Small act by small act, a diverse cast of children transforms a lonely island into a community in What Can a Citizen Do? (Chronicle, Sept.), the latest picture book collaboration from Dave Eggers and artist and musician Shawn Harris. The book’s theme is in step with Eggers’s efforts to improve the lives of others through initiatives like 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.
“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,” says Eggers. “What does it mean to be a citizen? What are the powers and responsibilities of citizenship? These are ideas that even the youngest readers can and should be thinking about.”
Eggers hopes that What Can a Citizen Do? with its rhymed text and pictures of kids pitching in will encourage kids not just to think about what they can do for others—but to act. “You might be only six or eight, but you can help a librarian who needs a plant watered, or do small tasks for your parents or teacher,” he says. “Being entrusted with responsibility gives kids a sense of purpose and self-fulfillment, and that is integral to being part of a society.”
Eggers credits Harris with infusing the book with humor and energy. “Shawn is a brilliant and versatile artist, and he enhanced the text by providing a parallel narrative in his art,” says Eggers. “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.”
For Eggers, helping kids to be mindful and proactive is crucial. “In the last few months, we’ve all been thinking a lot about democracy, and we have had an important education handed to us by the Parkland students and teens across the country about what it means to be a citizen. Today’s teens are the least hopeless people—they are generally confident and purposeful, and have an inherent sense that their words 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.”