Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Three Things the Presidential Candidates Can Learn From Children's Books

It's voting day in Missouri.  In a couple of hours, I'll head up to the polls to cast a vote in the presidential primary, after what felt like the longest campaign on record.  And it's not over yet.  The behavior of the some of the candidates on the campaign trail has most of us ready for the finish line.  I can't open Facebook without seeing a parent bemoan the behavior of the current presidential candidates, and with fair reason.  The content and conduct at the debates has been embarrassingly less than presidential, and the rhetoric off stage far worse.  I've seen teachers say that their kindergartners have better manners and parents compare the tantrums of one candidate in particular to those of their toddlers.

So, of course, this made me think of children's books.  Wait, stay with me for a minute.  Think about it.  Our children learn so much through the books they read.   As Kathleen Kelly so famously said in You've Got Mail, "When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does."  I believe this is true, and it also makes me wonder what kind of books a few of our candidates read as children.

Maybe they need to go back to the basics and pick up a picture book.  They might learn a few valuable lessons they missed the first time around. Here are a few that come to mind:

"It's okay to change and grow."

The classic narrative arc of a picture book features a character who changes or grows over the course of the story.  Maybe they change a previously held belief, or grow to unearth something they had within them the whole time.   

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max escapes to the land of the wild things when he feels confined by the rules, only to discover that while making wild rumpus is every bit as much fun as he expected, he misses the comfort and belonging of home and family. 



In Julius, the Baby of the World, Lilly is unimpressed with her new baby brother Julius, but when another family member makes fun of him, she finds a fierce sisterly loyalty exists within her. 

Without these character changes, we'd end with Max living with the wild things forever (and possibly being eaten up) or Lilly perpetually spiteful to a new sibling.  It's the characters' capacity for change and discovery that makes them memorable and relatable. 

Yet, in current American politics, to admit to a change of heart or policy in the face of new information or experiences  is considered a weakness.  We end up with a candidate doubling down on racist speech rather than owning mistakes.  We end up with candidates refusing to confront their own past rather than admit to being a normal human being, capable of new ideas and discoveries. 

Be like Max.  Be like Lilly.  Embrace change and growth.


"Show, don't tell."

Sometimes, our candidates do express a change of opinion, but it still rings untrue to voters.  This is because they told us, but they didn't show us.

The best children's books let the readers come along for the ride of discovery.  Rather than page after page of past tense narrative, they offer readers a chance to see the growth and change in the characters through their actions rather than their words.



In Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Mr. Tiger is tired of the way things have always been.  He's ready to leave behind convention and get a little....wild.  The readers get to travel with Mr. Tiger as he sheds some of his formal self and heads into the wilderness on a path towards discovery.  He doesn't just say, "I'm tired of the way things are.  I'm ready for them to change."  He changes himself, and in turn, the town is inspired to get in touch with their wild side too.

When candidates say they stand for something, but nothing in their records or personal history or even present behavior demonstrates what they say, it reads false.  And we don't believe them.

Be like Mr. Tiger.  Show, don't tell.

"Give the reader a reason to turn the page."

Voters are looking for a leader who casts a compelling vision for the future and invites us to join in that course of action.  Anyone can stand at a podium and talk about what they believe, but it is harder to cast a vision that is both inspiring and achievable.  



In One Word From Sophia, Sophia wants a pet giraffe more than anything, and she has a plan to get one.  She casts her vision to every member of her family, using the stories and language she knows will resonate with each of them.  It's a lofty goal, yet we keep turning the page and rooting for Sophia the whole time.  She makes the readers believe in her vision by telling us exactly how she can achieve it, even if it seems a little too big to accomplish.

Our candidates could learn something from Sophia.  Tell us what you want.  Tell us how you plan to accomplish it.  Spend less time explaining how someone else won't be able to accomplish his or her vision and instead invite to us to come with you while you get the job done.

Be like Sophia.  Cast a vision that keeps readers turning the pages.

There's still six more months until the general election.  Plenty of time for the candidates to pick up a few children's books and learn something.  Because President Squid, though a wonderfully funny read for our bookshelves, does not belong in the White House.


"I'm great at doing all the talking.  I'm doing all the talking
right now." - President Squid










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