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The Writer’s Page: On Home, Empathy, and Voice

I write, much of the time, from the perspective of a person who is not quite sure where home is. I am interested in figuring out how to make one.

Home is a deceptively simple word. When those of us who work with children say it, we often assume it has a shared meaning. We may erroneously assume that kids’ homes resemble our homes, or that their families resemble our families. The usual supposition is: kids know what home is. Kids have a home to come home to.

And probably they do, but maybe they don’t; or maybe they can’t or don’t choose to define home the way we are assuming they do.

I live in Brooklyn, New York. Many of my kids’ friends are immigrants, or have parents who are immigrants. Yeah, it’s a middle-class, arty-tech-lawyer type scene. Gentrified neighborhood. But the point is that the kids’ public-school classmates were born in England, Canada, Thailand, Australia, Ethiopia, and France. My own friends and fellow parents were born in China, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, England, Australia, Senegal, South Africa, Portugal, Japan, Germany, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Montenegro. Even the American-born people have very often relocated to Brooklyn from somewhere else — Tennessee, Florida, Maine.

Therefore many people I know, and I myself as a Seattlite in New York who is married to a foreign-born spouse, engage daily with the complicated question of how to make a home different from the one you once knew. The subject is an enduring topic for me as writer.

I believe that thinking about home in a multitude of ways can lead to thinking in a layered and complex fashion about identity, and by extension to understanding and maximizing the power of the individual voice. My YA readers are very often engaged in a process of separation from their families of origin. They are experimenting with independence and refining their moral codes and ambitions based on their own expanding experiences. That is, they are figuring out new relationships to home. Some of them will choose to create alternative families even before they are legal adults. The re-evaluation, relocation, and new creation of home is one of the fundamental topics in young adult literature. You see it from The Outsiders to Brown Girl Dreaming, Divergent, A Step from Heaven, Two Boys Kissing, and more.

For middle-grade readers, the question is a slightly different one — at least it was for me. How do you make a home for yourself in the absence of a safe and emotionally satisfying one? From ages five to nine, I lived with my mother in communal living situations: a series of large houses inhabited by people who had taken a spiritual training called the Arica School, many of whom were also American followers of the Indian leader Muktananda.

I had my own bedroom always, but we did not have any large pieces of furniture. I slept on a mattress on the floor. I certainly had books and toys and clothes and good food. My mother is an exceptionally loving and reliable person, and I enjoyed living with other children and having playmates. But the houses’ inhabitants changed often, and I didn’t always know the names of the people who sat down to dinner with us. It wasn’t a consistent place to call home.

As a child I especially adored The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and Pippi Longstocking. I read and re-read those books. Unsurprisingly, all of them are stories of kids who are forced to make new homes for themselves, one way or another.

The Boxcar Children was another particular favorite. In that book, four siblings are alone from the beginning. Something has happened to their home and parents. They won’t speak about what. Eventually they find an abandoned boxcar. “Please, Henry,” Jessie begs. “We could have the nicest little home here, and we could find some dishes, and make four beds and a table, and maybe chairs!”

They move in. They get a pet. They pick blueberries. They wash in the brook. They decide one side is the bedroom, the other side is a sitting room and occasional kitchen. They make a clothesline. They reuse milk bottles for water and get dishes from a dump.

At the end, the children do go live with their grandfather — but he ends up bringing the boxcar into his yard, because the home the children have created for themselves is emotionally more resonant than anything he can provide for them.

We see this theme of the child searching for a home, re-imagining an unsatisfactory home, or creating a new home in many and varied shapes in contemporary middle-grade as well — from Bud, Not Buddy to The Mysterious Benedict Society, Kinda like Brothers, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. The list could go on.

The theme shows up in books for the very youngest readers and listeners as well. Two that were perennial favorites with my own kids have this idea of homemaking at their center. Hippos Go Berserk! by Sandra Boynton begins with a solitary hippo, “all alone,” who “calls two hippos on the phone.” More and more hippos arrive until a raucous party is in full swing. After partying through the night, the hippos depart, and the counting lesson goes backwards. In the end, “One hippo, alone once more, misses the other forty-four.” It’s about opening up your home to parties. It’s about connection between friends. It’s about a hippo without a family who searches for connection and finds it. The empty house becomes a home.

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann was the other favorite. It, too, is about a creature who is determined to define home on her own terms. As the zookeeper makes his rounds at bedtime, smart Gorilla lifts the keys. She unlocks her own cage and those of several other animals, all of whom — like so many children I know — prefer not to stay in their own beds. They follow the zookeeper home and settle down for the night with him and his companion. Then in a moment of high comedy, the zookeeper’s partner realizes there is a gorilla in bed with her. And a lion on the floor. And a mouse in a drawer. She gets up, looking so resigned one feels certain this bedtime scenario has happened before, and leads them all back to their cages. Gorilla and mouse persist, however. They return to the cozy house and crawl back into the humans’ bed. In other words, Gorilla demands equality and affection. She refuses the cages that separate her from her chosen parental figures and reinvents home so as to make it more emotionally satisfying.

So why does it matter that we identify home as a recurrent theme in children’s books, and why should we encourage kids to articulate the specific qualities of their own homes?

Home is the source of a writer’s voice, in many ways. Emerging writers, including kids, can sometimes tap their own unique voices by thinking carefully and deeply about what they consider home, and by being given different ways to define home in the first place. It’s validating and empowering. When I go into schools for author visits, and when I teach writing, I push students to see their own homes as unique entities that shape their perspectives. Home is the place from which they speak.

An articulated concept of one’s own home and one’s relationship to it also encourages a reader to find points of empathy. Two years ago I heard Damien Echols speak at a conference about his book Life After Death. Echols is one of the West Memphis Three. In 1994 he was tried and sentenced to death for murders he did not commit. Long story, but he was released eighteen years later when new DNA evidence was put forward. Echols said that after he left prison, he created a sense of home for himself partly by falling asleep with slasher films running on the television. Super-violent movies, with the sound on. Echols explained that when he was a kid, that’s what his folks watched while he was going to sleep. He’d had a lullaby of horror movies, every night. So for Echols, the films evoked comfort, familiarity — childhood innocence, even.

Although I lived with my mom as a child, I also spent significant time at my dad’s place, a fourth-floor walk-up in East Greenwich Village. It was a two-bedroom with no stopper in the bathtub, full of theatrical posters and plants. There was beer in the fridge and a bottle of ginseng on the kitchen counter. For a kid, there was only one really interesting thing to read in that apartment: the complete collection of EC horror comics. So I read every single one, cover to cover.

ECs were published in the forties and fifties and include horror fiction, crime fiction, military stories, and science fiction. The primary titles are Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Each story is introduced by a host figure — the Crypt Keeper, for example — whose ghoulish appearance sets the lurid, stomach-churning tone. People threw their lovers off roller coasters, poisoned their bosses, buried enemies alive, and fed them to crocodiles. Angry spouses came back from the dead. Living people were encased in wax. It was quite an education.

When I first heard Echols speak, I felt I didn’t relate to his lullaby of horror films. Now that I have taken the time to unpack my own child-hood reading a bit more, and to look at my own need to return to familiar narratives as a way of creating a home for myself, I see that like Echols, I found a home in horror. He and I have something in common in our emotional make-up, a point of empathy in our very different lives. These kinds of empathy points — commonalities, preferences, connections to narratives — these are important, I believe. Taking the time to understand our homes, our voices, and the ways the stories we consume intersect with our lived experiences can allow us to understand others as well. It makes us better readers, teachers, writers, and humans generally.

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. This article is adapted from the author’s lecture at Simmons College’s 2015 children’s literature summer institute.

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E. Lockhart About E. Lockhart

E. Lockhart is the author of We Were Liars (Delacorte) and other young adult novels (and writes for younger readers as Emily Jenkins); her most recent YA is Genuine Fraud (Random).

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