The media seem monopolized by stories of kids in trouble; drive-by shootings, killings, attacks and break-ins with a sensationalism that snaps everyone to attention. While there are isolated events describing a hero who saves someone's life or of young people whose academic prowess is acclaimed, the stories receive less space and time than those of a negative nature.
I was in a group recently in which someone wondered if television ratings would plummet if only positive stories were broadcast or if newspapers would consider only printing the positive feats and achievements of youths. The query generated unanimity: Everyone believed that the melodramatic is what "sells."While Utah writer Barbara Lewis may recognize the rage of sensationalism, it didn't stop her from writing three books that concentrate on the positive. And they do sell!
For the educationally minded, Barbara Lewis is what every teacher wants to be; a creative facilitator who encourages students to think, plan and take action. "Black dots representing possible hazardous waste sites were sprinkled across the large wall map of Salt Lake City like flecks of pepper . . . One of the sites was located just three blocks from our school. . . . " this Jackson Elementary teacher wrote. It was 1987, and the 50,000 barrels, some containing hazardous waste, became the collective campaign of her fourth- through sixth-grade students who chose to tackle the problem. "This was as exciting a time to them as unraveling a mystery, since it was their neighborhood."
THE KID'S GUIDE TO SOCIAL ACTION: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose - and Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action (Free Spirit Publications, 1991) was not only a record of what the students at Jackson Elementary did to clean up the mess in their vicinity, it also documents the success of other schools like Bellamy Middle School in Massachusetts; Millsap Elementary in Cyprus, Texas; and Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City School District. As important as these stories are, the impact of "The Kid's Guide" rests in the process that Lewis devised to attain social action such as writing letters, lobbying for new laws, interviewing and pushing for proclamations. For this gifted teacher of gifted students, the efforts paid off. Not only was the hazardous waste dealt with but Lewis won numerous national and international awards and recognitions for her writing and teaching.
KIDS WITH COURAGE: True Stories About Young People Making a Difference (Free Spirit Publishing, 1992) was the natural outgrowth of her book on social action. This tells of real kids, the kids of the '90s. "Because they aren't famous, rich or powerful, you can believe that anyone can do courageous and wonderful things."
Here are 18 stories about kids who fight crime, take action in their communities, do heroic deeds and help save the environment. It is about a shooting where irate students started a Youth Crime Watch program in Florida. It tells of a teenager who saves her young brother from a burning house and a group of students in California who became FOWLS (Friends of Wild Life).
Accompanying "Kids With Courage" is a teaching guide with discussion questions and pertinent resources including further reading and hotline numbers and addresses. Families and classrooms both will benefit from Lewis' insight and timely references. "As students start solving real problems, they will internalize this process, learning how to better control their own lives."
"The Kid's Guide to Social Action" and "Kids With Courage" are both used widely in social studies classes and in workshops.
Lewis's newest collection of positive stories about youngsters, YOUNG LIONS: ORDINARY KIDS WITH EXTRAORDINARY COURAGE (Deseret Book, 1993), is a ready companion for LDS Sunday School, seminary and youth auxiliary lessons. Nineteen stories of Mormon youths age 8-12 tell of their courage and unique abilities. "I set out a strict criteria," admits the author. "First, they needed to be a member of the church, and their contribution was to have overcome a difficult situation, something that reflected their stamina and courage." While she sought to find a cross-section throughout the LDS Church, she also wanted an ethnic diversity and a "broad mix" of backgrounds and academic abilities. "Above all I wanted the `story,' not statistics."
Some of the vignettes came in serendipitous ways, such as the reference to Jaanus Silla from Estonia that was found in the Church News section of the Deseret News. "The laws of the land required that an Estonian church member who did not hold a position in the Estonian branch presidency be designated as president of the Church in Estonia. That person must sign the petition for the Church to become recognized there." Jaanus Silla was authorized to sign the document because of his demonstrated leadership.
The support and efforts of the Make-A-Wish Foundation brought the story of Patty Amos. Patty, whose long illness of leukemia moved out of remission, was granted her wish to visit Salt Lake City and a general authority, and try to perform baptisms for the dead. "To the surprise of everyone, she felt no pain. Instead, her body felt soaked in peace . . . She stood there and completed ten baptisms for the dead, and she felt no pain in her legs at all."
The stories of the Young Lions come from a dozen different states, Canada, Laos, South Africa, Germany, Saigon and Brazil. Some were credited for bravery and extraordinary skills or talents, while others faced oppression and maintained exemplary courage through the hardships. Each has a lesson that represents to the author a bit of the gospel of Christ. These "Mormon youth through the pages of this book - these `children of light' (D&C 106:5) who when faced with opposition, have been `bold as a lion' (Proverbs 28:1)."