On Labels in Lions & Liars by Kate Beasley
The novel is about Frederick Frederickson, a 10-year-old who, through a series of madcap mishaps, winds up at a disciplinary camp for troublesome boys. When Frederick learns that the campers around him are there to be punished for various unknown crimes, he’s alarmed. He suddenly sees his bunkmates—Ant Bite, Specs, The Professor, and Nosebleed—as threatening delinquents. However, throughout the story, Frederick grows to realize that the boys are not what he first thought. They are better, kinder, smarter, and more complicated than he believed.
As I was writing, I played a lot of Frederick’s misunderstanding for laughs. I love to laugh every chance I get. But as I dug deeper into the characters’ lives I also had to consider how serious and damaging it can be to label kids as “bad” or “troublemakers.”
When I was growing up, my parents told me I was smart. They told me I was smart before I was old enough to have done anything that demonstrated actual smartness. They were so adamant about it that I came to believe that being intelligent was a cornerstone of my identity, so I did everything I could to uphold it. I studied and tried and took school seriously. It became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m very lucky that my parents gave me a label that I had to live up to, a label that has served me well.
The flipside is the negative labels that some kids get stuck with. Once we label a kid a troublemaker, we set another, more pernicious prophecy in motion. This is the struggle my characters face. Adults in their lives have labeled them as difficult or delinquent, and the boys find that even if they try to be very good and prove themselves, people have gotten into the habit of believing they are wayward. People—adults especially, I think—don’t change our minds easily. One of the boys begins to doubt he’ll ever shake off the stigma.
In Lions and Liars Frederick doesn’t solve the other campers’ problems. He doesn’t become their savior. He becomes their friend. It’s his friendship with the boys that helps Frederick to see who they really are and helps him to understand that labels and first impressions are not always useful—this includes the labels that define Frederick as well. And it’s his friendship that helps the other boys help themselves. There’s something so edifying about another person understanding us and recognizing us. It can give us the courage we need to take our identities into our own hands.
The only other remedy I know of for freeing ourselves from narrow minded thinking is one all of you already know and apply every day. It seems like reading is always the remedy, isn’t it? Reading about characters who are different from us, characters who defy expectations and stereotypes and labels. Reading about heroes who look just like us—heroes who change and grow and make us think that we might be capable of the same.
So, this is what I leave you with today, Nerdy Book Club. Writing this book has taught me again the truth that I already knew, and the truth that this community is built on. That this world is difficult, and that it is going to remain difficult, and that friendship, empathy, and story are what keep hope and the possibility of change alive.
I’d love to hear any titles that you or your students have found particularly encouraging. Or any other thoughts you’d like to share!
I hope you all have a fantastic summer! xoxo Kate
Kate Beasley holds a master’s in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first novel, Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, was a Junior Library Guild selection, an IndiesIntroduce Selection, and a multi-region Indie Bestseller. The New York Times Book Review called it “breathlessly, effortlessly fun.” Kate lives with her family in Claxton, Georgia, with two dogs, one parrot, lots of cows, and a cat named Edgar.