8 Magical Stories Of How Peace Literature Changes Culture – And Lives
By Rivera Sun
Four hours per day, six days per week, I take action for peace. It may not look like your typical nonviolent action – I don’t hold signs or block the gates of military bases. The way I wage peace is by writing. I pick up the pen that is supposedly mightier than the sword, and use novels to shift our culture away from war and violence. It’s a Sisyphean task, a Herculean effort, and a David and Goliath battle, for sure. Yet, if you recognized even one of those references, you understand why stories matter so deeply to our world.
Myths, epics, legends, folktales: these are what the human imagination is woven from. These kinds of stories influence how we see the world, and how we act in our lives. Yet, in large part, our epics teach that violence is a good way to solve our conflicts. War is the background upon which heroes prove their valor. Even in Hollywood today, we are bombarded with narratives of violent heroism.
If we don’t change these stories, they’ll kill us.
For nearly 10 years, I’ve been on a writer’s mission to prove that good stories do not require violence to deliver an action-packed, heart-thrilling adventure. First, I wrote the Dandelion Trilogy which features a nonviolent movement for change in a slightly fictionalized United States. Then I turned an eye to younger readers with the award-winning Ari Ara Series. Ari Ara is a young girl of mixed background. She is chosen as the apprentice in the Way Between, a blend of what we might describe as an aikido-like (non)martial art, nonviolent action skills, and peacebuilding practices. This series is fantasy – a genre overwhelmingly marked by its use of violence and warfare – but in these novels, the heroine doesn’t win wars . . . she stops them. Instead of leading an armed uprising (like the protagonists of the Hunger Games and so many others), she taps into the most effective forms of social change: nonviolent action. With her friends, she tackles bullies, racial injustice, migrant worker abuses, militarism, warmongering, gender imbalances, and more.
The series has won praise from parents, educators, and peace professionals alike. But it is the following collection of true stories about young readers that give the series its highest praise. These stories show that the Ari Ara Series activates the imagination in ways that change the readers’ hearts, lives, and indeed, the world.
#1 Playing The Way Between In the Backyard
How many times have we spotted the kids in the backyard stick-fighting or having imaginary Star Wars battles? Well, after reading The Way Between, multiple parents reported seeing their kids re-enacting the scenes in the book in the backyard, imagining themselves waging peace instead of war. Another mother told me she caught her daughter standing on one foot in the kitchen – just like Ari Ara in the first novel – building her skills in balance, perseverance, and focus. Young readers easily identify with stories about studying and learning; the motif of the hero-in-training captures the imagination of young readers. Only, in these novels, the story directs the reader’s mind toward the many ways we can build our skills for nonviolence and peace.
#2 Dismantling Border Walls
In The Adventures of Alaren, a collection of fictional folktales telling the legends of the peacebuilders in Ari Ara’s world, there is a short story called The Brother’s Wall. It tells the tale of a village that dismantles a wall built by feuding kings and uses the stones to build other things. After reading it, a 12 year old boy emailed President Biden with an idea: the federal government should tear down the wall Trump built between the US and Mexico, and use the materials to build housing for the homeless. According to his grandmother, who relayed this story to me, officials “responded immediately and said they liked the idea and that they would keep it in mind for future policy discussions. He responded to add that his idea offered them a way to show that they are keeping families together, not separating them.” Stories that teach us conflict resolution and social justice often inspire ideas for creative solutions to our world’s pressing problems.
#3 Refusing To Study Violence
Repeatedly in the series, Ari Ara is told to practice fighting or play war games by teachers who support the armies. Each time, she refuses to engage in attar (the word for war and violence). After reading one of these scenes, an elementary school student echoed Ari Ara’s stance during a virtual Phys-Ed class. When the students were supposed to participate in a “ninja workout”, the 10-year-old said, “I follow the Way Between, not attar!“
#4 Practicing With Dad
You know a novel has captured the reader’s imagination when they not only daydream about the scenes, they invite others into their games. A mother sent me an email one day, enthusing about how her daughter asked her father to “play the Way Between” with her. Together, the two tried to work out the moves described in the books. Child development experts have long understood how formative these kinds of games are for young people. They develop both motor skills and neural pathways. If these come from exercises in peace rather than violence, so much the better, for we need to train our fellow humans to wage peace.
#5 Ditching Video Games For Books
Teenage boys are an at-risk population for adopting violence and enlisting in the military. They are bombarded with the propaganda of the military-industrial complex, and targeted with video games as recruitment tools. So, it’s a big deal when two teenage boys eschew their obsession with video games in order to binge-read the Ari Ara Series, as one parent told me. It shows that a compelling story can intervene in the habits of the culture of violence. These types of stories remind readers that another path is possible, that war is not inevitable, and that violence is far from the only – or best – option.
#6 Skits & Folktales
From page to stage, a teacher has turned The Adventures of Alaren into a teaching tool that lets students stand in the footsteps of peace team members, inter-positioning scenarios, and peacebuilding endeavors. His assignment is to read one of these fictional short stories – and the real life example it’s inspired by – and convert the tale into a skit that can be performed in the classroom. This is a powerful example of how educators can use these books to offer creative and engaging peace education.
#7 Summer Camp
Harry Potter summer camps abound – and who can argue with the joy of pretending to enroll at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, shouting Expelliarmus!, and holding Quidditch matches on broomsticks? In a similar vein, a group of parents and homeschooling educators are working on a plan to create a summer camp program around the Ari Ara Series, using the magic of these stories to teach peace. The possibilities in this concept are endless – and they show how a good story can unleash a whole world of adventures, not to mention opportunities to teach peace education.
#8 Halloween Costumes
This is my favorite story of how the Ari Ara Series is bringing peace and nonviolence to life. For Halloween, a pair of friends decided to dress up as Ari Ara (black cloak, tunic, knee-high boots) and the street urchin Rill (colorfully patched vest and dozens of braids) from The Lost Heir, the second novel in the series. Whenever someone asked them what they were, they’d launch into a synopsis of the novel, including a description of how the two friends used nonviolent action to win a labor struggle. When a good book makes its way into other aspects of popular culture, you know you’re shifting hearts and minds.
In a world facing drones, nukes, and trillion dollar war budgets, the idea that my writings can counter the culture of violence is heartening. Scribbling away each day, these anecdotes shared by teachers, parents, and readers remind me that stories are powerful and that this form of peace action is making a difference. But I don’t do it alone – so many people help spread the word about these novels, recommending them to youth, parents, and teachers. This is another way of taking action for a culture of peace. It’s what turns 8 stories into 80,000 stories. It’s what shifts a few tales into a cultural movement. It’s how we use good books to actually change the world.
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Author/Activist Rivera Sun has written numerous books and novels, including the Dandelion Trilogy and the Ari Ara Series. She is the editor of Nonviolence News and a nationwide trainer in strategy for nonviolent movements. www.riverasun.com