Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Guest Post: Phillip Hoose on Young Heroes

We're excited to be hosting National Book Award winner Phillip Hoose on July 28. He'll be here to discuss his new book, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler. Since Phillip has been writing about young people taking a stand for more than a decade now, we asked him to tell us what makes young activists so fascinating.
Knud Pedersen and the other Churchill Club boys took on the German army with paint, gasoline and nerve. They struck on bicycles, usually in broad daylight since they all had curfews. They had no military training whatsoever. Had they enlisted in an armed forces unit, they would have been desensitized through boot-camp like experiences and rebuilt as warriors. But the boys had no army to train with; they had to make it up themselves. They soon discovered that there’s no sticking your toe into a war. You are drawn in quickly. They loudly debated the ethics of killing, even as they practiced shooting their stolen machine gun in a monastery loft during their father Rev. Edvard Pedersen's Sunday church services. They trusted no one. They were bright, sensitive, deeply patriotic ninth-graders who were ashamed that their government had given in to German forces without a fight.

What resonated for me is that the boys made up their own minds about resisting the German occupation of Denmark. The adults in their lives cautioned them not to mouth off, not to rouse the sleeping Nazi giant who had settled so comfortably among them. The boys thought it over, read and talked and listened to BBC radio broadcasts—and then followed their hearts. Knud Pedersen later said he could imagine himself as a peace activist at another time, but when he reached his personal crossroads, he had to fight.

Stories of teens making a difference have been a hallmark of my work for decades. Teens are passionate, judgmental, caring, idealistic, self-righteous, courageous, and energetic. Young people often see life dramatically, and many are inclined to take action. Some grow up in times of convulsive social change, as did the tens of thousands of students caught up in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education. During such times, even a single act can spark monumental change. At such a moment, Claudette Colvin entered history's spotlight while simply riding the bus home from school. Her historic decision to keep her seat was, she later said, impulsive, but based on a lifetime of anger and frustration: "I felt Harriet Tubman pressing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pressing down on the other," she later said. "History kept me in my seat." Fourteen-year-old Knud Pedersen and his friends likewise made a decision at a tinderbox moment that set major events in motion.
Teenagers' stories go untold. Until the Internet—adults wrote nearly all the stories. One thing I learned during my research on We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History (Farrar, 2001) is that adults and young people can experience the same phenomena very differently and write from greatly different perspectives.

I hope my work will encourage more young people to tell their own stories.
And we hope you'll join Phillip Hoose here on July 28!

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