Who Holds the Power? The Writer.

Today’s SCMP Article on adolescent literacy, the link, or text below…

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1745385/dont-sell-short-power-pen

In advocating literacy, we have mostly discussed the importance of reading aloud with children. But there’s a second part we haven’t addressed as deeply: writing.

Writing is powerful. Consider this: history happens, but the one who writes it down becomes the arbiter of its future understanding. The writer shapes public opinion, provides context, persuades and inspires. We would know virtually nothing of the past were it not for writers. Time changes everything, but in books, it will always look as the writer wishes it to appear.

Writing has to be nurtured. Like reading, writing instruction in Hong Kong sometimes unintentionally prioritizes performance over pleasure and the need to develop a deeper insight into the world. The process of learning to write is so much greater than cultivating beautiful handwriting and perfect spelling. In fact, those skills are somewhat beside the point.

The writing process can be particularly therapeutic for teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Writing allows one to express frustration, to explore connections and relationships and to develop consciousness. Writing only works when it is truthful and honest, and oftentimes the process itself helps the writer determine what she thinks about a topic.

Deborah Wiles, award-winning author of children’s books, spent nearly two weeks in Hong Kong working with students and teachers at both HKIS and CIS this month. She demonstrated how fiction can be as powerful a medium to convey ideas, inform and to convince, as is nonfiction. “Think of the power you have if you hold the pen,” she says. People become what you can imagine. For example, in her award winning, Love, Ruby Lavender, three crotchety aunties who had always reminded Wiles of chickens feature prominently as such in the book. Revenge is sweet when her real life nemesis younger brother appears as an unpleasant little girl in one of her books.

Wiles’ books are deeply personal, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, as the creative and fanciful stories are every bit as imaginative as pure fiction. Set in her childhood homes and drawn from her stock of memories, they are her own stories, but not standard memoirs. Her history takes the form of young adult fiction, picture books and what she calls a documentary novel, a trilogy about the 1960s that defies categorization.

“I write so I can say I was here. So I can find like-minded souls to share the road with. You must tell the whole story of your whole life with your whole heart because that is how we create life.“

Writing and life is about paying attention, making connections and asking questions. She teaches aspiring writers to “know, feel, and imagine.” Writing can also help with grief. Writing helped her through the grieving process during a particularly difficult year of her life. Of the process of writing and recording her experience, she said, “I learned to carry my grief. You do not ever get rid of it, but you learn to carry it.”

The good news is that in one form or another, we are all writers. We write every day. Emails, business communications, term papers, thank you notes and the occasional one-off essay, we write to communicate, to persuade, to express gratitude and to inform.

In a New Yorker column this week, acclaimed author Andrew Solomon wrote, “What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too.”

Creative writing is as important a process and skill to cultivate in adolescence as are all the traditional communications and persuasive tools. Parents, your child’s fanciful stories are a path to one of life’s most essential skills and must be nurtured and celebrated as such.

Let Your Child’s Imagination Run Wild

Here’s my latest South China Morning Post “Between the Lines” column that was in today’s paper.  A copy of the unedited version is included below.  

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1653162/young-imaginations-run-wild

Growing up in Pennsylvania on the edge of a wildlife preserve, I spent my childhood in the creek, building forts, swinging from vines and rolling down clover fields. I always imagined the same for my children. Instead, my kids have lived in urban metropolises their entire lives.   Suggesting to my son that he go outside and build a fort, he pointed to the tiny, well manicured back yard and said, “Mom, do you see any sticks out there? We have a gardener. There are NO sticks!” Sadly, he was right. There were no sticks to be found in our backyard. There are never any errant sticks.

Bill Plotkin in his book, Nature and the Human Soul, describes the stages of human ego development and explains that connecting with nature is an essential experience in transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Those who fail to do so may remain stuck in egocentric adolescence, self-focused and unfulfilled. He says, “Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence.  Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.” Getting kids out into nature is essential, but often a challenge in busy, urban environments like Hong Kong. In some cases, children are so immersed in technology and indoor activities that they can’t even imagine going out in nature much less doing so independently.

Adolescent children must be able to imagine the world beyond their own current circumstance, and survival stories are a great way to introduce the concept. In most of these stories, fear and feelings of inadequacy are slowly replaced with competence, self-awareness and success as the reader watches as a capable, powerful, centered and loving young person emerges from previously unimaginable challenge.

Jean Craighead George is the most prolific and celebrated author of young adult fiction survival stories. Her classic tale, My Side of the Mountain, written in 1959, tells the story of Sam Gribley, a fifteen-year-old boy who leaves his crowded home in New York City to live on his own for a year in the Catskills mountains. The book is filled with realistic details about how and what food he foraged and caught, the intricate shelter he constructed by smoking out a dead tree stump, his protection, entertainment and emotions, and has intricate drawings to bring the descriptions to life. George wrote many other books including Julie of the Wolves, a similarly artful and detailed account of a girl who survives alone on the Alaskan tundra by communicating with wolves, and The Talking Earth about a Seminole girl who struggles to reconcile her tribe’s traditional legends with the destructive practices of the contemporary world. In each, the child protagonist demonstrates an upstanding character, resilience and calm, focused strength and determination.

Abel’s Island by Wallace Steig is a classic tale of an aristocratic mouse that gallantly chases the scarf of his betrothed only to find himself washed downstream alighting on an uninhabited island in the middle of a swiftly flowing river. Despondent at first and completely inept, Abel eventually learns to take care of himself, to find and catch food, create shelter, protect himself and slowly realizes the beauty and value in doing so. When he finally designs a way to get off the island and is reunited with his bride to be, he is a much more capable and resilient mouse.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who survives a plane crash and his parents’ divorce, eventually finding his own inner strength as he struggles to survive alone in the wilderness until he is eventually rescued. In Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, the heroine Karana lives alone for years on a pacific island, discovering her own strength and the natural beauty around her. These are just a few examples of dozens of survival books for children in the 8-13 age range that introduce the concept of solitude, discovery and competence to adolescent readers. By introducing the idea, kids find increased motivation to get outside and let their imaginations run wild.

Don’t confuse contemporary dystopian future scenarios whereby children are engaged in killing each other for sport or to survive a post-apocalyptic new world order with survival books. These popular series like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent books are entertaining and feed the adrenaline-fueled culture our kids enjoy, but they are not the same thing.

Taking our kids out into the woods to experience nature first hand is the best thing we can do for them. Despite Hong Kong’s urban center, the periphery offers some great outdoor adventures for children. Consider hiking the Dragon’s Back to Big Wave Bay, or walking from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo for a celebratory lunch at Turkish restaurant, Bahce. You can kayak in Sai Kung or Stanley, wander the country parks, visit Kadoorie Farm to pet animals or pick organic strawberries in Fanling. These are a few good ways to get kids out in nature. When that’s not possible, the next best thing is to read about it and help plant the seed for them to nurture in themselves later on.