written by Kelly J. Baptist
There’s a classic scene in Disney’s The Lion King where Rafiki is trying to get grown-up Simba to see something special when he looks into a puddle of water. Simba only sees his reflection at first, so Rafiki urges him to “Look Harder.” When Simba does, he sees his reflection transform into that of his father’s, and an inspiring moment follows. That line, “Look Harder” became a classic in my house. If my parents told me to grab a sweater and I said it wasn’t in my closet, my mother would inevitably go full-Rafiki mode and say “Look Harder!” If we missed a spot in our cleaning, but thought we had cleaned thoroughly, my father was there to say “Look Harder!” The concept of seeing beyond what first meets the eye is an important one to grasp. As an adult creator, my goal is to show characters, but also the character behind the character. I develop the story, but also the story behind the story.
At an adult’s first glance, Isaiah Dunn might be labeled a trouble-kid. Though he’s quiet at school, he’s defiant about letting go of a notebook, argumentative with a classmate, and blows up for what seems like no reason. But beneath the surface, we see a kid who’s grieving his father and is very much connected to the words in his father’s notebook. Isaiah goes “home” to a smoky motel, and later lives in his car. He watches his mother deal with grief in a completely different way and he shoulders the weight of caring for his younger sister as a result. That’s a lot to hold inside for an adult, let alone a ten year-old! By understanding the story behind Isaiah’s story–by looking harder–our perception of him shifts from an angry boy to a hero.
In The Electric Slide and Kai, main character Kai displays a classic case of avoidance when it comes to the electric slide. It’s not that he hates dancing, it’s that he’s convinced himself that he can’t dance, and he doesn’t want to stand out. Why? Because everyone else in his family can dance, and Kai has already experienced perceived failure when he knocked over a little cousin with his moves. These occurrences are what make him want to withdraw. But the story behind the story is that his family finds joy in dancing the electric slide because they put their own unique spin on their moves–”special sauce” as Kai’s big brother says. Once Kai learns that he can do the same, he’s released from his fears.
The practice of seeing beyond enables us to be empathetic and to realize that behavior is always motivated by something. Even if we don’t know what that something is, just knowing there’s a motivator should shift our mindset. As an author, my goal is to inspire all readers to take the time to look harder, to see beyond what they initially see. Every one of us has a story that shapes who we are and we naturally feel seen when someone understands and accepts our story. So as you interact with so-called difficult kids and adults, take time to cherish their stories, and also to look for the story behind the story. You’ll often be surprised by what you discover!
About Kelly J. Baptist
Kelly J. Baptist was born and raised in the great state of Michigan. She’s lived in Alabama, Florida, and Minnesota, but somehow found herself right back in her home state. Kelly won the 2015 We Need Diverse Books short story contest, and her winning entry is included in the middle-grade anthology, Flying Lessons and Other Stories. A follow-up to that story, Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, is set for an August 2020 release by Crown Books for Young Readers. Kelly also won the 2017 Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award for her picture book manuscript, The Electric Slide and Kai.
Note from Melissa: Thank you, Kelly, for sharing your creative process. I’m a HUGE fan of your books. Isaiah Dunn is a character who I will always adore. Probably because he has such depths — thanks to your brilliant writing.