Deborah Underwood is a picture book author whose most recent title is Super Saurus Saves Kindergarten (Disney-Hyperion, June). A version of this article appeared in the 07/17/2017 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: If We Ran the World (Or at Least the Country)
A children’s author’s love letter to her colleagues’ character, knowledge, and empathy
"Watching increasingly absurd and alarming national news headlines flash across my screen, I’ve decided (while gaining 15 pounds) that children’s authors and illustrators should be running the country. The actions of our leaders often directly contradict their talk about valuing and protecting children. And those in power seem to be missing some important qualities—qualities that children’s authors and illustrators have in abundance.
"Presented herewith are my 13 reasons why children’s authors and illustrators would do a great job at being in charge:
1. Empathy is one of our job requirements. Every book, every character we write or draw requires us to walk in the shoes of another. And empathy allows us to see complexity. True understanding makes lines fuzzier. If our character bullies kids on the playground because of her abusive family, is she bad? Would we behave differently in her situation?
2. We understand people’s widely varying circumstances. One day we might visit a kindergarten that charges $20,000 tuition, the next, a broken-down school where a kid limps into to the office because she’s outgrown her shoes. (And we see the secretary who goes into the back to try to find bigger shoes. We know that schools are brimming with unsung heroes.) We visit schools where, if not for subsidized meals, the kids would go hungry. (We know you can’t learn when you’re hungry.)
3. Money is not our first priority. (If it were, we would be in the wrong field.)
4. We understand the importance of diversity. We work to provide our readers ways to see difference without fear.
5. We see connections. A single act of kindness can change the course of a child’s future. A single caring adult can be a lifeline. We’ve written these things. We’ve lived them. We remember.
6. We know art and music and dance and theater are not expendable. They save lives. They have saved some of ours.
7. We’re good at waiting. The book we’re working on now may not sell for five years or come out for 10, but it’s still worth doing. We’re not looking for quick payoffs. Quick payoffs often come at the expense of one’s soul. (Congress, please note.)
8. We take the long view of our impact, too. It’s great when a child says she loves our books. But it’s even better when, through reading our books, she develops her own empathy and grows up to understand others’ points of view—looking beyond stereotypes and treating others with kindness and compassion. That’s the kind of legacy we care about.
9. We’re role models, and we know it. When we visit schools, kids pay attention to how we speak and what we do. If they see us being kind to the shy kid, they might treat him differently. If they hear us speak openly about our emotions—about how discouraged we feel when our work is rejected, about the tough times in our own lives—they might feel less alone.
10. We understand cooperation and synergy. Making the best book often means letting go of words we love or illustrations we adore in service of the whole. We know the common goal—creating a beautiful and meaningful book that will touch readers—is more important than our individual egos.
11. We live in a world of imagination and magic and possibilities. Hate and fear exist, but they’re obstacles to be overcome, not operating instructions.
12. We value learning and growth. We try to stretch, to do new things, to learn new techniques, to write in new forms.
13. We know the importance of community. We lift each other up. We celebrate together and encourage each other.
"I suspect, though, that in reality most of us wouldn’t actually want to enter the political sphere, especially if it meant wearing suits instead of pajamas to work. But I can’t help but wish that our leaders would take a page from our respective books. It would make the country a kinder, gentler place for everyone."
How did you score? 13 out of 13?