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A Brief Review of "What Do You Do With an Idea?"

A few weeks back, I poked fun at a particularly atrocious kids' story I read (once) to Lulabelle.  In an effort to balance things out, this week I want to talk a little bit about one of the best kids' stories I've read.

What Do You Do With an Idea? is a brief, but touching story about dreams and perseverance.  It's a little tough to praise it without sounding corny or mushy, but the subject matter is inherently sentimental, so let's have at it.

It's a kids' book, so naturally there's not really that deep a plot.  Basically, a kid finds an idea one day - personified by a weird egg-like thing with feet - and wrestles with his insecurities about what to do with it.  Hide it?  Share it?  Ignore it?

Despite being warned / insulted by other people, he decides to nurture it.  And eventually, his idea transforms.  As it does, the book changes from muted brown-and-white to full color, and the narrator realizes what to do with an idea: "change the world."

It's a really sweet little book that never fails to make me tear up when I read it, which in turn never fails to make me feel embarrassed.  I'm hoping I'll get over that by the time Lulabelle is old enough to understand what crying is.  Otherwise we might be in for some very uncomfortable conversations before she's out of diapers.

I dare say that WDYDWaI is an important book.  It does a tremendous job of communicating some complicated and abstract material in a short amount of time, and it does so without being dishonest or cloying.  It's an incredible shield against the kind of nasty cynicism that can eat you from the inside, and for that reason, I think it's invaluable.

Dreams are finicky, and people even moreso.  Every generation looks at the one coming after it and thinks it's unprepared for the struggle of day-to-day life.  So we all unload our own failures and insecurities on our kids, and we tell them to "grow up."  We think we're doing something helpful because we're toughening them up - right?

And to some extent, that kind of pessimism is necessary.  You need to go into the world with your eyes open.  You need to know that success is hard to attain and even harder to maintain.  You need to know that everything worth anything requires hard work and sacrifice.  Blindly repeating simple tropes like "you're special" and "dreams come true" without any context is a recipe for disaster, and all the kids who think they'll do something great without any preparation will end up failing.

But where we all screw up - and where I'm pretty sure I got screwed up - is in thinking that dreams are somehow impossible simply because they are dreams.  That kind of defeatism is so much worse than blind optimism.  Nobody ever made history by sitting around saying, "Screw it, there's no point."  Hell, nobody ever made so much as a Pop-Tart with that kind of attitude.

We've set up some pretty awful problems for our kids.  I'm terrified for what Lulabelle is going to face when she's legally an adult and has to start figuring things out.  What are we leaving behind for her?  A city with a terrible rift between races that is made worse by ignorance and sensationalized media coverage, a country with the greatest imbalance between rich and poor in over a century, a world of poison, melting ice caps, mass extinction?

I don't want her going into that thinking she's doomed to fail.  I want her going into that knowing she can succeed if she puts out the right effort.  And if she has any ideas on how to make things better, I want her to chase them and make them take flight.

And that's why I love WDYDWaI.  It's not a simple story of "good things happen sometimes."  It's a story that tells you right up front that an idea takes effort and that many people - maybe even most - are going to laugh and tell you that you're wasting your time.  But if you're patient and tenacious and maybe even a little bit brave, you really can change everything.  That kind of spirit is something we all need a little more of.

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