One of the most common questions I’m asked at my events is, “How do you tell stories about injustice in a way that is appropriate for children?”
The simple answer? I learned it from my mother.
My most powerful memory of the 10 childhood years I spent in the American Midwest is an overwhelming need to belong. Often, the only child of colour in any given situation, I would watch my white peers with the focus of an anthropologist, mentally documenting their habits. What they wore, what they said, and how they said it. What they watched on television and listened to on the radio. What they ate for lunch.
So, when I overheard several of the most popular kids in my preschool mentioning how much they loved alphabet soup, I knew I had to love it too.
My mother used to take me and my brother with her to the grocery store, putting my brother in the front of the metal shopping cart, and sometimes, letting me stand on the bottom tray. Mostly, though, I walked beside her, picking items off the shelf, and feeling very grown up. When we got to the soup aisle, I stopped her, and pulled the soup that I wanted from the shelf. She took the can from me and read the brand. Then, shaking her head, she put it back.
“No,” she said. “We can’t buy this one. Put it back on the shelf. Then come, so I can tell you something about a decision our family made.”
I don’t remember the exact words she used, but I remember the gist. There is a country, she told me, called South Africa. In this country, people who are dark-skinned, like us, are not treated properly. They’re not allowed to go to school together. They don’t feel safe in their homes. It’s like segregation used to be in the US. The government won’t change the laws, so it’s our job to put pressure on them. One way to do that is to make sure that we don’t give any money to the companies that are supporting the people who don’t want to change. Our family is doing this, but so are a lot of other families around the world. If we stick together, they’ll have to listen to us. That means, sometimes, we can’t buy everything that we want. Like, for example, this particular brand of soup.
It was the early 1980s, and I was four years old, and my Indian-village-born mother and I were standing in a grocery aisle in a store full of white people discussing apartheid and the divestment movement and the need for solidarity between people of colour. When I think of it, even now, her quiet radicalism makes me catch my breath.
The rules my mother used to tell me the story of why-we-cannot-buy-this-soup are the same ones that I apply to my writing, and that I use to structure my advice for budding writers.
First, when you’re telling a story about injustice, do it in a child-friendly situation. Don’t do it on a golf course or a board room. Do it on a playground — or, in this case, the soup aisle of a grocery store. Think about all those times when you heard children declare something unfair — or when you, as a child, did so. As an adult, you can look back and think about why.
Second, once you have a conflict, make sure that children solve it. Children spend too much time in their real lives following the orders of adults. Fiction is one of the few places where they get to picture themselves in charge of their own lives.
Third, make the child’s solution believable and actionable. When given the opportunity, a young person can put the soup can back on the shelf. They probably can’t get on a plane to Johannesburg and lead a rebellion. This doesn’t mean one has to shy away from fantastical storylines — indeed, the Harry Potter series includes trenchant commentary on class and caste and prejudice. It just means that children enjoy stories more when they can follow them up with action.
In my case, I ran down the aisle and found a different brand. Even today, long after the international divestment movement played a role in apartheid’s end, I still can’t bring myself to support this particular company. Unlike many American tastes I unsuccessfully tried to copy, I developed a love for alphabet soup — partly because of the way it tastes, and partly because it reminds me of my mother.
I have a memory of myself going into school the next day and giving my classmates a lecture on soup as a tool of racist oppression. But to be honest, that’s probably just the writer in me trying to give my character a more radical ending.
Mathangi Subramanian is a writer and an educator in Delhi.