Books open our eyes to things that are real even if we haven’t seen them yet.
By William Hart
Last year, my husband and two sons were watching a cartoon about animal conservation while I cleaned up after dinner. This episode was about ocean animals and the creature they were featuring/highlighting was a narwhal. A narwhal is a medium-sized whale that has an enlarged tooth that looks like a long, spiraled tusk jutting from its head. A unicorn of the sea, if you will.
About halfway through the show, my husband said, “I like this show, but why did they choose an animal that isn’t real to teach about conservation?” I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly, so I paused before responding, waiting for him to clarify what he meant (this is a man with a PhD, an MD, and who has been to Antarctica twice to do research.) He didn’t say anything, so I questioned my own understanding of narwhals before offering, “You know that narwhals are real animals, right?”
He did not. His reason for not knowing they were real was because he had never seen one in real life.
Part of what makes books so special is their ability to provide space for the reader to be included and feel seen. Books can remove that feeling of otherness because inclusion comes with the transfer of knowledge from the page to the reader. I’ve never been awoken by the sound of a train on Christmas Eve, but I know what it feels like to question my beliefs like the main character in The Polar Express. I’ve never been the new kid at a school run by a javelin-throwing headmistress, but I know what it feels like to want to change the world only to be told that you are not good enough like the title character in the book Matilda.
When stories create connections with readers, those connections can create actions and a sense of belonging. I can’t tell you the number of times I have said to someone (whether they asked me or not) how great a book is that I just read. I always finish my statement with the line “…. read it and you’ll understand.” My awareness of the connection I have made with that book is something I want others to experience.
As authors, we must provide spaces within our stories for readers to safely explore and create connections. One of the first major reviews I received for my book, Elephants Are Not Artists, stated that the reviewer wished I had given the main character a moment of doubt. What this meant for me was that I had achieved what I had hoped for the character. I was mindful when creating the main character, Ruby; she does not doubt herself but instead remains steadfast in her belief that what others think of her does not define who she is.
I only had to look to my husband and children for inspiration that there are readers out there who would connect with a character like this. When we first started dating, my husband and I had the “what did you want to be when you grow up” conversation, and I was surprised to learn that he had always wanted to be a doctor. It never occurred to him that a backup was needed or to even explore other options. My dream of being a garbage collector got trashed around the time companies stopped letting workers ride on the back of the truck, and I have explored no less than a thousand other career options since then.
I am grateful that his confidence has rubbed off on our kids because I see them view the world the same way my husband chose a career at the age of three. Our four-year-old is certain that anyone he meets will love cars as much as he does if he only has the chance to tell them about the different ones that he knows. My eight-year-old refuses to believe that there are families that don’t discuss Minecraft at every meal.
My hope is that when a child reads my books and can connect a part of themselves with the character, they feel seen and understand that there are others out there like them.
Author Lloyd Alexander once wrote, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” If you have a story or character in mind but are not sure if readers will connect with them, remember that every story gives a reader the opportunity to better understand not only themselves but others around them. To feel seen but also to see. And always remember that there was a grown man who once had his whole world changed by a kid’s show when he saw and learned that he lived on the same planet as the unicorn of the sea, the majestic and very much real narwhal.
William Hart is the author of Elephants Are Not Artists.