“What can a citizen do?”
It’s a question that depends a lot on who’s asking it. A senator might use it to rally their base. A civics teacher might ask a class for a test. Or, it might be something asked in exasperation by anyone exhausted by the past two years of politics: what really can one person do when there are so many forces moving against them?
But what does it mean for a kid?
For their latest children’s book, What Can A Citizen Do?, the writer Dave Eggers and illustrator Shawn Harris ask that question in the form of a short story, following a group of children as they build a tree house in their neighborhood. As the children collaborate with each other—watering the ground, painting boards and befriending bears—the text provides ideas for how even young citizens can serve their communities. (“A citizen can plant a tree. A citizen can help a neighbor. A citizen can join a cause.”)
Eggers admitted that a focus on the responsibilities of citizenship can sometimes spark negative perceptions, reminiscent of Big Brother or Soviet propaganda. However, he believes it can also be an inspiring message to children. Used rightly, he says, the message can help kids think about civic action long before the biases and pessimism of adulthood cloud their views on the topic.
“I like how the book doesn’t just traipse along and then arrive at the adult world,” Eggers told Adweek. “Our world is no better than the one that (children) are creating right now. And in fact (they) will be creating ours soon. It just puts it on their radar, but in a way that says ‘Don’t do anything different than what you’re doing. Just think about what you’re doing is creating society, community and you are important citizens even at your age.”
The book, which debuted this fall, in some ways is a follow-up to another children’s book by Eggers and Harris from 2017, On Her Left Foot, which tells the story of the Statue of Liberty. It was during that time that he became “obsessed with” the idea of civic education and the role it plays in a healthy democracy. Young people, Eggers said, are “the most open and I think inherently optimistic, and inherently accepting.”
While the book might be written for children, it’s also in a way a Trojan horse for adults to begin also thinking about what citizenship means to them. After all, who reads books to kids before they can read? Eggers cited Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein as examples of authors who embedded serious cultural messages inside stories made of rhymes and goofy situations kids could enjoy.
“You’re really kind of working on both audiences at the same time and provoking discussions,” Eggers said. “So I would love it if a parent read this to their child and they both had a thought or two about it, like ‘what does this mean?’”
On Tuesday, Eggers joined Barack Obama on stage at the Obama Foundation summit in Chicago to talk about what citizens—both older and younger people alike—should be doing in their communities. During their conversation, even the former president name dropped children’s books to illustrate how to educate the nation’s leaders.
”There has to be some element of your voices and your power that translates into where does tax money go,” Obama said. “Where does (a state) build roads and schools? And is it actually doing something to make sure trees don’t get cut down like the Lorax is warming. And has the criminal justice system read the Sneetches book to make sure they’re not targeting folks who don’t have stars on their bellies?”
The illustrations in “What Can A Citizen Do?” partially stem from a childhood memory of Harris’s own, when he and his friends played on an “island”—a drainage ditch that became a creek—in their backyard. He decided to play on the idea of visual hyperbole, drawing a ramshackle structure that looked to the characters like a fortress. After all, when you’re a kid, he said, everything feels bigger and more grand than it does once you get older.