Posts Tagged one shadow on the wall

The Power of Empowered Kids (in middle grade lit)

The Power of Empowered Kids in Middle Grade Literature

The Power of Empowered Kids in Middle Grade Literature

Middle Grade Lit Empowers Kids

Can’t is a dangerous word. It’s one of those words that gets pulled out a lot by adults these days. You can’t say that. You can’t believe that. You can’t do that.

Can’t is a natural part of the language definitely has its role in our world, but it’s come to mean a lot of different things. Things it was likely never meant to be in the first place. More importantly, it’s an imprecise word that people use as a substitute for other, more meaningful words, like mustn’t. And in its imprecise form, can’t can be very dangerous when applied to kids.

Can’t is a limiting word. A word that takes something away from the person it’s used on. And in this world, we can’t afford to be taking things away from the coming generations.

Now, I’m not talking here about the word shouldn’t, another limiting word that’s sometimes used interchangeably with can’t. “You shouldn’t cross the street without looking both ways” is a far different sentence than “You can’t cross the street without looking both ways.” Because what the word shouldn’t takes away is an imperative to do something.

Can’t takes away ability. It steals the power to do a thing. And it’s that deprivation of power we’ve got to look out for when we’re talking to kids.

Disempowering Narratives Limit Everyone

I hear the word can’t a lot when people refer to kids in stories—especially middle grade adventure stories—and when I do it’s usually with a snicker, or a scoff, or a slightly curled lip.

  • “Kids can’t really think like that.”
  • “Kids can’t accomplish that much.”
  • “Kids can’t be depended on to make decisions like that.”

And worse, I’ve heard it applied to real world kids as well.

  • “Kids can’t lead their peers.”
  • “They can’t be trusted with that kind of responsibility.”
  • “Girls can’t…” and “Boys can’t…”

When those people say things like that, I believe that they mean it. They’ve bought into a fallacy that a thing is impossible, when really it’s just improbable, and what’s worse is that they’re convincing others, especially young people, that they really are that limited.

But I’m convinced that middle graders can do a lot more than society gives them credit for. I’ve seen kids in this age group accomplish some pretty amazing things. They’ve written stories and plays. They’ve organized campaigns to fight the global slave trade that still exists today.

Don’t believe me? Look up kids like Dylan Mahalingam, or Katie Stagliano, or Zach Hunter, or Ryan Hreljac.

There are countless others who’ve done things like these but never saw recognition for it, which to me sets them apart even more. I’ll never forget watching a young boy named Austen listening to and comforting a surly old guy after the man made a disparaging remark about him–responding to disdain with compassion. Just yesterday an 11-year-old girl named Becca bestowed on me the privilege of reading the book she’s started writing. I’ve watched middle grade kids challenge hate, raise beaucoup bucks for those in need of relief, lead bands, and survive hardships that would bring many adults I know to their knees.

If a kid feels empowered, they can do all sorts of amazing thingsKids who believe in themselves can shake the world.

At least, they can when we’re not telling them they can’t.

Figures like Anne Frank and Beethoven had a huge impact on culture, despite their youth.

We forget the fact that historically this was the age that kids started to be treated like adults. They learned trades. They stepped into responsibility. They made decisions to take care of their families. Some kids in this age group were queens and kings. Kids like these composed symphonies and led rebellions and kept diaries that reported on the horrors of war.

Middle grade literature gets this simple truth in a way that’s often all-but-forgotten in our culture today. When we read about the kids in well-drawn books we see a world full of wonder and possibilities, where kids battle injustice, or fight for the safety of their families, protect the hurting, even take over the world.

Stories like these are important, because they tell kids what can happen. I’m not talking about Harry Potter magic… I’m talking about making decisions. Taking responsibility. Stepping into the world to make it better, to make their mark, to show compassion. It’s not about whether you have a tiny dragon riding on your shoulder or whether you live in a town where words have a peculiar sort of power or have powers of your own—it’s about whether you will step into this world and take action.

The Difference between Natural Limitations and Imprinted Limitations

That’s not to say that these kids don’t have natural limitations. Their parents aren’t going to send them off into dangerous situations, nor should they. Their developmental state informs what they value. They’re unproven, untrusted, untested.

“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking.”
– Ransom Riggs

And that’s okay. That they’re not allowed does not necessarily mean they are incapable. Just because they aren’t quite ready for something doesn’t mean they can’t do it. We humans can accomplish a great many amazing things when our options are limited.

That’s where we need to be careful. Kids this age are in a developmental stage where they’re finding their own limits, internally. They’re discovering just how far the world extends beyond the walls of their homes, and if that discovery is presented as only “for someone else,” they may never even attempt to take hold of it. We’ve imprinted our own thoughts about who they can be on them, and by doing so we’ve closed the door on what might have been, had they explored it on their own.

That’s the beauty of the world that middle grade literature provides. It shows kids what they could be, not just what they are. Through these exercises of imagination, a child can step into a universe of responsibilities, try them on for size, and learn what fits and what doesn’t.

In a world where everyone tells kids they can’t, it’s important to have a place where they can. Otherwise how will they learn what it means to take charge of who they’re going to be? How will they learn they can be responsible? That their care for others is valuable? That they’re smart, or that they really can stand up to the bully, or that they can survive whatever this world throws at them?

So believe in these kids, and give them starting points to believe in themselves. They won’t be this young for long, and if they can get it into their heads that they can bring good to the people around them, we will all be better off for it.

Books mentioned:

Jumping girl photo edited from 
Photo by Danka & Peter on Unsplash
Door photo with Ransom Riggs quote adapted from 
Photo by Viktor Mogilat on Unsplash








Interview with Debut Author Leah Henderson

Today, I’m thrilled to talk to author Leah Henderson about her debut (which released today!), One Shadow on the Wall, a story inspired by a young boy she saw sitting on a beach wall while traveling in Senegal.

JA: Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files and congratulations on your debut! I love success stories, so tell us yours. What did your journey to publication look like?

LH: My greatest success with this book isn’t just getting it published, but finally getting out of its way and letting it tell its story. A story which in every way found me—not the other way around.

After I saw that boy sitting on the wall for the briefest of seconds and jotted down what I thought his day might be like, I was shocked when my professor thought my scribblings were the beginning of a novel. I was so worried about telling this story about a boy and a place I did not know well that I was finding every excuse I could not to work on it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a story that was important to tell, but I did not want to mess up. I just knew it wasn’t my story to tell and told my professor exactly that. But what I was forgetting, and what my dad later reminded me of was that I was standing in the way of kids whose life experience was similar to that of Mor’s would be losing a possible opportunity to see themselves in a book. Growing up, I remember feeling invisible on the page and I did not want that for them, but I also remembered how hurtful harmful representation was and did not want to be the cause of any more. We have had more than enough already. So true success for me and this project came when I just let go and I realized this wasn’t about me and what I was afraid of, it was about trying to tell these kids story in the best way that I could. I put learning about them and their experiences first.

As far as book publication goes, so many people stepped in to keep me on this path. After my first professor encouraged me to start this novel, my next professor encouraged me to show him “more pages of Mor,” then when graduation day came and I thought Mor could take a bit of a rest (for a long, long time) someone else stepped onto my path and asked, “what’s going to happen to Mor?” And with her endless encouragement I finished the novel and sent it out. Although every query was met with ‘no’, one of the agents encouraged me to keep writing. Many of the other replies had mentioned their uncertainty about where a book like this might be placed in the market, but this agent focused on a hope that I continue writing. And even though I have always loved Mor and the cast of characters that fill his world, I did decide to put them away and started a new project. Then about nine months later I was at a conference with the agent who had been so encouraging and they asked to see the project again. This time their answer was different. They wanted to represent One Shadow on the Wall. Shortly after that we sent it out to a group of editors (including one who had requested it), and within the blink of an eye, Mor had found a home. Leading up to that day was a long, meandering road, but I needed to take that journey for myself and for this story.

Book jacket for One Shadow on the Wall

JA: How has living abroad (and traveling widely) changed your life?

LH: Seeing the world informs so much of who I am and how I see things. I have met some of the most fabulous and gracious people on my travels, people that have left a lasting impression of what it means to live each day with heart and thanks.

JA: What other unique settings might show up in your work because of your travels?

LH: My family lived in the Middle East for a bit and I saw and experienced so many wondrous moment that I hope to one day sprinkle in a story or two. There is also a funny story from my time in China that I would love to one day figure out, but we shall see. I really never know where my next story will come from till a character or a scene is filling my head, demanding my attention.

JA: Where are you headed next?

LH: Vietnam is high on my list, but Senegal and Mali are always calling out to my heart and head to come back to a place that truly feels like home—West Africa.

JA: What made you want to be a writer?

LH: I have always enjoyed getting lost in stories. When I was growing up and we would visit historic places and learn about the people who passed through them, I was always curious about a person’s life before and after their grand adventures. I wanted to know those stories. And sometimes I was able to find them out, but often there wasn’t much more information, so I used to wonder and create my own stories for their lives. I always wanted to know what glimpse of a possibility they saw for themselves from the beginning. Were they always brave? Did they always care? Or did something happen that profoundly changed the course of their lives? These questions often lead to even more questions, and soon I was creating my own characters and writing my own tales.

JA: Did you have a teacher, librarian, or family member who particularly encouraged you to pursue your dream?

LH: My parents have always cheered me on in anything that I have set out to do. But in terms of writing, it was something that I kept coming back to again and again. I’d always enjoyed it and one day I just said: Why not? We should always pursue the things that bring us joy. So I did. No matter the time of the day I was jotting down stories and often felt incomplete if a day went by and I hadn’t scribbled something down, even if it was only a few paragraphs.

After that, there was really no turning back. My parents have always been big on telling my brothers and me to explore any possibility, so I decided to go study the craft of writing and get an MFA. And that is really when my love of writing became so much more.

JA: What’s up next for you, Leah? Any more short stories that might turn into your next book?

LH: As far as other short stories turning into something more, a picture book idea of mine quickly morphed into my next novel. Like Mor in One Shadow on the Wall, the main character in this book had a lot more he wanted to say than a picture book could hold. It is very different from this project though it still centers around family and seeing your possibilities. Vague I know, but it’s about a boy, his love for his grandfather, and a pair of magical shoes.

JA: That sounds intriguing! I can’t wait. Thanks for joining us on The Mixed-Up Files and best of luck, Leah!!

Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. One Shadow on the Wall (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum) is her debut novel. Leah received her MFA in Writing from Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. You can find her on Twitter @LeahsMark or through her website at