Trailing through my mind for several months now, with about as much direction as the snail trails crossing my garden, have been numerous allusions to the old cliché “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The saying has been around since English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton put it into a play in 1839.
The cliché could serve as the theme of some of the books I’ve reviewed. Jennifer Lanthier created her fictional character in The Stamp Collector based on two men jailed by corrupt governments because of fear of their words. Her writer protagonist represents many captives imprisoned for fear their pens will bring freedom from oppression.
Margarita Engle’s The Lightning Dreamer brings alive Cuba’s poet Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda (Tula) whose poems stirred her people toward human rights. In her historical notes, Margarita notes that Tula became influential throughout Europe and the Americas with her words. Tula’s simple love story led people to think of an ideal when there would be equality, dignity, freedom, and equal rights for both men and women of all races. Margarita notes pen power in one line of her book,
“We risk everything,
all for the crime of listening
In recent days, the powerful pen trail through my mind has been heightened by Jason Low’s article about the disproportional lack of multicultural books in comparison to their ethnic representation in the population as a whole. The ensuing discussion among writers, librarians, and readers has majored on the importance to children of all ethnicities of finding people like themselves in books. I affirm that idea but would like to address another that I believe to be almost as essential – the importance of reading from diverse traditions by children belonging to the majority. When children read stories featuring people from cultures other than their own, they develop a kinship far greater than will be produced from any number of lectures.
While the Lincoln quote to Harriet Beecher Stowe about being the little woman who influenced the great war is questioned by historians, there is no doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin stirred people to look at the slavery question in a way that all the political pronouncements did not. In my own experience, reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry aloud to classes of junior high students from multiple ethnicities brought every one of them to connect with the Logan children. Every year without exception, every student cheered for what they saw as justice when the white children’s bus mired up in the mud brought on by the rain. The importance of Story cannot be overstated as it brings, not just students but all of us, beyond tolerance to understanding, appreciation, empathy, and genuine friendship.
The quote on the Children’s Literature Network Facebook cover photo for July 16 pulled this trail together for me.
“Let us pick up our books and our pens.
They are our most powerful weapons.
One teacher, one book, one pen
Can change the world.”
I think we need to march forth, well armed with our pens, and make this a world where we celebrate the outward variety in our many cultures and value our inner common humanity.