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Story Journey As a Pathway to Global Citizenship

October 16, 2019


It was a privilege to speak at the Council of International Schools Conference in Melbourne recently. The educators committed to educating for global citizenship and an ethical world, were inspiring.

Didactic teaching, while worthy, will have many students repeating the dictums that they have been taught, without understanding, empathy and/or application. When the students work out their ‘truths’ and how they interpret them, then it becomes lasting. By inviting young people to become fellow travellers in story, it enables them to empathise, explore, identify, question and understand, situations outside their experience. They become emotionally involved, recognising their own value while challenging prejudice, racism and intolerance.

Increasingly children’s and young adult literature is tackling issues of social justice in areas as diverse as emotional disorders, family relationships, autism, epilepsy, anorexia, learning difficulties, cancer, war, racism, the plight of refugees, environment, world issues.  There are powerful children’s books that have opened dialogue for social justice from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon with its sensitive exploration of Asperger’s syndrome and acceptance of difference to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne exposing racism, the outcome of a world without moral responsibility and the redemptive power of friendship.

Young people read differently to adults, where if story touches to them, they will read and re-read that book, testing it against their developing value system. Fiction that addresses ethical issues such as bullying, inclusion, disability, racism, multi- culturalism, gender identity, feminism, peace, sustainability, diversity, through relatable story is a powerful way to create empathy and action for positive change.

Ethical issues are deeply personal for me. My parents were refugees who went though war, communism, the ultimate in power abuse. They were targets, bullied and vilified, not registering as human. We know about the Cambodian Killing Fields, Armenian genocide, the Anfal genocide of the Kurds, Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust. But we cannot fully comprehend those huge atrocities. We see, are horrified, but they often are outside our experience, of interest, but what can we do about it? People feel powerless, shocked, close their eyes, maybe donate some money, send some clothes. These stories of victimisation are too big, too foreign, make us turn away, as we go about our lives.

But there’s a way to relate, to engage, to get under the skin of everyone. It’s through the small stories of ordinary lives. My son Jack, is one of those small stories. ‘I Am Jack’ is his fictionalized story, when he faced school bullying. 

Jack’s a great kid, funny, inventive, smart, a deep thinker, a good but annoying brother. He has great mates, supports his grandmother, wants to be like his Grandad, helps his mother. JACK is your son or daughter. He’s you or your mate or the neighbour or a kid in your school or someone you know. His family is yours, mine, ours. A mix master family with its quirkiness like all our families, in our mix-master communities with all the permutations of what makes up  family today.

Jack didn’t understand how he ended up targeted, isolated, bullied, until it wasn’t funny anymore. He was afraid, powerless, victimised.  It was a hard journey to win against bullying, but he did with the support of family, school, community.

JACK invites you into a real home, family, community, life. Narrative truth can be powerful story and everyone loves JACK – our everyman – who takes bullying into your heart and makes you shout ‘no’. When Jack and his Vietnamese mate stand up together and lead the school, teachers, parents, kids, neighbours, everyone to stand up.

How do I make JACK’s world yours? I’m a tricky writer. I draw unsuspecting readers into the familiar, the safe, with humour and narrative, until they’re captured emotionally, crying, laughing, angry, heroic, until JACK’s story is theirs.

The four ‘I Am Jack books’ invite critical thinking about bullying, blended families, aging grandparents, bush fires, multi-culturalism, community,  terrorism, social responsibility within the safe and familiar context of family and community.

There are outstanding middle grade authors, whose books take readers into these areas. Authors include the classics such as the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis to books by Jackie French, David Almond, Jacqueline Wilson, Kate Di Camillo, Lois Lowry, Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo.

Young adult novels are edgier than middle grade, reflecting that perilous journey between childhood and adulthood. They are a time when identity is fragile, communication high-risk. It is a time of spiritual, sexual, emotional searching, friendship, peer group power, leadership, gender, dependence-independence in that journey for identity.  There is a wealth of extraordinary authors who take young adults on this journey from the classic ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger to the verse novels of Ellen Hopkins,  the teen novels of Cath Cowley, Meg McKinley, A.J.Betts, Neil Gaiman, Laurie Halse Anderson, Markus Zusak, ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins.

In my YA novels I tackle the tough issues of search for identity, driven by extraordinary characters like JACK, who are ordinary too, like us. Despite the tough challenges, my books always offer hope. I have issues where YA books offer despair as the outcome. Adolescents are smart and filled with ideas, but  have little experience of dealing with life. Story can take them into the darkest places. However there must be pathways out, so they can embrace their talents and address their world and the global world. The line I wrote in my YA novel ‘The Cave’, still moves me deeply:- ‘war is not brave, but men can be brave in war and in life.’ (The Cave, Chapter 13, page 141, HarperCollins)

Finally, what is the role of picture books in working towards global citizenship? The multi award winning picture book author/illustrator Mo Willems writes:

‘We create our work for children not because they’re cute, but because they’re human beings, deserving of respect.’ 
― Mo Willems

There are so many picture books that provide a quick rhyme, a rollicking jaunt, cliched themes with predictable outcomes. They are fine, but when you find the gems, they will enrich those very young readers to create a world that is filled with possibilities, ideas, exploration. Who can bypass ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein with its ethical question of what is unconditional love or unconditional selfishness? Or the books of Oliver Jeffers, David Wiesner, Munro Leaf, Julia Donalson and Axel Scheffler, Maurice Sendak. In my picture books I am driven by my commitment to partnering children as they face the world in those early years of development.  ‘Ships in the Field’ is autobiographical as my family found home and hope in a new country, while ‘Gracie and Josh’ is about the bond of siblings despite the challenges of illness. ‘Elephants Have Wings’ embraces mindfulness and pathways to peace. I have had enormous pleasure from the endorsement of Good Vision for Life and Vision Australia, for ‘The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses’ which within the ambit of pirates, play, friendships, raises the issue of sight impairment and self and group acceptance of difference.

International Schools are at the forefront of creating global citizens and leaders of the future, as we seek to create an ethical world.

I will end with an endorsement I received for my YA novel, ‘Butterflies’ which still makes me emotional. I spent two years researching and writing ‘Butterflies’. Speaking at the World Burn Congress about the power of ‘Butterflies’ to provide succor and hope to burn survivors, families and community, was one of the great moments of my life. ‘Butterflies’ was written for all those who face the challenge of teenage years and coming out as warriors for an ethical world.

Dr Hugh Martin OAM

President of the Australian and New Zealand Burn Association and

Head of the Burn Unit, The Children’s Hospital Westmead, Sydney.

Every survivor has a story. Often the story is of interest, and even more often instructive. “Butterflies” is the story of a burn survivor, and is both interesting and instructive. It explores the complex areas of the emotional impact of a burn on the individual and family while giving insight into the world of hospitals, patients and doctors. It traces the development of the personality from insecurity and relative isolation to a healthier level of self esteem that enables the individual to form balanced relationships with family and friends. It shows how the inner person can triumph over a preoccupation with surface scars and know that basic values of commitment, caring and trust are more important than the texture of the skin.

‘Butterflies’ has relevance outside the narrow circle of burn survivors and their families. It shows the ebb and flow of emotions that affect us all, particularly in the transition between childhood and adulthood, and how parenting and family life make these bearable.

Those of us who are involved in the world of burns know how survivors need help from time to time, but slowly develop a depth of character and an inner strength which is rarely seen in others. Like tempering steel, the process of passing through the fire helps make a person of exceptional quality. “Butterflies” captures these subtleties for the reader, and gives a stunning insight into a difficult topic.

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Paper: Butterflies: Youth Literature as a Powerful Tool in Understanding Disabilityhttp://dsq-sds.org/article/view/844/1019

In 2015, I was deeply honoured to be awarded a Lifetime award for Social Justice through my body of works for young people, by the International Literacy Association.

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This article was submit by guest author, Susanne Gervay OAM.

Website:  www.sgervay.com
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