The best part of being a writer is getting letters and email from my readers. Middle grade readers particularly are so passionate about what they read. They tell you they are quite sure they are the biggest fan of your book that you’ve ever had. They tell you how much their life mirrors that of the main character’s. One young reader of my book, A DOG’S WAY HOME, assured me she will take excellent care of her copy because she plans to read it to her children one day.
But hands down, for me the best letters are the ones that tell me my book helped them see things in a different way. My 2012 book, THE DOGS OF WINTER, was inspired by the true story of a child in Russia who lived homeless with a pack of wild street dogs for two years. It’s not an easy book, emotionally. I didn’t sugar coat anything. But that book, of all the ones I’ve written, prompted the longest, most heart-felt letters about. As Gabby wrote to me after her class read THE DOGS OF WINTER, “It makes you think and question and realize things about the world you didn’t notice before.”
My new book, STAY, is starting to get its own fan letters. STAY is the story of Piper and her family who are experiencing homelessness. Piper’s story intersects with that of a little dog named Baby and his person, Jewel. They too are homeless. But because shelters don’t allow animals, Jewel and Baby must live in a city park. Again, a tough subject. But gratifyingly, readers say, “This book really opened my eyes,” or “I will never look a homeless person the same since reading your book.” And best of all, “Now I want to do something to help. To make a difference like Piper did.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as, “sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with the desire to alleviate it.” I also think of compassion as the ability to see things and people differently through an open heart. “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” as my mother often instructed us.
Story is a great way to develop a sense of compassion in kids. I was a passionate reader as a kid and teen. I was particularly drawn to stories—both fiction and nonfiction—about people dealing with challenges I could only imagine. The biographies of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, BLACK LIKE ME, by John Howard Griffin, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHIN, by Jean Craighead George, and of course, Anne Frank’s THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. These books not only opened my eyes and my heart, they helped me become the kind of author who writes to widen that circle of light which is compassion.
I believe kids search for connection, are still open and curious enough to embrace “other.” And I believe kids truly want to make a difference. Whether it’s making masks for health care providers, donating lemonade stand money to animal shelters, or writing letters to soldiers overseas, kids want to feel empowered to alleviate distress.
Several months ago, I had the good fortune to connect with a remarkable young person named Roby Summerfield. Roby lives in a small mountain town about forty-five minutes from where I live. The town of Bakersville has fewer than five hundred people. Being the passionate reader that she is, Roby decided to establish the Bakersville Little Free Library. Roby’s goal is to fill the tiny library with books for young people featuring books on subjects she’s passionate about: empowerment of women and girls, cultural diversity, disability visibility, and environmental awareness. But, as she explained to me in her email, “The overall theme is kindness and compassion.” You bet I not only donated a signed copy of STAY for her library, I persuaded several other children’s authors to donate signed copies of their books too. “The role of being a library steward,” Roby says, “has enabled me to connect with my community, and feel that I am making a difference close to home.”
Six years ago, I taught at a writer’s conference on Sanibel Island in Florida. I was the only children’s author on the faculty. When asked why I choose to write for kids rather than adults, I said it’s because the books we read as kids—particularly between the ages of seven and twelve—that have the ability to shape who we become as adults. We carry them with us in our hearts, and often in our way of seeing, into adulthood. Middle grade authors are in the unique and humbling position to write stories that open hearts and widen the circle of light. Something needed now more than ever.
Bobbie Pyron is the author of seven award-winning, critically acclaimed novels including A DOG’S WAY HOME, THE DOGS OF WINTER, LUCKY STRIKE and her latest novel, STAY. Bobbie lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and their dog, Sherlock. You can find out more about her and her books at bobbiepyron.com.
To find out more about Roby Summerfield’s Bakersville Little Free Library, visit her Facebook page facebook.com/bakersvillelittlefreelibrary, and her Go Fund Me page, Kindness & Compassion Through Books.