Small act by small act, a diverse cast of children transforms a lonely island into a community in What Can a Citizen Do?, the latest collaboration by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris, co-creators of 2017’s Her Right Foot. The new book’s theme is in keeping with Eggers’s ongoing crusade to improve the lives of others, through such initiatives as Voice of Witness, an oral-history series focused on human rights; 826 National, a network of writing and tutoring centers; and ScholarMatch, which connects donors and under-resourced students to make college possible. PW caught up with the Bay Area-based author to ask about the making of this picture book civics primer.
What inspired you to write a book about the importance of citizenship for picture book readers?
I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of civics, and it has become increasingly evident in our democracy that we could use more learning in this area. For the most part, schools in our country do not teach civics or citizenship until high school. Even the very youngest readers can—and should—be thinking about what it means to be a citizen, and what the powers and responsibilities of citizenship are.
How does What Can a Citizen Do? deliver that message effectively?
The book’s text and art show kids working together to improve their world in an accessible way—and I hope it will encourage kids to not only think about what they can do for others and their world—but to act. Even the smallest acts can make a difference. You might be only six or eight, but you can help a librarian who needs a plant watered, or you can do small tasks for your parents or teacher. Being entrusted with responsibility gives kids a sense of purpose and self-fulfillment, and that is integral to being part of a society. As I say in the book, “A citizen is not what you are. A citizen is what you do.”
Shawn Harris’s illustrations amplify the text and play a key role in the storytelling—why do you think his visual approach works so well?
Shawn is a brilliant and versatile artist, and he enhanced the text by providing a parallel narrative in his art. He brought so much humor and energy to the story, and he also brought a practical vision. He depicts kids doing things that they’re capable of doing in real life, and his pictures clearly show that kids want responsibility—and thrive on it.
Why is the book’s appearance on store shelves now especially timely?
Heeding the message of What Can a Citizen Do? and prompting kids to be mindful and proactive is crucial today. During the past year, we’ve all been thinking a lot about democracy, and we have had an important education handed to us about what it means to be a citizen by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in the aftermath of the shootings at their school last February, and by many other teens across the country. Today’s teens are the least hopeless people—they are generally confident and purposeful and have an inherent sense that their words and actions matter—and that they matter. As adults, we have to respect that and nudge it along—and begin to do that when kids are very young.
What Can a Citizen Do? by Dave Eggers, illus. by Shawn Harris. Chronicle, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4521-7313-9