May 20, 2018

Be Kind: a Message For Everyone

After decades of teaching, I'll be the first to say that "Be Kind" is not the simple admonition it seems to be. In fact, I recall a school campaign that featured "DO KIND____" in posters and in lessons in an attempt to emphasize that actions speak louder than words or intentions. The grammatical quirkiness of that phrase diluted its impact, in my opinion  but the message mattered and relates to the content of a new picture book that I believe should be in every home, classroom, and library.
Roaring Book Press, 2018
Pat Zietlow Miller's recent and widely acclaimed release, BE KIND, features an aware and intentional main character, one who actively attempts to "be kind". As with the stumbling school campaign slogan above that required an object for its verb, this kind character has an object of the intent: a classmate who is upset by a simple accident, spilled grape juice. 
When an initial attempt at support is misunderstood, the wannabe-kind youngster makes an effort to observe, consider, and analyze ways that kindness is (or isn't) effective. Those examples, the progression of observations, and the conclusions are entirely child-friendly but also provide dense content for discussions about ways individual acts can affect others' lives. 
Illustrator Jen Hill has provides visual spotlights throughout the book, offering a subtle reminders to focus on both sides of the kindness equation. The reflections of the main character convey not just intention but persistence, not a sense of his/her own desire to be kind, but on the needs of the classmate. I used the gender-optional pronouns because some young readers have asked- is it a girl or a boy? Hill's gender-ambiguous illustration allows all readers to see themselves in the story, and to answer the questions for themselves: Who do you think it is? What difference would it make which way you see the child? Does assigning an identity affect the story? The universality of the story shines through from the book jacket front to back.
Schwartz and Wade Books, 2018

Two other picture books to explore while sharing BE KIND stress similar messages about individual acts that have direct objects in classmates in need of comfort or support. A recent one is I WALK WITH VANESSA: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness, created and illustrated by Kerascoet
This wordless book is told in page after page of spot illustrations on pure white background. New girl Vanessa's family moves into the neighborhood on the title page, and remains alone throughout the day. she doesn't initiate contact, but no one else does, either. From the first page our "kind" classmate notices everything, including the boy who says something mean to Vanessa as she walks home alone. The caring classmate tells her friends, notices which house Vanessa lives in, and then worries about her through the evening and overnight. At breakfast she has a thought and runs to Vanessa's house to walk with her to school. Along the way they are joined by other classmates and that one simple act allows Vanessa to feel welcome in her new school. 
As in BE KIND, this caring character invests in the process of empathizing and problem solving, keeping the object of her concern foremost in her efforts. 
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013

Finally, include in your sharing and discussions a picture book from a few years ago, THE INVISIBLE BOY, written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patrice Barton. This subtle story allows the kindness to spring from the boy who has been ignored to the point of invisibility. The illustration has incredibly potent emotional impact, as the early pages reveal a boy who is generally unseen by peers- the last chosen in a game, ignored during activities, etc., making him fade to sadly pastel invisibility. 
A new boy arrives in class, a Korean student, who is first questioned then teased by peers for the names of and unusual forms of his lunchbox foods. In an exemplary twist, it's invisible boy who empathizes and writes a supportive note to his new classmate. As they become friends and participate in class activities, the others interact and the colors and definition of the boy return.

In each of these titles, readers can see themselves in both sides of the equations. Each also portrays specific, thoughtful, but simple responses to a peer in need of comfort. All too often, young (and old) may define themselves as kind because they contribute to a food drive or create a May basket to hang on a neighborhood doorknob. All are worthy efforts, as is the writing of checks in response to disasters. But these books remind us all that kindness requires attention to the title things, the individuals around us who may be sitting alone, having a bad day, or just in need of a smile and hello. 
As important as these books are for young readers, I'm convinced they matter even more for middle grade, teen, and adult readers. I hope you'll read them and help me spread the word to every age.

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Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.