In Response to My Middle School Readers: Why you write is as important as what you write

Recently, middle school students at a charter school in New Jersey, who also happen to be writing novels, read my book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things and invited me to visit. It was gratifying to meet people who took the serious issues seriously, laughed at the comedy, loved the characters, and begged me to write a sequel. But before I arrived, they sent me a list of questions and comments that gave me a chance to look at my story with fresh eyes.

I realized that writing Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost things was very much influenced by a book of photographs I received as a prize for winning an essay contest in high school. It came from a famous 1955 photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Family of Man.” They were vivid black-and-white images of people of many cultures and colors from around the world— working, playing, laughing, crying, eating, dancing, falling in love, getting married, celebrating, and sometimes mourning. It was a moving representation of the idea that in spite of our different appearances, religions, abilities, and traditions, we all share these experiences. Growing up in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War reminding us every day that differences and fears can lead to violence, I knew I wanted to stand against that in my writing.

Respect for diversity, and love for what is good in humanity is at the heart of my writing. The dictionary says that diversity means, “being composed of differing elements or qualities,” but in America today that word suggests a lot more. It’s about people—and the racial, cultural, sexual, and ability-related “qualities” that make each of us unique and yet part of the human family. The trouble is the human family is often dysfunctional. Nevertheless, we humans have our moments of excellence. I found many in Powderhorn Park, the inner city neighborhood where my novel is set.

In Powderhorn Park “family is who shows up.” It isn’t always what we might expect—two working parents and a nice house in the suburbs. Often, it’s a mix of people coming together to help each other when the “usual” supports are missing. Maybe, there’s one parent, or no job, or no house and not enough money; or, maybe bullying, war, and prejudice, have turned the world upside down for a lot of people all at once. Those are the harsh realities that sometimes, in some places, create new families and new communities.

Powderhorn Park has always been that kind of place. Negative TV and movie images of the “city” are not the whole story of what goes on there. It is also refuge for people when they get lost in life, when they might not be welcome anyplace else because they’re poor or sick or troubled. It’s a place of hope as well as problems, where people do turn their lives around, where people do help each other.

In the book, there is a Powderhorn Parade based on a real  parade (the May Day Parade) that has been going on for forty years. It is a yearly event in which most of the costumes and floats come from recycling and repurposing things that might otherwise be thrown away, and the people bring to it all their cultural influences, colors, and rhythms like pieces of a mosaic. It’s a way to refresh and hold on to traditions and share them with new neighbors.

It is not just “stuff” that can get lost or “thrown away” but also people. It is hard to accept, for example, that anyone or anything we love can be truly lost to us, but it happens. It’s not always easy to know what we can do about the bad things that happen in the world, but the students I met let me know that they were glad to read about a fatherless “brown boy, wiry and strong, with dark eyes shaped like almonds, clear and alert, wide-set in a face the color of coffee with cream” and named Paris Thibideaux, who gave it a try.


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