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Dave Eggers on ‘What Can a Citizen Do?’ and Kid-Proofing Political Activism

With a new children's book, Dave Eggers reminds readers why he's famous and why they need to get involved.

Rhododendrites/Wikimedia

Not all of the great American novelists are adept children’s book authors. I mean, have you read Philip Roth’s board book, Guess Which Stain is Human?, or Hemingway’s Say Bye-Bye To Pyoo-Pyoo? Terrible books. Kids hate ’em. That’s why it wasn’t a given that Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is The What?, and The Circle would stick the landing with his first book aimed at a younger readership. He did. Her Right Foot is a very good book. Not content with that, Eggers, who is both a father and the founder of the 826 reading and writing programs, decided to write a popular children’s book about government. Because he’s very famous, a publisher let him do this. The result, What Can A Citizen Do? , is an unexpected joyful read. Kids are gonna dig it.

Simply put, it’s empowering. Eggers’s text rhythmically expounds on the powers of the people. “A citizen can right a wrong. A citizen can turn things round. A citizen can get things right side that have been upside down.” (The work of illustrator Shawn Harris, who conveys the pleasures of civic engagement, is excellent, too)

As an adult reading the book, I was tempted to segue straight into a “What do we want?” call and response. Eggers makes democracy feel good at a time when very few adults are doing that, which makes his book kind of perfect for kids who are old enough to start asking questions. Eager to know how Eggers pulled off this tough literary trick, Fatherly spoke to the author about his latest work.

Obviously, this is a message book. What do you see the message being?
More than anything, my main hope was to put forth the radical idea that kids sometimes need to sublimate their personal desires and self-interest to service a common good. You know, I was just watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new Mr. Rogers documentary. And even though his work is misconstrued as making kids into fragile snowflakes, he wasn’t doing that at all. He was concerned with empowering kids, giving them a role. Children like to feel they have power if they choose to exercise it, and in the case of the book, it’s the power to create a small utopian society.

Fatherly IQ
  1. Are you and your family playing more board games in recent months?
    Not really We've always been a board game family.
    No, we don't really play board games.
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I’ve seen kids on an island in a small lake planting a flag, electing leaders, coming up with rules. It was everything short of the conch shell. But you know, kids love that kind of thing. If you respect the views and abilities and give them responsibility as opposed to repeatedly taking it away, they flourish.

Is civic duty something you think we need to teach kids or do you think that sense of engagement is derived from a broader sense of social responsibility?
You know what’s weird, I’ve been working with kids as young as six and as old as eighteen through 826 Valencia for 16 years. And there’s an extraordinarily high percentage of them who have gone into teaching or non-profit work or become deeply engaged people. If kids grow up with activist parents or they see their parents volunteering in the school, they grow up engaged. It’s more an issue of connecting with what has been unnaturally disconnected.

In today’s public debate, the word “citizen” has become extremely loaded. So much of the conversation is about those who are not citizens, what a citizen actually does or hardly gets any airtime.
It’s a funny word these days, because it can be taken to mean do you have the proper documents. But I meant it in a platonic ideal. You have rights but you have duty and obligations. There is no other word unfortunately, that can be stripped from the political. If you live there, you’re a citizen.

One of the things I loved about the book is that what’s happening in the pictures — a group of kids building a treehouse — isn’t a one-for-one with the text, which is more of an exhortation for civic engagement. That had to be a hard balance to strike.
Yes, the images have their own parallel narrative. That was the only direction I gave to Shawn. I didn’t want it to be reductive and illustrate exactly whatever the words were. The words are abstract. They don’t describe incidents or this person doing that. I said, ‘Come up with your own narrative that runs parallel.’

It’s a pretty funny concept to write a children’s book essentially about voting when precisely zero of your target demo can head to the polls.
Voting is just one of a hundred or a thousand ways to express your role as a citizen. We have a unique society in that one of our rights of a citizen is to be uninvolved. Obviously, you have the freedom to do whatever you want to do, including nothing. But in the last few years, we can see what can happen if the population does nothing. We learn citizenship is a full-time obligation. We all have a strangely outsized role in the future of the planet. If we don’t make the right decisions, it leads to catastrophic effects.

That’s a pretty heavy message, but the book feels really cheerful. How do you think about engaging kids with this material without frightening them or putting them off?
The book isn’t supposed to be a scold. Helping create the world you want to see can be a blast. Make a flag, write signs, build stuff, start a club. I’ve never seen kids not want to do that. If they can build their own countries, they can see democracy and society as a changeable thing. In fact, it’s changing every day and if they won’t be part of that change, it’ll be changed upon them.