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Festival of Books: How art helps kids transcend their tough realities

How children see their neighborhoods and share perceptions, through the lens of a camera

At first glance, a photo of empty railroad tracks in Los Angeles comes off as a child’s half-hearted effort to complete an assignment.

"When I saw this I thought, 'Oh, bad camera work, one side is dark,'" author Elaine Bell Kaplan said during an "Empowering Youth Through Art" panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Saturday.

She was wrong. Cesar, 12, took that picture for a reason. Part of PhotoVoice, an organization that helps disadvantaged communities tells their stories, Cesar snapped a shot that he felt captured hope.

Cesar’s shadow falls on the side of the photo; his small body is diminutive compared to the track on his left. One side of the railroad is covered in shade; the bushy trees are dark. But the palm trees on the right stand tall, basking in the sunshine.

"It’s about that we can choose our path," Cesar told Kaplan after he took the photo. "The dark or the light, we can choose."

Art is about relationships, Sasha Anawalt, director of USC Annenberg Master's Program in Arts Journalism, said at the panel. The photos are an example of that.

Art can also change minds, she said.

"Somewhere, somehow you hope you can make somebody see something a little bit different," Anawalt said.

Kaplan said she hopes the children’s photos will do just that by changing people’s perceptions. The kids are not "ghetto thugs,"she said. Maybe the photos will help others see that.

"This stereotype is devastating to these kids. It criminalizes them," Kaplan said. “Simply give a kid a camera and let a kid go out and tell you a story from their perspective."

Check out the Festival of Books schedule for this weekend.

MORE FROM THE FESTIVAL OF BOOKS:

YA authors' love of 'firsts'

Maria Bello talks about 'Love Is Love'

'Books spawn change,' Times' Austin Beutner says

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Twitter: @ParviniParlance

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