Publishers, writers, and readers know today’s contradictions. As an organized right-wing campaign surges across states and school districts promoting book bans, a new era of original writing—and reading groups—by young people rises. Especially stimulating among the conflicting movements is the increase of original publishing of the young for the young. This is unprecedented. As a historian of literacy and of children and youth, I follow trends in writing and reading. As a public scholar and activist, I write about the unprecedented “new illiteracy” of our unconstitutional, anti–children’s rights and development banners, and I collaborate with the ACLU, ALA, PEN America, and other organizations.
My wife and I follow illustrated children’s books and share them. I call their authors “My Young Heroes.” I publicize how these exceptional young people’s experiences, actions, and interactions shed light on critical dimensions in the uses of reading, writing, and publishing across ages, media, and critical spheres of activity.
In 2021, Dillon Helbing, then an eight-year-old second grader in Idaho, wrote by hand an 81-page novel. He hid The Adventures of Dillon Helbing’s Crismis in the local library on a shelf with other fiction. According to the New York Times, “Over the next month, a series of circumstances made the book one of the library’s most sought-after titles and also inspired children in Boise to write their own stories.” Dillon’s new book project is The Jacket-Eating Closet. Dillon vows to write until he is 40.
Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi, a Nigerian child immigrant to New York City, became the youngest chess master in history when he was 10. In 2020, he released an illustrated book for children, Tani’s New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope & Kindness in America, as well as young reader and adult editions of My Name Is Tani... and I Believe in Miracles (all published by Tommy Nelson). He has also written guides to chess for different age groups. At the end of 2022, Tani and his family received U.S. asylum. He continues to write and play chess.
In 2020, when Orion Jean of Fort Worth, Tex., was 10, he began collecting and distributing books to needy children as part of his Race to Kindness initiative. By the end of 2022, Jean met his goal of donating 500,000 books, and he has also written a book, A Kids Book About Leadership.
In 2021, at age 14, Zaila Avant-Garde became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The extraordinary young woman’s greater passions lie in dribbling multiple basketballs simultaneously—for which she holds three Guinness World Records—and mental math. She plans to attend Harvard and play basketball. In May, Random House Books for Young Readers published her first book, It’s Not Bragging If It’s True: How to Be Awesome at Life. This month, Doubleday Books for Young Readers will release her picture book Words of Wonder from Z to A.
The final two young authors I’d like to highlight are well-known internationally, as they strive to change the world through both words and actions: climate activist Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, and young women’s educational campaigner Malala Yousafzai, from Pakistan. Inseparable from their formal and informal learning, self-growth, and activism, both began to write for young people and general audiences by their mid-teens.
As her environmental activism began to spread in 2018 and 2019, publishers attributed an increase in sales of children’s books about climate crises to “the Greta effect.” Her own writing ranges from memoirs of growing up to collections of her speeches, including Scenes from the Heart written with her sister, mother, and father, and No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. She’s now 20 years old, and her most recent book is the encyclopedic The Climate Book, for all ages.
In 2014, Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the youngest Nobel laureate. Her coauthored memoir I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban was published in 2013, when she was 16, by Little, Brown in the U.S. A children’s edition came the next year, followed by the picture book Malala’s Magic Pencil in 2017, and We Are Displaced: True Stories of Refugee Lives in 2018.
The written and printed word may or may not change the world, but these talented young people act with compelling and committed creativity, using all the media and means at their command to try to make a difference. That is how reading, writing, and publishing work best: through pictures, voices, letters, words, phonics, and phonetics interacting together. Young writers may change the world in these intersecting ways.
Harvey J. Graff is a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, the inaugural Ohio eminent scholar in literacy studies, and the author of Searching for Literacy.