The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga is on sale on May 11, 2021. Order it here.
By Nawal Q. Casiano and Cornelius Minor
Jasmine Warga follows difficult questions. She follows the curiosities of her two young kids and follows the questions of all the students she writes for, because, to hear her tell it, she is an advocate for young people.
This is how she shows up.
Warga is the author of The Shape of Thunder, a story told in two young girls’ perspectives in the aftermath of a school shooting. Her poetic novel Other Words for Home won several awards, including We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Dean Myers Honor, for its telling of a young girl whose Syrian immigration story; one that simultaneously nourishes and explores assimilation and identity. Warga is Arab American. The Shape of Thunder follows Cora and Quinn, neighbors and best friends whose lives are intertwined through childhood friendship, but may be irrevocably destroyed. As they grapple with grief and follow their own questions, readers have a sense of how we might make space for young people to deal with trauma. At the same time, this book feels like a warm hug: There is genuine compassion, empathy, and kindness throughout.
When we think about what we admire the most about young people, so many things come to mind. Recently, we’ve been thinking a lot about kids and their curiosity. So much of what’s been consistently wrong in the world is rooted in the reality that people do not take the time to understand each other. To ask questions. To understand perspective. To empathize. We admire that kids possess an “innocent curiosity” that works beyond this. Until adults force them to unlearn it.
In the context of Warga’s book, words like love and innocence’ take on powerful new meanings. In a society plagued by gun violence, Warga admitted to us that the conversations about these violent perpetrators are compelling to her, because she stays up, too, worrying about active shooter drills her own kids would experience in school. She noted that when the shooter is white, there is a social curiosity about their motives, their lives before the violence, and about how ‘surprised’ their communities are that these men (gun violence in America is also about toxic masculinity) could be anything other than the quiet outsiders that they are used to overlooking. When the shooter is Muslim, that conversation changes. Profoundly. The curiosity disappears. And conversations become about how bad those ‘other’ people are. Warga’s book asks the bold question: What if we did not do that?
“What is the culture that breeds a child shooter?” she said. “What is happening if we are raising boys to be radicalized on the internet?”
This is a book about difficult things. It is also about beautiful things. It’s about the things that confuse us, and about the things that we want to savor. Part of loving children is loving them through all of this—even when they face challenging things, and loving them when we face difficult things. There are so many times when we fail in our responsibility to love children through things that are new or difficult because we are afraid of the difficulty itself. The result of this is that we are raising a generation of children who are unpracticed at dealing with people who are different than they are, condemning violence, or questioning authority when it chooses to serve institutions and not humans.
The inhumanity shown towards groups of people right now is learned behavior and this book serves as a springboard for the kind of inner work we have to do to challenge those biases.
“Kids are not their issues,” Warga said. “Let them be all of the things.”
When bad things happen, how adults respond is everything. If we respond with humanity, we can give students the tools to make sense of it all. One of the tools Jasmine offers us here is to ask the question, why? The answer must always be to seek the humanity of the thing. The highest form of critical thinking is to understand humanity—not just someone who is different from you—but someone who hurts you.
“People are sometimes afraid of challenging books,” she said. “I’m asking readers, ‘Will you think about this with me?’”
Her books push dialogue, particularly when she feels helpless, and it’s not about coming to a tidy resolution. Warga’s stories give us the fodder we need to tackle the difficult-to-understand; they give us the beginnings of conversation. As she says, her books “broker difficult conversations,” to help adults talk about pain and the challenges that face us and our children.
“There isn’t really a progression towards a resolution, because there isn’t,” she said. “Stories don’t end. They’re the start of the reader processing.”
We know that love is a multifaceted thing. It does not always show up like it shows up in the movies and in sitcoms. Sometimes it’s gritty. At other times it is quiet. It can be bold. It can be truthful. And it can call us to become the very best that we can become in each moment. Even when there is no roadmap to that becoming. Jasmine’s book is like that. It is love, and it is just as gritty and bold and truthful and catalytic.
They are both educators who work in many capacities, but the capacity that energizes them the most is that they share and discuss stories with young people. There is power in this. Especially when it is done with an intentional focus on diversity. They believe that seeking words and experiences that are different from our own help us be more human.