I originally gave this speech to Upper Darby High School’s National English Honor Society ceremony on 5 November 2018.
Hi, my name is Katherine Locke and I’m the author of the Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor book from the Association of Jewish Libraries and a 2018 Carolyn W Field Honor Book from the Pennsylvania Library Association. I’m honored to be here. Thank you for inviting me, and congratulates to all of you in front of me!
The Girl with the Red Balloon is a Young Adult historical fantasy book about a girl who accidentally time travels to 1988 East Berlin and gets caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. They’re using magic balloons to send people from east Berlin to West Berlin. From oppression, to freedom. And all of that has to do with how this one girl’s grandfather escaped a death camp in 1942. It’s a complicated book, but it’s found its home with teens and adults alike, and I want to talk about that. How a book I wrote for teenagers when I was a lost adult found its home across all generations.
Writing this speech was a lot like writing a book. I came at it from every angle, tried all types of themes to get to my central point, and eventually threw them all out and tried again, the day it was due—that is, a few hours ago, by voice memo on my phone in my car—and I think I’ve got it. I’ll try not to revise further as I go.
I have a degree in political science from Allegheny College, but like most liberal arts colleges, Allegheny encourages its students to study widely. The college requires a minor in a separate area from its majors. My major was in social sciences, so my minor had to be in sciences or humanities. I went with English. I’m a big fan of Beowulf—that’s not a joke, I really am—so I figured I’d just take a ton of British literature like we studied in high school and I’d coast right through.
Instead, I found myself at the mercy of class schedules, and ended up only with two British literature classes in the dozen or more I took throughout my four years. I found myself in all sorts of classes—the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, an entire class on Toni Morrison, the literature around the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and, most crucially for my future career, a class on children’s literature.
We read a lot of books in that class, and we read a lot about fairy tales.
You know the kind.
The woods are dark. There are wolves. And morals. And the originals are way darker than the Disney versions.
In that class, I read a book called Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion by Jack Zipes, a fairy tale academic. And in that book, Zipes writes: “Initially the young protagonist must leave home or the family because power relations have been disturbed. Either the protagonist is wronged, or a change in social relations forces the protagonist to depart from home. A task is imposed, and a hidden command of the tale must be fulfilled. …The wandering protagonist always leaves home to reconstitute home.”
The young protagonist leaves home to reconstitute home. The young protagonist leaves home to challenge their definition of home, change their definition of home, or discover a new definition of home.
I latched onto that. I’ve never let it go. And I have a theory that most children’s literature, by this definition, is a fairytale.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace leave home to reconstitute home by bringing their father home.
In Harry Potter, Harry leaves home—if we can call the Dursleys’ house that—to reconstitute home. Hogwarts becomes home.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss leaves home to reconstitute home, a home that protects her sister but does not include her, and ultimately starts a revolution. Is there a greater reconstitution of home than overthrowing a totalitarian government?
And some journeys are smaller. In Angie Thomas’s brilliant debut, The Hate U Give, Starr reconstitutes home by challenging systems imposed on her community. She does not physically leave home, but she emotionally and mentally leaves the idea of “home” as a static place.
In the recent release, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, Darius leaves his home in the United States and returns to his mother’s home in Iran to visit his dying grandfather. As someone who is biracial and without his mother’s native tongue, Darius feels trapped—the US doesn’t feel like home, but neither does Iran. He has to come to grips with where he exists in the world, and be honest with his family about his mental health , in order to find a place in the home that’s surrounded him.
We are always leaving home to reconstitute home. We are always going into the woods, and there are always wolves.
I think for a long time, there was an idea that this was the journey of the youth—that in your late teen years, you’d leave home and find a new home and then you’d be an adult, and get really excited about vacuum cleaners—and trust me, you’re going to be shocked by how exciting new vacuum cleaners will be when you’re my age—and that was that. That your home would become static as an adult. In fairytale language, you lived in the little cottage with a picket fence and the wolf was dead and the witch was dead and everyone lived happily ever after.
But our sense of home and our identities around home are always changing. Not just where we live, but with whom we’re living. Every secret we carry, and every secret we share, changes our relationship to home. And in a world where the wolves and the witches are more metaphorical than literal, we seem to have an infinite number of wolves and witches in our lives. They take different forms for all of us, but few of us are free from them. And in this day and age, we’re bombarded with information all day long—I probably have six new New York Times alerts by the time I’m done this speech—and that changes our relationship to home too. Home as this country, and our roles and responsibilities in it.
And through books and stories, and in particular, children’s literature, we can find the language to challenge our ideas of home, we can find the strength and courage through fictional characters to see the truth of our own situations, and we can find windows into other people’s struggles to reconstitute their own homes.
Whatever your age, you may find yourself reaching for children’s literature. Don’t be ashamed. It isn’t that you’re looking for a safe story—though rereading favorites can feel comforting and there is nothing wrong with that either—but you may be looking for a story that gives you the language, framework, and understanding of your own journey. You may be reconstituting home. It’s less the comfort of knowing the story, than the comfort of knowing and finding in the text your way through the woods.
The woods are dark. But they are not lonely. The wolves and witches can always be overcome. We are all reconstituting home. In real life as in fiction. So like the characters in the books you love, find your community—that is a type of home too. And don’t ever be so afraid of the woods that you don’t light a lantern, pick up your favorite book, and find your way.