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A Somber Hope: Takeaways from President Obama's Farewell Address

January 16, 2017

 

 

 

Last fall, I wrote a post about the role that children’s literature professionals should be taking on in our post-election society. Now, with the inauguration looming near on the horizon, I want to write some follow up thoughts.

 

Earlier this month, President Obama bade adieu to the American people in a stirring farewell address. Inevitably, the speech drew criticism from conservatives and liberals alike. But political leanings aside, Obama pulled off a masterful rhetorical balancing act, and those of us in the children’s literature industry should take a cue from our soon-to-be former president.

 

The speech was somber, as well it should have been. President Obama will leave a deeply uncertain legacy behind when he steps down from his office at the end of this week. Many of his hallmark initiatives are in imminent danger of being dismantled by the incoming administration. And last fall’s election revealed fissure lines that run more deeply through American society than many of us knew or cared to recognize.

 

Acknowledging these realities, the president spoke at length about the threats facing our democracy and warned Americans that “we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”

 

But just as it seemed the tone of his speech was teetering towards dire, Obama infused it with a strong dose of the optimism and idealism that became his trademark during the 2008 election. “More often than not,” he said, “your faith in America—and in Americans—will be rewarded.”

 

President Obama’s speech deftly embraced both bleak realities and a hope for a better future. As such, it offers a narrative model that all of us working to create and disseminate stories for young people should embrace.

 

Here’s what I mean. There is an ongoing debate in children’s literature about the ethicality of the happy ending. Some scholars posit that it is unethical to write a book for children in which there is not at least some ray of hope at the end of the narrative. (Maybe the world is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad place, but we shouldn’t saddle this knowledge on our children.) Others argue that it is unethical to deliver idealistic endings that are unlikely to reflect the lived experience of children as they mature. (What you don’t know can indeed hurt you.)

 

I myself struggled to find the right way to end The Ethan I Was Before. Ethan is depressed and grieving for most of the book. And depression and grief are messy. They do not simply resolve because you are approaching the end of your target word count. So I wondered: Can I absolve him of his grief and guilt? Can I let him go back to being a "normal" happy kid? Tempting as that was, it certainly wouldn’t be realistic. On the other hand, I had to at least give him some prospect for a happy future, or I would be writing a book that was downright demoralizing.

 

As gatekeepers of children’s literature, we owe it to our readers to write, publish, and supply access to stories that find a middle ground between light and dark, that are both rooted in the often stark and incomprehensible realities of life, but that also leave room for the hope young people need in order to cope with the increasingly complicated landscapes of their lives. If we are to teach children that they can uplift themselves from oppressive circumstances and even change the world, the first step is to teach them to hold their hope close to their hearts.

 

The optimism of President Obama’s speech was accompanied with instruction: “It’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face,” he urged. “All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.”

 

So should we embed in our narratives strategies and coping mechanisms—be they psychological, spiritual, intellectual, or physical—that our readers can use in their own lives to build resiliency and to reclaim hope and agency. In other words, we must help children learn how to hope. This can be as abstract as allowing characters to have a shift in perspective (as Ethan eventually does), or as concrete as having a character who, for instance, escapes abuse (as in Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park) or takes up running to help her cope after a family tragedy (as in Katherine Webber's Wing Jones).

 

Among other things, spiking rates in bullying and hate speech and uncertainties over immigration and healthcare access mean that large numbers of our young people are plagued with a new set of fears and anxieties. We do those readers an injustice if we plug our ears and continue on with business as usual. As children’s literature professionals, it’s our job to recognize these specters and to write, publish, and disseminate books that respond to them in a manner that is uplifting without being patronizing, and that give children the tools they need to cope with—and to fight back against—the threats many of them may face come January 20th.

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