I think the question I am asked most frequently by individuals, organizations and the media with respect to my children’s book series, Lady Lucy’s Quest, is this: Why would a former college president (and law professor) write children’s stories?
Sometimes the question reveals genuine curiosity, a desire to understand why I write these children’s books and why both writing them for and reading them to children have such meaning for me.
At other times, the question (based on tone) seems like less like curiosity and more like a put-down. Folks seem to making a statement in question form: What made you fall from grace (a high perch of a presidency) to writing for children? Don’t you have something better to do with your time and talent?
So, here’s my answer:
Most of my professional life was spent in post-secondary education. But, the longer I remained there, the more I realized that if I really wanted to improve higher education and student success, I needed to work to push the educational train back into the station and start helping our youngest children appreciate learning and the joys that come from it. Stated simply, without a good educational start, it is extremely difficult to achieve a good educational “finish” — although there really is no finish line in some senses as learning is, or at least should be, lifelong.
To be sure, there are lots of ways I could have engaged with early childhood education. I could have worked on policy initiatives or funding for pre-school education. I could have worked in organizations that promote early reading skills, and there are many good organizations that do just that. I could have written another book on education geared to adults who work directly with children or I could have worked for political candidates supportive of early childhood literacy and educational improvement.
Instead, I wanted to work “in the trenches” with students – youngsters from infancy through elementary school. I wanted to see kids learning and observe the challenges they faced as I pondered solutions. I realized, perhaps “came to realize” would be a better descriptor, that books that I could write for children of varying ages and at varying stages would enable me to read to and with children in a wide range of settings: schools, libraries, community centers, after-school programs, summer camps, child development centers.
And, through these books – which could teach and message in a myriad of ways – I could engage children in developing their imaginations, their creativity, their pleasure in words and word use, and their sense of empowerment that comes from reading books and sharing ideas.
And, it was and remains my hope that through my books and my work with the children that I can improve their educational trajectory and begin to open the pathway for a better future. Yes, that is ambitious and perhaps a tad Quixotic. But, surely one cannot improve education writ large if one does not know what motivates children, what occurs in their homes and their places of learning day-in-and-day out. One cannot help all our kids, to use Robert Putnam’s phrase from his book of the same name, without understanding who they are and the experiences that hold them back and the strategies that can move them forward.
Through my children’s book series, Lady Lucy’s Quest, I have been able to reach literally thousands of children — some indirectly when their schools, teachers or other providers purchase or obtain the books for them and some directly when I read these books to and with children at all ages and stages. And, with each reading, I learn more about children and the challenges they face, and each new book I write is a deliberate effort to move the educational ball down the proverbial road.
Here’s perhaps the most important thing I have learned: children do not get a choice in who their parents or caregivers will be. Children do not ask to be poor or homeless or hungry or abused or toxically stressed. They do not seek out parents who are drug addicted or alcoholics or suffering from chronic illness or epigenetically transmitted trauma. Kids do not get to pick the neighborhoods in which they live or the schools which they attend.
It is for these, among other reasons, that I spend most of my time and effort writing for children who live in poverty, whose families may struggle, whose schools and communities may be resource-constrained. When I’m able, I raise money to give books away – because reading to kids cannot just be a one-off event on a particular day. Sure, meeting an author has meaning for some (many?) children but one meeting is never enough.
So, the answer to the question of why I write children’s books is neither simple nor mono-dimensional. I have always been an educator. I still am. I have however altered the students with whom I work (including their parents and teachers) and in so doing, I hope I am making a difference — even if I only move the proverbial needle a few degrees. A few degrees may not be all that is needed but surely a few degrees is better than no degrees.
Finally, I believe in the power of the possible. I believe in dreaming big. I always have. I now can share that hope with young children because our collective future rests in their hands.
Karen Gross is a CLiF presenter who has served as a scholar, teacher, administrator and community leader dedicated to improving the lives of those less privileged. She is a former college president in Vermont and former Senior Policy Advisory to the US Department of Education. She views herself as an author/educator and spends most of her time writing, speaking and teaching.