This Banned Books Week, Remember That Stories Bring Us Together By Igniting Our Empathy

Can you imagine a world in which To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye were contraband? Or what if you could be arrested for possession of a Harry Potter book? It sounds far-fetched, and while those books aren’t illegal, they are among the many novels that, because of their subject matter, have been targets of censorship.

I live in a country founded on freedom of speech, yet people still try to ban books. It boggles my mind. It seems like an action that belongs in an antiquated past, not something that still occurs in the United States of America in 2016. But it does continue to happen – and every year the American Library Association brings attention to this issue during Banned Books Week, which takes this year from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1.

This issue of censorship, banning books, and fighting for the freedom to create is at the center of my new middle-grade fantasy series, Rebel Genius, out Oct. 4 from Roaring Books Press. For this book, I created a world that is my greatest fear: a society where individual expression is outlawed and all art and ideas are controlled by a tyrannical leader.

The main character is Giacomo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the sewers underneath the city of Virenzia. One night, after surviving a violent attack, Giacomo discovers that he has a Genius: a birdlike creature that acts as his protector and muse. At first, Giacomo is thrilled to have his own Genius, but immediately panic sets in. Because in Giacomo’s society, there is only one artist who is allowed to have a Genius — the empire’s leader, the authoritarian Supreme Creator.

When I was deciding what kind of person would make the most interesting villain for the story, my first thought was to make him or her opposed to art. But that seemed too simplistic and unrealistic — when I tried to imagine a world where there wasn’t any art, I couldn’t. After all, even the most repressive regimes need architects to build buildings. The Nazis and the Stalinists didn’t completely outlaw all the arts – instead Hitler and Stalin controlled creativity, twisting it into propaganda and disinformation, and silencing any voice that opposed them.

...when I tried to imagine a world where there wasn’t any art, I couldn’t. After all, even the most repressive regimes need architects to build buildings.

So I decided to make my villain an artist with her own Genius. Her name is Supreme Creator Nerezza and she is the aging leader of the empire of Zizzola; her Genius is a nightmarish mix of a dragon and a pterodactyl. Over the years, Nerezza has systematically killed off other Geniuses, turning their artists into Lost Souls – a kind of zombie-like, soulless shell of a human that eventually wastes away. Driven by her ego, Nerezza has declared that there should only be a singular vision guiding her empire – hers.

Someone who uses art and creativity for nefarious means is my worst nightmare. And in the story, Nerezza is Giacomo’s worst nightmare too, for very personal reasons. His parents and their Geniuses were among Nerezza’s victims during her artistic purge. Giacomo’s quest throughout the series becomes to dethrone Nerezza and restore creative freedom to his society.

Someone who uses art and creativity for nefarious means is my worst nightmare.

This year, Gene Yang (National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature), has proposed “the reading without walls challenge.” He encourages people to read a book where the character is different than you, a book about an unfamiliar topic, or a book in a format that you don’t normally read. The goal is to challenge ourselves to read outside our comfort zones. When we do this, we begin to see life from a different perspective. It helps us empathize with people and cultures that are different than us. When the superficial walls that divide us come down and we are able to identify with others in our human tribe, society is ultimately stronger. This is especially important now when fear-mongering and political divisions are daily headlines.

Our goal as a nation should be to encourage writers to tackle difficult or challenging themes and to hear from as many different voices as possible. No one should put arbitrary limits on what people should and should not read.

Our goal as a nation should be to encourage writers to tackle difficult or challenging themes and to hear from as many different voices as possible.

A story’s greatest power lies in its ability to elicit empathy in the reader. One psychologist who studies how reading stories elicits empathy is Keith Oatley. He writes: “Reading certain kinds of fiction... is the very model of how we might properly view events in our social world. It is right that they engage our emotions, as if they were happening to someone with whom we are closely involved, but not directly to us. In literature we feel the pain of the downtrodden, the anguish of defeat, or the joy of victory—but in a safe space. In this space, we can, as it were, practice empathy. We can refine our human capacities of emotional understanding. We can hone our ability to feel with other people who, in ordinary life, might seem too foreign—or too threatening—to elicit our sympathies. Perhaps, then, when we return to our real lives, we can better understand why people act the way they do, and react with caution, even compassion, toward them.”

"In this space, we can, as it were, practice empathy. We can refine our human capacities of emotional understanding."

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want? To be heard and understood?

Books are not dangerous. They are safe spaces to explore difficult issues so that we can go out into the world with more open minds when we meet people with different lives and beliefs than our own. Keep reading whatever books you like and maybe seek out some that you know might challenge you – one of them might just help you understand yourself, another person, or the world a little bit better.

Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino, $9.65, Amazon

Images: kazuend/Unsplash