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Beyond the Frame



November 30, 2023



By Leah Henderson, writing for children and young adults faculty



Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the varying ways we step into story. Depict a world, reimagine it, or share our own world’s reality. But I often find, whether reading fiction or nonfiction, writers sometimes overlook seeing wider than the spaces and experiences at the center of their stories—the stories that are familiar, comfortable, or understood. I’m not saying writers don’t challenge themselves, of course we do, but we often don’t go beyond a world we know (even when creating a fictitious one).


From a very young age, I loved getting lost in stories, especially those of people’s lives or of pivotal moments in history. Growing up, my family would travel to spaces and places around the world, learning about these stories. Many of which I never heard in school or read in books—about extraordinary people and moments rarely spotlighted. Curious me would always ask my parents how come I’d never been told about these events or individuals and I was often disappointed by their answers.


Then one day my mom said something very simple but, to my twelve-year-old ears (and even now), something profound. She said because people rarely look beyond the frame. I’ll be honest, at first I had no clue what she meant, but she went on to explain. And now, no matter what I am writing, her words remain at the forefront of my mind and I try and challenge myself to look beyond the frame.


credit: Ione Morton

Much like a picture frame creates a border, which contains or houses a specific scene, the scope of our stories are framed too. And because of this, we need to remember to look to the left and right, above and below, to the people, histories, and experiences beyond the frame of the story we are centering and sharing. Perspectives that can add depth and richness to the moment or people discussed or highlighted within our frames. Growing up, repeatedly the stories highlighted by others did not include people that looked like me, even though Black people often effected and contributed to the featured perspective within the frames of history.


As a writer, I have taken my mother’s words further, to include an even larger scope. So when I write, I always try to look beyond the frame of my own story and ask myself various questions to start exploring broader perspectives. First, I’ll identify groups and experiences that surround the frame of my work (or if completely fictionalized—that could); those that would also be affected by what occurs within the frame.


Then I ask:

  1. How does/did the event centered in my story play a role in their everyday?

  2. Where can I include their voice and perspective to enrich the main focus of the story?

  3. Would the inclusion shift the focus of the work in a disjointed way? If so, how can I still note the perspective and stay true to the moment and experiences?

  4. Have I captured authentic (or varied) perspectives by what is included in the overall work? If not, where could I explore deeper?

  5. Am I able to give an accurate voice to the often overlooked? If not, what do I need to do in order to do so?


Every question, discovery (and all of the research undertaken) may not serve every piece you write, but for me something in the process always helps to expand my thinking on a character, a community, or a perspective, and I hope the same may be true for you too.


 

Leah Henderson is the author of many critically-acclaimed books for young readers, including The Courage of the Little Hummingbird, The Magic in Changing Your Stars, and Together We March. She has written for the New York Times Book Review and been a contributing author for the Insights column in Voices from the Middle, the journal of The National Council of Teachers of English. Leah teaches in the graduate writing program at Spalding University. You can learn more about her and her writing at leahhendersonbooks.com.





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