There is a famous quote: "good artists borrow, the great ones steal." As with any quote with somewhat murky origins, I'll just go ahead and attribute it to Benjamin Franklin because that's what he would do. Regardless, I'm going to reach for greatness here and steal an idea from a good friend: Fictional Saints.
At our Book Team meeting (we're too cool to be a mere Book Club), he asked us who our Fictional Saints were. That is, who are those characters in fiction that have had a profound influence on your life? The first character that sprung to my mind was "Maniac" Magee from Jerry Spinelli's book of the same name.
If you aren't familiar with this book, go read it. Seriously, it's 184 pages and reads faster than a rambling blog post about vaguely literary stuff. But if you're disinclined, here's a summary of sorts. This is a book about a young orphan who runs (literally RUNS) away from his aunt and uncle and into a small, segregated town. He finds himself homeless, caught up in the racial tensions that keep the town divided. He is befriended and hated, challenged and celebrated. It’s a good read.
I took several, lasting things away from that book. The first (and probably least important) was running. I know it was that cover photo and the scene of him running into town on the train rail that first got me to start taking jogs as a form meditation. Also, that cover is what inspired me to ask for my first hoodie which I still have and still wear, much to my wife's dismay.
Secondly, there is the nature of being an outsider. Both the loneliness and perspective that you gain from standing outside. But this is a particular kind of outsider-ness: it is one that comes from love rather than fear. Maybe that's something I entirely made up but I've long carried that idea of supporting from the outside rather than from within.
Then, there are the obvious lessons of prejudice and racism, powerful and important for a kid growing up in a homogenous town like I did. I know this story played a role in my suspicion of the motives, declarations, and biases of those around me and I'm tremendously grateful for that. Of course, like most white people, I'm still more prejudiced than I like to think I am (I'm working on it...) but "Maniac" certainly knocked me clear of those poisons sown in the ground where I grew up.
This here is the power of good literature: to pull you so far into a character that he changes how you see the world. I looked at that kind of the cover and saw myself and my life changed a little. Shouldn’t everyone have that same opportunity? You see, there’s a catch to this “becoming” through Literary Saints: the greatest influence comes when you can put yourself in their skin. This is where diversity in literature becomes so important. So the challenge is this: read diversity, talk diversity, write diversity (*responsibly*). Help those diverse characters become big in the world, help them catch more light so that someone can find them. Help others find their Fictional Saints and let their world change for the better.