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Writing non-fiction for young readers about difficult topics such as the impact of war or colonization is tricky. Make your work too heavy and you risk bumming your audience out – or, worse, traumatizing them. Cut out all the bad stuff and you’ve done a disservice to the subject. Deborah Ellis and Wab Kinew are two authors who’ve demonstrated a remarkable ability to tell true stories about the world’s less-Instagrammable realities in books that balance light and dark in ways that engage, inform and inspire. They spoke with fellow author Nathan Whitlock.
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You are both ideal people to speak to this subject of writing about difficult subjects for younger readers. Did you always kind of want to put those kinds of ideas into your books or was it the writing that came first?
Deborah Ellis: It was kind of a mishmash. I had been an anti-war activist and a feminist for a long time, and also a writer for a long time – mostly a failed writer – and finally I was able to kind of meld the two together. There was an American journalist named Studs Terkel who spent his whole career just interviewing people, getting them to talk about their lives and what happened to them. I’ve always admired that, and so that’s the kind of work I do in my non-fiction books for kids: I meet with kids in extreme circumstances and find out what’s happened to them. It’s just their words – I fill in the dates and stuff, but really it’s their words that are the most valuable.
Wab Kinew: I started Go Show the World with the real words of somebody, too, actually. In my case it was the words of Jim Thorpe’s father. Jim Thorpe was this amazing athlete who played professional baseball, football and basketball, and won Olympic gold medals. When he was a boy he was taken away to a residential school – boarding school is what they’re called in the States – and on his way out the door his dad told him, “You gotta go, but I want you to go show the world what somebody like you can do.” I was trying to relate some stories about Indigenous achievers, and I thought that quote was a pretty good way to broaden it out.
It’s fascinating that you both had that starting place with using those real experiences. Have either of you tried the other way – starting with a general topic and then moving into case studies or personal stories to illustrate it?
WK: I’ve been wanting to write about the theme of overcoming adversity because it struck me that young people face a similar challenge today in the virtual world. If you talk to the average kid, the stuff that’s happening for them on their Xbox Live chat or on TikTok or Snapchat or Google Classroom – that stuff is just as important to them as anything they do in a face-to-face setting. So I started on the – I don’t know if abstract is the right word, but maybe more the idea level.
DE: The online world is completely foreign to me – I know very little about it beyond e-mail and what I have to do in order to do my job. But we’ve all lived in a bunch of different worlds at the same time: the world of our families, the outer world of school and jobs, and the inner world in our heads. So the online world is just an extra layer onto that, I think.
There’s that whole idea of code-switching, where you have to find the right version of your identity depending on where you find yourself.
WK: I think that’s right. As we go through life one of the challenges, whether you’re a young person trying to “figure out who you are” or whether you’re an adult trying to define your career and your life, is how can we be our authentic self in all of those worlds. I definitely take the point about how it’s as old as the difference between the life that you have inside your mind and your spirit, and then the external world that you’re trying to navigate. I think there’s something in reading and in literature that helps that.
DE: When I was a kid and I first read books that were critical of the adult world, it was revolutionary in my head.
WK: I read Animal Farm when I was pretty young and on the reserve. It was like a portal into a different world, and also a portal into the world of literature. Just the idea that you can do satire and allegory and all these things. I think one of the real powerful things that books can do is to build empathy. When I was younger, some of the social justice challenges outside of the Indigenous ones I remember first feeling a connection to was the battle against apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights challenges in the States.
I’m wondering: Do you feel a different sort of pressure when you’re writing about real people’s stories?
DE: Yeah, it’s really huge. If I’m talking with a kid in a refugee camp, sometimes I have to go through an adult who’s interpreting, and so you’re never really sure if that’s entirely the truth of what the kid is saying. You just kind of hope it is. And then I have to patch the interview together to make it a cohesive read, so that young readers in a very different world can get into what that young person in the refugee camp is saying. You can’t get it wrong – or you can’t get it too wrong, I guess.
WK: My non-fiction picture book has a positive tone, but there are some serious topics like the Trail of Tears or residential schools or war veterans. So I do think there’s a bit of a balancing act. You want to paint an accurate portrait of the person, while having a responsibility to the bigger issue to portray it accurately. And to do it in an age-appropriate way.
DE: For me it was about trying to see the whole picture of the whole society. So when writing about the Taliban, for example, to write about the brutality of the Taliban and respect the people’s experience who are on the receiving end of that, but also to allow the readers to recognize that the people in the Taliban were individuals capable of making individual choices, and that some of them had really hard stories, as well. And that there were, and still are, incredibly kind people in Afghanistan building really strong communities. So trying to wrap the the difficulties in with all the gloriousness of a rich and vibrant experience.
WK: One of the things I think about a lot as a writer is the question of permission and appropriation. So I’m wondering what advice you have, Deborah, in terms of getting it right when you’re dealing with people from so many different walks of life.
DE: I don’t know if I have any advice on that other than that I try to look for the things that we have in common as human beings – and that’s across history, across time, across geography, across everything. We mourn, we fall in love, we laugh.
WK: The experiences that I’ve had with writing so far have been slightly different, though the goals are somewhat the same. I think the goals are to humanize. But it’s different because I’m not necessarily trying to transport readers to a place that they’ve never been. I’m trying to show them the Indigenous reality that’s been hidden in plain sight. In particular with Go Show the World, one of the overall messages of the book is that Indigenous people have been here throughout North American history, contributing to the founding of both Canada and the U.S. We’ve fought in the World Wars, we’ve been high achievers in medicine and sports and the arts and all these different worlds. My hope is that when a young person thinks about an astronaut, one of the images they have in their head is an Indigenous astronaut. Or when they think about a medical doctor, one of the images is an Indigenous medical doctor.
DE: How do you deal with the weight of history on the present day?
WK: That’s something that I feel a responsibility to try and get right, because one of the things that I want people to understand about Indigenous nations is the weight of history – not just the impacts of colonization but also the lineage and the inheritances that we have. Not that young people should feel history as a burden, but rather as a springboard to be able to achieve whatever they want in their lives. Once kids are at the age where they can read, they can envision themselves in someone else’s life, too. They can build that empathy.
DE: I think so. And to know that we’re all the same big bunch of idiots on the planet, trying to make our way – hopefully with some degree of kindness and humour.
This interview has been condensed and edited.