explored its impact together.

Then share the news. Please.

PS - If YOU have experience talking with students about American Slavery and want to share some wisdom -- or are a parent with ideas about this -- I'd love your comments.

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