SHOWING KIDS THEY HAVE A VOICE AND CAN USE IT by Lisa Schroeder
Before I entered kindergarten, I went to a pre-school that took place at a church. Almost every day, a kid named Jaime threatened to throw me in the fire of the wood-burning stove they had there. This happened over forty years ago and yet I can still clearly remember being stuck in a storage closet on my cot during naptime some days because I wouldn’t stop crying from the fear I felt, believing he would eventually do what he was threatening to do to me.
Now that I’m an adult, I wonder, why wasn’t he punished? Clearly, he saw how his words affected me and continued to do it because my reaction gave him some kind of satisfaction. And yet, I was the one who was separated from my peers. I was the one made to feel like I had done something wrong. I was the one put in the closet to suffer and cry alone.
And so it goes throughout our lives. We are bullied. We are harassed. We are called names. We are shamed and told our bodies are dangerous, so we better cover them up. Meanwhile pre-teens and teens struggle with body image issues that can and do lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. It is a tragedy that continues to happen day after day, month after month, year after year and how many times do we have to say – enough!?
Early in 2019, a story emerged in the news about a group of students at a Maryland high school who discovered a list being passed around their school that graded them on their looks, and then went to work to change the school’s culture. When I told my Scholastic editor I was thinking of writing a middle-grade novel about something similar, set in a middle school, she loved the idea but wanted to make sure in the end, it was a story about the main character working together with others to bring about change. And I’m glad for that nudge, because we need to teach our kids that they have agency and power. We need to teach them they have a voice and it’s okay to use it, even if society often sends a different message.
The novel that was inspired by that story at a Maryland high school is out now. “Kirkus” calls Don’t Judge Me (Scholastic, 11/10/20) “an empowering read” in their review, and I’m thrilled they see it as such. My hope for this book is that kids will read it and realize if there is something they don’t like that’s happening in their lives, they have a voice and they have every right to use it to try and make the world better. It doesn’t mean change will be easy, of course. It certainly isn’t for Hazel, the main character, who, in the beginning of the story, can’t even speak up to return a hamburger that’s not cooked the way she requested.
Hazel loves to read books, write haikus and play soccer. She’s just a regular kid who gets tripped at her school on the way to class and is frustrated that so many of her peers are sent home due to dress code violations when the real problems aren’t being addressed. She may not be forced to nap in a storage closet, but some days, it kind of feels that way.
I think many young people will see themselves in Hazel. And I hope teachers and parents won’t be afraid to suggest this book to the kids they know, because I believe there is something in here for everyone. Some days, it all feels so big and heavy and we wonder, what can be done?
Let us never forget – books are always a good answer.
Once upon a time, Lisa Schroeder wanted to join Encyclopedia Brown on his fun adventures. Since that didn’t work out, she decided to be an author instead. Lisa’s written over twenty books for young readers including the popular verse novels for teens I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and CHASING BROOKLYN. She’s also the author of the middle grade novels IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES, MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, SEE YOU ON A STARRY NIGHT and DON’T JUDGE ME. Her books have been translated into foreign languages and have been selected for state reading lists. Lisa is a native Oregonian and lives with her family outside of Portland.