Note: this essay was originally published at bookstr.com
When I was in fourth grade or thereabouts, my English teacher asked the class to imagine we were leaving home, and could take only a single backpack with us. We were to write down everything that would go into the pack, understanding that anything that didn’t would be gone for good. We had ten minutes.
I don’t remember what I chose exactly—or even generally—but I remember thinking hard about my choices. The question to me felt like an issue of priorities. Which of my things could I simply not do without? How many of my possessions really mattered, and how many were mere “stuff”? My guess, though, is that my list was one of favorites, a top ten or twenty roster of toys, books, gadgets and trinkets. I’d definitely have tried to fit in a videogame or two, probably without success. But as it turned out, this wasn’t the simple exercise in materialism I was expecting—it was an introduction to a book we were about to read for class: Number the Starsby Lois Lowry. Number the Stars—now a modern classic—tells the story of a Jewish family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark during the Second World War. My imaginary backpack wasn’t a game or a puzzle, as I’d assumed, but a real choice real people had to make; it wasn’t about what I took with me, but what I’d have to leave behind. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, to be sure. Fortunately Number the Starswas a damn good book.
I still think about my fictional backpack on occasion, not so much in terms of what it might contain, but in the context of news from around the world, of people in circumstances that force them to do what I (privileged American that I am) have only ever faced in my imagination. That old thought experiment, paired with Lowry’s superb novel, made the concept of fleeing home relevant to me in a way I sincerely doubt a discussion of geopolitics in the 1930s and ’40s ever could. It was a small step toward understanding, but it’s stayed with me, a frame of reference urging me to imagine myself in the place of people fleeing violence or instability—and there have been too many examples to list in the years since—all thanks to Number the Stars.
More than any other means of storytelling, literature—fiction in particular—is remarkable for its ability to foster empathy. In contrast to film and television, with their focus on the visual, books invite readers into their subject’s interior, to hear their thoughts, to relate and identify. Books aimed at young readers often feature characters of a similar age to that of their intended audience—an instant point of contact, given the many universals of childhood and adolescence—but that’s neither a rule nor a necessity. Sometimes a dramatic shift in perspective is just what’s needed to bring about a connection.
We live in a big, loud, chaotic world, and often it’s easy to miss, or outright ignore, conflicts going on in other parts of the globe, to dismiss them simply because they’re happening somewhere else. But circumstances that might seem limited to a particular time, place, or culture, both historically and geographically remote, can become universal through fiction. A war between fantasy kingdoms or space empires might not have any direct referent in the daily headlines, but can still provide a context for processing them, and of relating to the real people involved.
When I began writing the book that would become Ninth City Burningin 2013, the Syrian Civil War was gaining a new and frightening momentum. All across the country, people were being forced to flee their homes ahead of the spreading violence; I doubt many had time to fill a backpack first. My novel, an alien invasion story blending science fiction and fantasy, isn’t any kind of allegory for the war in Syria—still ongoing almost four years later—but that conflict was very much in my mind as I developed my characters, young people of varying ages and circumstances, pulled from different societies and backgrounds, but alike in that they lived in a world defined by violence. That violence isn’t an immediate presence, however, at least not as the story begins. War to them is something real but distant. They can depend on a basic level of stability and security: they have the familiar comforts of friends and family, of school or work. And then war comes calling for them, and they have to choose what to keep, and what to let go. I wanted to create characters in whom my readers could see something of themselves, whose thoughts and emotions and motivations would feel familiar, even if their world was completely alien (in some cases literally).
I wouldn’t wish the kind of experience my characters go through on anyone—war, even fantastical war, is a terrible thing—but I can still hope that, when they watch or hear or read stories about people enduring the real thing, they’ll feel a connection, however basic, and think, This is happening to someone real, someone like me.