Authors are often surprised by the reactions of readers who seem to find things in our stories or arguments that we didn’t even see ourselves. I’m no exception. In fact, the way readers peel back the layers of my stories and characters energizes me as a writer as well as me personally.
I recently experienced this as I read reviews
of A Warrior’s Soul
, my middle-grade novel that traces the lead character’s evolution from a self-doubting and fearful victim to a leader willing to use his martial-arts skills to confront his middle school’s bullies. The martial arts could easily be seen as a plot device for ensuring the good guy, in this case Luke, wins, much like James Bond’s gadgets and high-tech weapons allow him to get out of impossible situations. I didn’t see Luke’s story that way, but I could see where some readers (and critics) might.
However, most readers, kids and parents alike, have recognized a more complicated plot line. A Warrior’s Soul
is a story about a kid who needs to believe in himself more than anything else. His martial-arts skills, in fact, are useless because he doesn’t believe in himself. It’s only when he develops his own self-confidence that he begins to use the martial-arts skills for what they are: tools for solving a problem. Readers in the real world, it turned out, see in Luke’s story (and his best friend Lucy’s) a path toward resolving a seemingly intractable problem. In other words, my fictional story provided a way to visualize a real world solution.
I didn’t quite think of my story in this way until I read Tori Eldridge
‘s excellent book Empowered Living: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Protection
(a book I highly recommend). Tori’s book is a slim volume but chock-full of insight, common sense, and hard-earned practical wisdom. Among the nuggets that starting churning through my brain was something I knew from years of public speaking and participating in rigorous sports: Visualization is a critical component of success, even if the visualization is imaginary. As Tori says (p. 31), “The imagination is a powerful tool…. Studies have proven that repetitive visualization of a task results in the same, if not greater improvement than physically practicing the task.”
And this is what A Warrior’s Soul (and probably Renegade) does for kids experiencing bullying. Luke’s path becomes a way for kids to visualize a way out of a nasty situation, even if they aren’t martial artists. Luke’s courage becomes their courage. Luke’s discovered faith in his own self worth and ability to stand up against violence becomes a way for real kids to think about how they can follow in similar foot steps. When a eighth grade teacher in Florida asked one of her students what he liked most about A Warrior’s Soul, his response was that it just seemed “really real.” He could see himself as Luke.
And adults respond similarly. For example,
- Becca Bryant writes at amazon.com: “With bullying being such a huge problem in today’s society I think this book really opens the door to teach not only young boys that they have a voice but also girls.“
- Pamela Wilson writes: “I would recommend this book to any pre-teen/teen boy or girl. It shows them what bullied children are going through, and positive ways to resolve the situation.“
- Adrian Moore writes: “I think this book will help teach kids to take charge of their problems, when adults can’t help them.“
Honestly, I was taken aback at first by these comments (which are small parts of their larger reviews) because I didn’t intend for the book to be a “how to” guide on dealing with bullies. In fact, I include a disclaimer at the beginning so that it wouldn’t. This was supposed to be a good story with good characters, albeit grounded in a contemporary public school setting.
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that fiction serves a very important role in the real world by allowing readers, whether young or old, to visualize, and perhaps even take, different paths toward solving problems in their everyday lives. That’s a very powerful, and humbling, insight into the power of our medium.