Teaching Without Teaching

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Teaching is a tricky business. Children are inundated with teachers from a young age—parents or caregivers, school or homeschool teachers, media in all its forms. They have an overabundance of people trying to give them information. And done well, with respect and genuine concern for the child as an individual, teaching can be a magical thing that opens up the doors of the world.

When I was young, I learned more from books than anything else. And yet when I felt like a book was trying to teach me something I cringed away. I hated most of the books I was asked to read in class. Lesson Books. Moral Books. They always felt patronizing and disrespectful. How could the author of a book—who had never met me, and likely never would—know what I needed to learn? They couldn’t, and it was presumptuous for them to try. And this applied even to me—a cisgendered, straight, white boy who could see his own experience reflected back at him in almost every book he read. How much further off the mark must these lessons be for children who weren’t represented in the books they read? Who couldn’t read the voices of people who shared their experience?

So how did I learn so much from books, while avoiding books that tried to teach me?

When I decided to write children’s books (largely because they’re still the books I love to read), it became an urgent task to figure that out, so I could avoid being yet another patronizing voice in young lives. I care about my readers, but I don’t know them personally, so I can’t presume to know what they need from my books. As I started writing I went back to the stories that resonated with me—books like Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, or just about anything by Charles de Lint. What I found was that these books weren’t trying to teach something so much as trying to figure something out. They’re searching for answers, rather than revealing them.

This has certainly been the case in my books, Dominion and Terra Nova. Molly, the hero, struggles to figure out who she is, who she wants to be, and how to do the right thing in a world that actively pushes against it. Here on the other side of adulthood, I’m still neck-deep in those same struggles. Writing Molly helped me find my own answers. And helped me realized that no matter how many answers I find, I can never stop asking myself these big questions.

It’s the questions I hope people take from my books. Young readers will be able to come up with their own answers, answers I could never imagine. Braver answers, smarter answers, maybe even simpler answers (which, for me, are the most difficult to find).

In Dominion, a wind spirit named Ariel helps Molly get hold of a journal with some secret—and dangerous—information. When Molly asks Ariel why she’s helping, Ariel says, “Because the journal you seek contains surprising information, and you, Molly Stout, are a surprising girl. I am curious to see what might happen if I bring the two of you together.” As an author, I want to be like Ariel. I can’t predict what will happen when readers meet my books. But I’m curious to see.

SA Author Photo 3.jpgShane Arbuthnott is the author of the Molly Stout Adventures from Orca Book Publishers. Both DOMINION and TERRA NOVA will be available in paperback on March 27th—but if you can’t wait, the first book is already available in hardcover. Shane grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and now lives in southwestern Ontario with his family. His short fiction has previously appeared in On Spec and Open Spaces. When he is not writing, he can be seen chasing his three adventurous children, trying to convince them to eat green things. For more information, visit http://www.shanearbuthnott.com.

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