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Dave Eggers on writing for children: ‘They want to be treated like valuable fellow humans’

Author Dave Eggers.

“Eggers is the worst last name,” Dave Eggers told me on the phone from San Francisco. He was sitting across the street from 826 Valencia, one of several branches of his non-profit organization that gives creative writing opportunities to kids. “It’s a ludicrous name. I was Ham and Eggers, Egghead, Egg Beater. Eggs was the nicest way anyone would put it. It’s the silliest name there is.”

This isn’t exactly vital information when talking about Dave Eggers, 48, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist or founder of the literary journal McSweeney’s, but it’s important when considering him as a writer for young people. He’s remarkably attuned to both his own childhood memories and the experiences of the many kids he works with at 826. Any kid-lit diehards who are suspicious of Eggers for entering their sacred realm (I certainly was!) can rest easy. He’s worthy of the job.

You might have missed his first two children’s books, both illustrated non-fiction. This Bridge Will Not Be Gray (2015) and Her Right Foot (2017) tell the true stories behind San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, respectively, and are narrated in the parlance of a beloved quirky uncle. Take this background information on the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance: “The Navy thought it should be yellow and black. No kidding. They did.”

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The Lifters is his first work of fiction for 9-12 year olds, and is part underground adventure fantasy, part realistic examination of some oft-overlooked aspects of growing up. Twelve-year-old Granite Flowerpetal (he calls himself Gran, until it’s pointed out to him that Grant would be a much better alternative) has just moved to the economically depressed and sinkhole-ridden town of Carousel. Gran is neither popular nor ridiculed at his new school. It’s much worse; no one notices him.

“I think invisibility afflicts far more kids than almost any of the other stereotypical attributes,” Eggers says. “In so many schools that I’m in, I see kids that are shy, but not so shy that they’re crippled socially. But they sort of move through without garnering a lot of notice from their teachers or their peers.”

This is something Eggers relates to. “I knew as a kid, all I ever wore were grey and brown clothes. I just didn’t want to stand out in that way. I was happy to sort of see without being seen.”

The solution to this predicament of invisibility? Finding purpose. When Gran discovers that his classmate, the intrepid and tough Catalina Catalan, uses a magic door handle to open the Earth and fight against the underground force behind Carousel’s sinkholes, he becomes obsessed with helping her. Eggers thinks this is indicative of what a lot of kids crave. “That was the key driver for me to write the book and what kept me intrigued – this sense of purpose that I think kids want. They want nothing more in the world than to be given a task that they can own and that they can be successful with. They want to be treated like valuable fellow humans and not infants.”

But The Lifters is not a cut-and-dried story of two friends teaming up to save a town. Catalina is deeply annoyed by Gran, to the point where she delivers a gut punch and kick. “Catalina’s got real purpose, she’s got real work to do. Gran’s getting in her way,” Eggers points out. “She knows she’s got to save the town and instead of taking the time to explain it all to Gran, she just expresses herself physically.”

Far from Kiddie Fight Club or an endorsement for problem-solving via punching, Eggers feels Catalina’s actions reflect reality too. “I think that we do have to allow – sometimes –that kids will not have formed other ways to express themselves … they are still crawling out of their feral beast state and finding their way to expressing themselves in more civilized ways. But we do have to allow them to be the animals that are still inside them.”

Do actual kid readers explicitly care about being seen, finding purpose and figuring out the most productive and peaceful means of self-expression? Maybe not. But for those who don’t, Eggers ensures that it all goes down easily, purposefully organizing his book into blissfully short chapters, accompanied by Aaron Renier’s charcoal illustrations that possess the vitality of Hergé and the warmth of Garth Williams.

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“I was easily daunted by The Great Brain or any of those books that were denser,” Eggers says, recalling himself as a child reader. “I needed pictures, I needed some speed and I needed to feel like I had a sense of getting somewhere. I was thinking of the reader I was. And I would rather be out playing rumble.”

Shannon Ozirny reviews young-adult books for The Globe and Mail.

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