Throughout this week, there's a picture that I just can't shake. A kid, smiling at the camera, looking dapper and happy in their vest. A picture that reminds me it's possible to miss someone who you've never met. Grieve someone you've never met. Wish you could turn back time and prevent the seemingly unpreventable.
That kid is Nex Benedict, an indigenous nonbinary teen who was killed in Oklahoma this last week. They died after a school fight, during which they and a trans friend were attacked by peers in a school bathroom. Their story is all over the internet, and there's been an outpouring of grief and rage and love.
When people ask why it's important to write about marginalized and intersectional identities in children's literature, look no further than Nex, and the millions of kids like them. The kids like me. As a kid, I didn't have words for all the things that I was--ADHD and autistic and queer and Arab-American, a kid who struggled with mental health and would become disabled as a young adult. I didn't have the words because no one gave them to me. But I knew I was different. And I often felt so lonely and just plain wrong because of it. But because I didn't have the words, in my mind, there was only one person to blame--me.
This is why it's important to not just be accepting of marginalized and intersectional identities as writers for kids, but also embrace, uplift, and purposely include these voices in our work. In today's world, it's not just "nice" for kids to see themselves in the books they read--it is a matter of life and death.
Reading Nex's story over and over again, I've had to grapple with the truth that this was done to them by their own peers--by teenage girls. Kids themselves, who had to have been so overcome with fear and shame and anger to lash out at what they didn't understand. Kids who had to get those messages of fear and anger somewhere--from the adults in their lives. The same adults who don't want diverse books in classrooms and libraries.
And here's the often overlooked fact--it's just as vital to champion and write books about intersectional and marginalized identities for the kids that hurt Nex. Because this world is not kind to people like me, and kids like Nex. And as important as it is for kids to be able to see themselves in books, to know they're not alone and not wrong for being who they are, it's also just as vital to have these books to help people who are afraid of what they don't understand or ashamed of their own insecurities finally be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes.
Because that's the magic of story, right? It helps us feel more human, and helps us understand the beauty and complexity of everyone else, being human in their own unique ways.
So please. For kids like Nex, who are also nonbinary, or indigenous, or raised by a grandparent, or are bullied, or who also love cats and video games and reading and Minecraft and friendship bracelets--write these stories. Write your own stories. And if you don't feel comfortable writing an own voices narrative, then include complex, 3D, fully-fledged secondary characters with these identities and experiences.
We can't afford not to be visible. And if not you personally, then at least your stories, if you are safe enough to do so. All authenticity is a risk. But it's a risk I'm willing to take. Because as we all know, stories can change the world.
We love you, Nex. And we won't forget. I promise.
About the Author
Ashley Wilda is an Arab-American, neurodivergent, queer, disabled writer and mental health advocate living in eastern Virginia. Their debut novel The Night Fox, a YA magical realism tale written in poetry and prose about mental health and nature, was published in 2023 with Penguin Random House, and her following YA contemporary novel, Cleave, will be published by Penguin in 2026. They hold an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In addition to writing, they love rock climbing, exploring the mountains, creating art, and adventuring with their husband, Ethan, and rescue pup, Phoenix. Find Ash on Instagram: @ashleywilda_ or at www.ashleywilda.com.