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Listen to the Kid

March 5, 2013

Tags: Originally published on the Wild Writers Web blog (

Last year, I wrote a pair of articles for the classroom magazines Storyworks and Scholastic Scope about Jordan Romero, the wunderkind who has climbed the “Seven Summits”—the tallest mountain on each continent. The stories focused on his preparations for a 2010 attempt to summit Mt. Everest with his dad and his dad’s partner, the controversy about a 13-year-old taking the risk, and his ultimate success in becoming the youngest to ever stand at the summit.

As I did my research, I became increasingly puzzled by the disapproval and, in some instances, outright anger and disgust directed at Jordan and his family. Parenting blogs and their readers’ comments were often scathing. Other mountain climbers said Jordan didn’t have the judgment or experience to make the attempt. TV interviewers seemed barely able to stifle their tongue-clucking, sometimes insinuating that Jordan was some egotistical little poophead and trust-fund punk (he’s not), or that Jordan’s father—a paramedic—should be arrested for child endangerment. It was like some kind of morality play with Jordan playing the straw boy for grown-ups’ collective fears.

None of that jived with the young man I interviewed via phone after his successful ascent. Jordan struck me as a smart, funny, determined, tough, skilled, articulate, and thoughtful young man tackling life with a wind-burned grin on his cheeks. Before attempting Everest, he had already climbed five of the Seven Summits. He knew the risks, he knew people died climbing mountains, and near an Everest base camp that point was brought home when he witnessed an avalanche that killed another climber in a section he and his dad had just hiked. Jordan also knew that the Everest’s unpredictable weather might not offer a window for them to complete their quest. This wasn’t some standardized test where success or failure was measured in penciled-in circles, this was LIFE. And Jordan was living it in all its glory, ambivalence, pain, and grief.

What am I getting at? If we’re going to write for kids—whether its fiction or nonfiction—we need to open ourselves to finding out who they really are and what inspires them deep down. We need to hush our own preconceptions, fears, and judgments and give them the space to speak their truths, together with supported opportunities to practice and develop their strengths and beliefs.

Are there aspects of young people’s lives where issues of safety and wellbeing are factors? Sure. But unless we listen to our kids and young readers with respect and affection, we might miss the hints about the fears they carry and help they want. We may not hear the first whisper of that important hope or ambition they are nurturing. Worse, with a discouraging word or hostile opinion we may stunt or kill a dream that could uniquely inspire their lives and the lives of others.

In years, Jordan was 13. But he had already earned his foothold at the top of the world. His dad and other important adults in his life listened and heard his dream. His dad made no bones about telling Jordan the quest he was choosing to pursue would be the most difficult challenge he had ever faced, then supported him as Jordan developed the skills, built physical and emotional strength, and took the steps to make it real.

And I wonder if that is what has annoyed so many people so about Jordan Romero's accomplishments: he’s making his dreams happen while so many of us older and wiser folks continue to neglect ours. Perhaps because, at some point, we became convinced no one was listening, and we stopped listening to ourselves.
Now is always a good time to listen to the kid.

Cool Quotes

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have dome them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly ... who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

-Theodore Roosevelt

"The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate."
-John Ruskin

It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know.
-Marcie Hersman

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.
- Paul Ehrlich

Nothing softeneth the Arrogance of our Nature like a
Mixture of some Frailties.
It is by them that we are best told,
that we must not strike too hard
upon others
because we ourselves do
so often deserve blows.
They pull our Rage by the sleeve
and whisper
Gentleness to us in our censures.


Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty
and frightened.
Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

“We are here and it is now. The way I see it is, after that, everything tends towards guesswork.”
-Didactylos in Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

"Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It's one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.

"You can do it."

-Sherman Alexie, from
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

"It is blissfully simple to strike a savvy, sophisticated pose by attacking someone else’s creations, but the old adage is right: Any fool can burn down a barn. Building one is something else again." -Martha Beck

"Live in the active voice rather than the passive. Think more about what you make happen than what is happening."
-William De Witt Hyde

"The soul of a child demands these mighty passions, opposition and adversity."
-Isak Dinesen

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, 'I'll try again tomorrow.'"
-Mary Anne Radmacher

"That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time."
-John Stuart Mill

"The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit."
-Wade Davis

"It is so easy to be cynical. It's an accurate reflection of reality. It's much harder; it takes a philosophical point of view, to be optimistic. You have to work at it every day. One of the joys of working with children is that they are still unspoiled by cynicism."
-Yo-Yo Ma

"Story means pleasure, as distinct from art; it would rather gratify than edify.
But stories also protect us from chaos, and maybe that’s what we, unblinkered at the end of the twentieth century, find ourselves craving. Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that we need stories—that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle, and end of our personal and collective trajectories. It is possible that narrative is as important to writing as the human body is to representational painting. We have returned to narratives—in many fields of knowledge—because it is impossible to live without them."
-Bill Buford, 1996

"Adulthood is the consequence of decisions made by a teenager."

"Kids are not stupid. They're just short." —Jack Prelutsky