What is identity? How do stories help?

By Brian Crawford

As an author, I see stories as a chance to explore What Ifs: What if a boy wizard faced down the incarnation of evil? What if a girl were thrown into a life-or-death, televised game show? What if a prince suspected his uncle of having killed his own father? More and more research shows that one of stories’ purposes is that they allow us to practice problem-solving. By vicariously experiencing a character’s struggles, our brain rehearses what to do in similar situations. We know from other research that stories trigger the same portions of the brain as actual experience. So, stories are not just entertainment; they allow us to practice problem-solving and, in the process, become better humans. In the case of identity formation, literature can help us grapple with what identity is, what forms it, and what challenges it. 

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This year’s ninth-grade theme is Identity and Learning. As I was exploring texts, I found so many books dealing with identity; but how could I choose? Which stories would best allow students windows into different ways of seeing the world and mirrors to their own experience? Also, how could I do this in a way that allows them to grow as readers and writers, while being exposed to a variety of genres?

As a prerequisite, all of our works feature teenagers facing challenges to identity: a Burundian boy with a French father and Rwandan mother; an Iranian girl struggling under the Shah; a Chinese-American boy stuck between two worlds; an autistic boy searching for answers; two teenagers in love with their sworn enemy; and four sisters pinned under a dictatorship. With the mirror of a teen character in place, the next step is to focus on themes that define adolescence: Where do I belong? How do others’ notions of my identity influence how they interact with me? And finally, each book needed to feature everyday teen activities: hanging out with friends; playing games; gossiping; going to school; trying to understand adults’ strange ways; and bickering with siblings.

Hopefully, these qualities will resonate with our students. The next step is to use our texts this year as a jumping-off point--not only into the wealth of literature that makes up our world, but also into what it means to be a teenager in Seattle.