Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hamilton, Star Wars, and Radically Relatable Children's Lit

You knew there had to be a Hamilton post. But if you feel like you’ve already heard more than enough about the brilliant Broadway hip-hop tribute to America’s first treasury secretary, A) you’re dead to me, and B) don’t worry, this isn’t really (or at least solely) a Hamilton post.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes stories fresh and moving. It doesn’t actually have much to do with how original the subject matter is. In every storytelling medium, we return to the same kinds of stories again and again. How many young adult novels are there about kids grieving over dead siblings? GO COUNT. How many stories are there about "young-scrappy-and-hungry" kids wanting to prove themselves and make their mark? Start with the four Star Wars movies (prequels don’t count as movies) and keep going till you die: that’s how many. So why does Hamilton move me to nerd-laughter and tears while, say, the first Captain America movie bored the living daylights out of me?

For starters, it must be said that Chris Evans has the most inanimate face to wander onto the silver screen since Paul Henreid. (You remember him from Casablanca. Kidding. You don't.) It is the face of a white dude who thinks he can save the world. Yawn.


"Wait, so who exactly is Biggie Smalls?"
The faces of the Hamilton cast: a little different. Would the song "The Room Where It Happens" give me goose bumps if Actual Aaron Burr, as a middle-aged eighteenth-century white dude, were singing it? Possibly not. And yet it is still a song about Actual Aaron Burr; it’s just also a song about other people with whom Actual Aaron Burr had nothing to do.  The most daring thing about Hamilton, I’d argue, is how radically it interprets what’s “relatable.” An African-American man embodies Aaron Burr, stretches Burr’s identity and his own, helps us relate to Burr and to Leslie Odom Jr. and to unspoken layers of history and people between them and to hip-hop artists whose names we’re suddenly embarrassed to not know. That’s what diversity does at its most powerful: it closes the distance between a dead white politician and a living African-American actor, and narrows the distance between both of them and a millennial white woman.

That’s why we need diverse stories, diverse voices. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes for better storytelling. It’s not about reinventing the wheel but about spinning the wheel differently. The Force Awakens is the exact. same. movie. as the original Star Wars, except that it plays out with different—delightful—protagonists. Hamilton is the same story we read in our history textbooks, except it’s not the same at all. Grief, love, ambition, and sex make appearances in pretty much every Carolrhoda novel I can name, yet those ingredients are never mixed the same way twice.


As an editor, I want to nurture books that are radically relatable. Which means I’m never bored.

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