This past Saturday, in Chatham, NJ, I was honored to help launch nErDcampNJ by giving one of the day’s five opening nErD Talks — brief, TED-style talks aimed at energizing and inspiring the assembled educators and creators for a day of sharing, learning, and celebrating books. The text of my talk is below.
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Many of you might already be familiar with the theory of narrative identity. But just in case you aren’t, the basic premise is this: that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life.
All of which is just a fancy way of saying that we are stories, and that we rely on those stories, deeply. Strands of narrative course through our minds and imaginations, and they are just as instrumental in making us us as our DNA.
So the story my parents like to tell about me coming home from school one day and demanding they remove the training wheels from my bike, so determined was I to learn how to ride on two wheels – that’s me.
And all the stories my siblings like to tell about me nagging them, stubbornly refusing to leave them alone until I got what I wanted from them – those are all me, too.
Back in elementary school, there were some kids who liked to tell a story about me being fat, and about how, because of that, I was somehow less than, and ought to be ashamed of my body and myself. There were only a few of these kids. But they were loud, and persistent. They told that story again and again and again and again. It didn’t take long for me to memorize it. Soon enough, I started telling that story too. There were days, back then, when the Book of Myself contained that story alone, printed ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand times.
Of course, we aren’t born with the ability to tell our own stories. And so just as we must rely on others for food and shelter, we rely on others to fill our fresh, malleable minds with story.
Our primary caregivers, whether they’re parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, neighbors, or the staff at a foster care facility – they have the honor and enormous responsibility of filling us up with the very first stories of ourselves.
Later on, teachers and coaches help do this, as do our peers. For a while, the stories our peers tell about us tend to become the loudest and the largest, looming in our minds and imaginations, bolstering us up, and other times, holding us down.
Eventually, we tune into the society and culture at large. And adults too often assume that kids aren’t paying attention, or that they aren’t even capable of understanding what’s going on around them. But they hear. They see. They listen. They understand. They’re exposed to all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there’s a lot of ugly out there these days.
Fortunately for me, I was filled up with good, hopeful stories about myself from my first day on this planet. I had a pair of loving, supportive parents who constantly told me stories about how wonderfully unique and impressive I was. I had teachers who told me stories about how smart and creative and hard-working I was, and how I had a very bright future ahead of me, and how they cared about my wellbeing and success. I had friends who told stories about me being cool and funny and fun to be with. And I was also extremely fortunate to have books – more than I could ever possibly read – that featured kids who looked just like me and came from backgrounds basically identical to mine, and anytime I wanted, I could live vicariously through their stories, and allow them to animate and inspire me.
And all of these stories – they didn’t just sit there in my head, static and silent. They were like the songs on a constantly shuffling playlist. They were the soundtrack to my life. And pretty much anytime I wanted, I could grab the controls and be the DJ – I could play a story that I wanted or needed to hear on a loop. I could reread it, so to speak.
And so, when I was struggling with a difficult assignment, when I faced a situation in which I was forced to choose right from wrong, or when I was just having a crummy day, I had all those people, all those storytellers, right there with me, reminding me of whatever I needed to be reminded of.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was no longer passively accepting the stories that came my way, whether they were about me or about others. I had become a conscious, critical consumer of story – my parents and teachers had helped turn me into a reader. And so when I encountered a narrative that, for one reason or another, didn’t sit right with me, I had the wherewithal and the tools to question it, to perform the sort of textual examination on it that I would on any short story, poem, or novel. So when someone once told me that, because I was Jewish, I must be good at tricking people out of money, I was able to prevent that story from doing me lasting harm. And it wasn’t long after that, in the fall of 2001, that I began to see people on TV and hear them in the grocery store telling stories about how all the people from this country or of that faith were one terrible thing or another, and I was able to pick apart those narratives and understand them to be abhorrent, ridiculous, and ignorant.
It was also around this time that my parents and teachers helped me become a writer – helped me embrace my passion for story and develop my skills as a storyteller. And just as I wrote fiction about talking animals and alien invasions, I constructed new narratives for myself. I was able, for instance, to craft healthier stories about my appearance, and so develop healthier responses to the swirl of negative emotions that those body-shaming bullies had buried in me years before. And eventually, finally, I was able to imagine a story for myself in which I not only chased my dream, but began to live it.
It’s because of all those good, positive stories about myself that I was filled with as a kid that I made it through the countless trials and tribulations of growing up. It’s because of all those good, positive stories about myself that I was filled with as a kid that I possess empathy, and that I look for the good and positive in others and in most every situation. It’s because of all those good, positive stories about myself that I was filled with as a kid that I eventually became able to write new stories about myself, and that I believe, deeply, that my life has a purpose.
Now, if your mind hasn’t leapt there already, I ask you to take a moment to consider the kid who isn’t filled up with all of those good, hopeful, positive stories about themselves – or even more tragically, the kid who is filled up with nothing but negative narratives. Ones telling them that they’ll never amount to anything. That their future is bleak, or worse, nonexistent. That they don’t belong. That they don’t have anything of value to give. That they’re dangerous. That they are, somehow, inherently bad . . .
It isn’t just the future authors and English teachers who need to be strong readers and writers – it’s every child. Strong readers and writers make for confident, capable, resilient human beings who know that their lives matter, that their voice is uniquely valuable, that their stories are as worthy of being heard as anyone else’s. Readers reflexively question narratives that come their way. They interrogate others’ stories before they allow them to add to or subtract from their sense of self or somehow alter their worldview. And writers? Writers are open to the limitless potential both within themselves and surrounding themselves. They don’t look in the mirror or at the world around them and say, “Well, I guess this is it.” They look and they wonder, “What if . . . ?”
As a maker of stories for kids, as a member of this kid lit community, I believe it is my job to help create and promote the kinds of books that ALL kinds of children both want and need, so that they enjoy and appreciate story enough to be motivated to become the strong readers and writers that they need to be, and so that even if they aren’t being told good, hopeful, positive stories about themselves by the people in their lives or by portions of the society and culture at large, they have a chance to discover such stories in books.
I also believe that, simply because I am a creator of some of those stories that kids read, I have a unique opportunity to inspire the sort of excitement around reading and writing that can further help turn kids into the strong readers and writers that they need to be. I do that by visiting schools, by Skyping with classrooms and libraries, by answering emails from readers, by writing back to the letters kids send me, by spending time interacting on FlipGrid pages, by tweeting, and by helping organize initiatives such as #KidsNeedBooks and programs such as #KidsNeedMentors, through which we’ve connected hundreds of creators with thousands of kids all over the country and even the world.
Lastly, I believe that part of my job is to work with all of you – educators, librarians, administrators. And that’s why I’m very excited to be here today, at nErDcamp. I love nErDcamp. I go to every single one I can – here in New Jersey, on Long Island, in Kansas, in Vermont, in Michigan, in Maine. There is nothing like the energy and spirit of nErDcamp. Because camp celebrates and puts into highly productive practice the belief that kids’ educators and kids’ book creators are colleagues, and that, at the end of the day, our core mission is the same: to improve and enrich the lives of kids through books – to fill them up with as many good, hopeful stories as we can, and to help them learn to value, and craft, and proudly share stories of their own, whether they’re full of flights of fictional fancy or about themselves, chasing and achieving their deepest, wildest dreams. The more we all work together, the better work we can all do.
So, let’s get to work. Let’s talk about reading and writing and books. Let’s listen to one another, and share with one another, and learn from one another, so we can all leave here more inspired, energized, and better able to help our kids.
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The four speakers I shared the stage with are some of the most amazing individuals I’ve had the honor of meeting and learning from — Tricia Ebarvia, Emma Otheguy, Andrea J. Loney, and Laurie Halse Anderson. They have all, in some form or another, shared parts of their talks on their social media feeds and/or websites. I highly encourage you to seek them out, and if you have yet to do so, to take a look at the wonderful, important work they are all doing.
To learn a bit more about what nErDcamp is, take a look at this blog post I did a while back. (Since I’ve written it, a new camp has been launched in Southern California, and a few more are in the early planning stages in Central New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.)