“Are there any questions?” she asked. Craning my neck from the back, I glanced around the crowded gymnasium. A few young hands shot up into the air, some perhaps more eager than others. Visiting author Jo Knowles, award winner and writer of ten published books, had just finished giving her prepared talk to our students. Quietly, she now surveyed her audience of seventh and eighth graders from the front of the gym. Who had a question?
Jo had told her story, an unlikely story of a girl who had struggled in school but who had also been somehow able to find her voice as a writer. I had listened raptly from the back, as she wove in small bits of her life that had inspired her across her formative writing years– the strength of her parents’ relationship, the encouragement of a college professor, the happenstance brush with Robert Cormier. She also described the pain of witnessing her brother, one of her heroes, being tormented as a young man for being gay. Among other reasons, this dark part of her past had inspired her to write about, as she described, “hard things.”
Pointing to a young woman in the fifth row, Jo stepped forward, moving in closer. “Yes?” she smiled. “Did you have a question?”
“Why do you write about ‘hard things’?” came the voice of the inquisitive seventh grader.
I watched as Jo gathered herself, looking down at the gymnasium floor as she did so. Having read a few of her books, I knew the answer to this question would be important. My blue Pilot pen and notebook in hand, I leaned in slightly to hear her answer. “Why do I write about hard things?” she repeated. “Hmm… I write about hard things because bad things happen to kids. These things are happening. Good things are happening, too…but if we don’t tell everyone’s stories, stories of these bad things happening…” She paused for a beat. “Not writing about them won’t make them not happen. Telling these stories is how we can begin to make change. It’s how we can build empathy. In fact, not telling these stories– I would argue– actually makes things worse. “ Jo went on to describe being a frequent member of the banned books club. She told stories of librarians who “liked the book, but… well, just couldn’t put it in the school library because… well, the community wouldn’t want kids reading about those sorts of things.”
I left school that day inspired by this writer, this writer who has the courage to write about ‘hard things.’