By Jennifer Baker
My grandma was known to quote verses—“do unto others…” was a fave. As a kid, I listened intently beside my aunt or mother as they read me fairy tales about how generosity and patience was often rewarded over selfishness and greed. These stories served as markers for what’s “right and wrong” in the world; they clearly designated who the good and bad folks were. This was also how I initially framed justice in my youth. It wasn’t necessarily based on the place I inhabited, but on the intention of the story.
While the definition of social justice refers to the recognition that all people deserve equal rights from economics to politics, it’s also about equity and opportunities. It’s existing in a world that respects and acknowledges everyone’s humanity. Digging beyond the binary of “right and wrong” or “good or bad,” the variations of social justice stories help decolonize what we’ve been informed about the world and the history we have (or had) access to. Representation and cultural celebration are also key components because existing is a radical act for marginalized groups. And in these tales, family and community are often a starting point for a character’s self-awareness or broader consciousness about the world around them.
Family is often at the forefront of the stories I write, and tend to be integral to those I read and teach. Whenever I initiate discussion with young readers or writers at all ages, one of the first questions I ask after we read a book is about relationships. How do young people’s interactions with the world and people around them cause them to become irrevocably changed? And from those moments, how do the issues they face (or fight) tie to ones we can relate to or what’s happening in the world?
In Watch Us Rise by Ellen Hagan and Renée Watson, best friends Chelsea and Jasmine push for women’s rights, starting with their high school. The women in my family often told me there was nothing I couldn’t do, despite the stats of how few women, and women of color, are present in places of power. Similar to Jasmine and Chelsea, I was emboldened to believe I deserved my place wherever I stood. Likewise, the ardent support from their family fortifies them to lean into their womanist views through action and empowering poems.
In Natalia Sylvester’s Running, an environmental crisis leads Mari Ruiz to consider what she sees and what she’s been told. There will be disagreements with those you love and hold dear because we grow into ourselves in different ways, times, and perspectives. For teens like Mari, complicated feelings arise toward her father as the gray areas of his presidential campaign cause Mari to observe him as “two different people.”
My grandmother’s guidance wasn’t limited to the quotations; it extended to the communities she was raised alongside during the Great Depression, and how even in turmoil they looked out for one another by sharing crops, looking after each others’ children, or acting as midwives. Books encapsulating the importance of community and familial bonds for survival include Traci Chee’s We Are Not Here, Jane Yolen’s Mapping the Bones, and Thanhhà Lại’s Listen, Slowly, which features those affected by Japanese incarceration, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War, respectively. The stories from my grandparent’s past include a history that is ever-present including Jim Crow Laws and the KKK’s presence in their hometown. In Listen, Slowly, the bond between grandchild and grandparent illuminates the lingering traumas of the Vietnam War and how important it is to pass down the stories of those affected.
When I ask the question of how these characters have been guided by their community, I ask a similar question of us as readers and creators. Thinking of justice and “doing unto others” reminds me of how my family instilled in me the desire to learn, to heal, to help. It reminds me how much I relate to the complexity of what we’re told and what we feel. It reinforces that we can convey the layers of these experiences and relationships to readers of all ages, showing them journeys beyond our imagination.
Forgive Me Not by Jennifer Baker will be released on August 15, 2023.
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional of 20 years, the creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and a faculty member of the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and a writing consultant at Baruch College. Formerly a contributing editor to Electric Literature, she received a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship and a Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant for Nonfiction Literature. Her essay “What We Aren’t (or the Ongoing Divide)” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018. In 2019, she was named Publishers Weekly Superstar for her contributions to inclusion and representation in publishing. Jennifer is also the editor of the all PoC-short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018) and the author of the forthcoming YA novel Forgive Me Not (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2023). She has volunteered with organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and I, Too Arts Collective, and spoken widely on topics of inclusion, the craft of writing/editing, podcasting, and the inner-workings of the publishing industry. Her fiction, nonfiction, and criticism has appeared in various print and online publications. Her website is: jennifernbaker.com.