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Amy Klinger: Seeing Voices

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

It was early fall, just three weeks after my daughter had the cast removed from her right arm when she managed to break the left one. Both times were from horseback riding falls. She’s a skilled rider, but horses are big and she’s small and—as we had been warned—falls happen.

Concerned relatives and friends politely suggested that we steer her toward a different, less bone-damaging sport. I know they were all thinking of Christopher Reeve. I tried not to think of Christopher Reeve. “Does she even want to go back to riding?” they asked. I told them the thought of not going back wouldn’t even occur to her.

My daughter is a lot like me in many ways. She is patient, even for a 12-year-old; likes word play and making things in the kitchen. She’s a clutterbug, a bookworm, an athlete. But in ways that I find intriguing, she is wholly unlike me. She’s determined, comfortable being out in front, unintimidated by peers. Breaking arms doesn’t lead her to second guess her skills or choice of sport, which is not to say she wasn’t scared when she got back in the saddle. She was and will be again.

I would hope, a good portion of that is parenting. Her father and I encourage her to take risks. And without a doubt, his more adventurous DNA shines through in wonderful (and occasionally, willful) ways. But I also confidently believe that the books she’s read and the movies she’s seen have presented her a world in which it’s simply given that girls are confident, strong, resourceful, assertive, nonconformist. No, not just girls, people. That these are distinctive and admirable traits in people.

In today’s stories, gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and more are matters of identity. They may be part of the story, wholly relevant or completely irrelevant to the challenges their protagonists must overcome, but that identity is no longer a box that dictates who they must be and how they must behave. While there’s still a long way to go, entertainment and literary media are making essential strides in helping younger generations understand that no single group has a corner on the market for things like bravery and heroism, and that anyone can be at the center of the story.

I think of how fortunate my daughter and her peers are to have the chance to grow up reading a volume of middle grade and young adult books by fantastic writers like Elizabeth Acevedo, Kwame Alexander, Dusti Bowling, R.J. Palacio, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Dashka Slater, and Jacqueline Woodson. These aren’t just books offering diverse stories, they’re powerfully beautiful and beautifully written stories, and they teach my daughter lessons I don’t have the knowledge or experience to impart other than to simply tell her, “Listen to what they have to say.”

In a “duh” moment, I told myself: that’s the power of storytelling. The stories we consume help shape who we are; they allow us to determine what we value or abhor, what we aspire to or shrink from, what we are curious about or frustrated by.

That’s just one of many obvious reasons to ensure our modern world continues to do a better job of sharing diverse voices and perspectives. Because when we see a healthier balance of characters like us, as well as those not like us, reflected in the stories we consume, we make connections that might not otherwise have found a home in our hearts and minds. And that not only helps us grow as individuals, it makes our entire community more empathetic and emotionally healthy. And these days, those two areas sorely in need of triage.

These thoughts coalesced recently at a family gathering when I took a break from political talk to sit down beside a couch packed with kids, ages 7-15, who were half-way through the animated film Into the Spider-Verse. It took just a few minutes to grasp that this was wholly unlike any other Spiderman story I’d come across. The premise seemed to be that Spiderman was not a single superhero, but rather the idea of a superhero whose unitard could be donned by anyone across the multiverse; they simply needed to reflect the values and virtues that aligned with the heroic persona. (They might also have had to be bitten by a radioactive spider, but I’m not totally sure on that part). Beyond Peter Parker, these new Spideys (Spidies?) were Black, female, and had physical limitations, while still another wasn’t a human at all.

It makes perfect sense that a kids’ movie would take those kinds of chances openheartedly. Their target audience isn’t likely to turn into knee-jerking jerks going on about what Spiderman’s alter ego is supposed to look like. James Bond fans could learn a thing or two about being less emotionally invested in the sanctity of their fictional characters—especially when the actors who have played 007 over the course of sixty years were really nothing alike apart from their gender, race, and British heritage.

It’s fair to assume that ugly backlash against efforts to represent a broader range of experiences and perspectives is fear by a dominant culture that something is being taken away from them. But that perspective couldn’t be farther from the truth. Diverse voices and fresh stories, these give everyone more, not less. And that’s not platitude; it’s deeply true. Sharing the spotlight isn’t just humanly good, it’s illuminating for both storyteller and story listener.

Grownups, can we be honest here? The rising generations are going to need all the resiliency, moxie, empathy, and cooperation skills they can accumulate. The world they are inheriting is already taxing their emotional and physical stamina in ways we can’t begin to fathom. They need to feel strong and capable, recognizing a little bit of themselves in the strong and capable characters they admire.

When my daughter’s second cast was removed, the technician told her a healed broken bone is stronger than it was before the injury. And that now, with two recovered arm bones, she was like a superhero. I couldn’t agree more.


About the Author...

After receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Utah, Amy took a ten-year hiatus from writing fiction to pursue a career in marketing and communications. Her first novel, In Light of Recent Events, was written over the course of several years in roughly two-hour increments after work and family responsibilities were put to bed for the night.

She currently works as a freelance brand strategist and copywriter, and in between, is working on her next book, Ducks on the Pond, to be published by The Story Plant in 2023.

Amy lives in Vermont with her husband and daughter.

1 Comment

Jun 17, 2022

What a wonderful set of insights. This caught my attention in particular "...but that identity is no longer a box that dictates who they must be and how they must behave." Sometimes I wonder if modern storytelling beginning with Anna K and moving forward has been a gradual attempt to show readers that stereotypes and societal definitions are secondary to being who we want to be. Thanks so much for this, Amy Klinger! 🤓

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