Nov 28, 2019

Profiles in Kindness: Biographies of Everyday Heroes

As I've been reading and examining picture book biographies, I've noted the challenge to portray famous adult lives and their accomplishments while not losing touch with the children from whom they grew.Two recent books do that particularly well. 
Abrams Books for Young Readers
YOU ARE MY FRIEND: The Story of Mister Rogers and His Neighborhood uses words by Aimee Reid and pictures by Matt Phelan to reveal the deep roots of Fred Rogers- as a child. 
With gentle, minimal text and images, the well-known adult Fred Rogers comes to life on the page first  as a sickly, timid, lonely little boy. Everyday experiences reveal his gradually developed ability to entertain himself with imagination (and puppets), to listen intently to those he trusted, and to absorb and apply their wise words in his own life. 
He finally developed the confidence to consider running along a stone wall. When he dared to ask permission, the gathered adults told him no. But Grandpa McFeely said yes, and then affirmed Fred's courage when the boy came back with a skinned knee.
Unlike some biographic picture books, this one successfully keeps the focus on Fred as a child long enough for readers to identify with him as a child. They are able to see him as an ordinary boy, one who could be in their classroom or neighborhood. 
Only then do they see him move ahead to become an observant, curious adult with a keen eye for making the world better. In one important case, a pivotal event, he imagined how making the new world of children's television could make the whole world a better place for... children.
Of all the ways he opened the world to young viewers, Fred Rogers never lost sight of those childhood messages: Look for the helpers, I believe in you, and you are wonderful just the way you are. The ways in which this ordinary hero changed lives is immeasurable.  This picture book biography plants the seed of truth: anyone can be a hero. Everyone IS a hero when they live up to their best selves.
Added back matter and resources are accessible and add valuable details and insights.

Clarion Press
The second biography that impressed me is LITTLE LIBRARIES, BIG HEROES, written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by John Parra. The narrative begins with another small boy whose struggle had to do with reading. That was a particular pain for a boy whose mother was a reading teacher and loved books. 
We quickly learn that she saw beyond her son's struggles and did not measure his worth by fluency. Instead she instilled a magical message in her son, Todd Bol, a seemingly ordinary boy. She shared her belief that he was gifted, that he could change the world, that he could do anything.
He never forgot that.
This book is as much a biography of the message as it is of Todd or any of the other cameo heroes included. Each had special gifts, ways of becoming heroes. 
This is the story behind the global movement that resulted in Little Free Libraries being built, registered, filled, and stewarded by people who love books and reading as much as Todd's mother did.
It is the story of Todd's search, as an adult, for a way to move beyond sadness when his mother died. To honor her, he decided to build and fill and steward a streetside little free library in her memory. 
This is also the story of Todd never giving up, believing his mother's message about making a difference. He moved his effort into nearby towns in Wisconsin with the help of a big-thinking buddy and volunteers, then on into public awareness, then on into communities around the country and around the world as his message spread.
It also offers anecdotes of  just a few everyday people who took on the role of Little Free Library stewards in their own communities, celebrating individuals for bringing the love of books and reading to their neighbors. Some of those stewards launched their efforts as  young as six years old.
In this book, too, the added details and resources in back matter elevate an inspiring story to nonfiction excellence and mentor writing. Content includes added details, but also notes links to learn more about this global effort. The nonprofit organization website allows you to explore a world map of active locations, find more individual stories, and learn how to become a steward in your own neighborhood.

How we define our heroes probably defines us.  

We sometimes urge kids to look beyond media-enhanced superheroes to recognize admirable folks in their midst, the ones who make a daily effort to live up to and exceed the responsibilities of life. 
Not often enough, I'm afraid.
With kids, that effort often yields a more fully developed understanding of role models, of leaders, of  admirable human qualities. Young people may interview and write about those close-at hand heroes, too.

As we pause in gratitude for all that we have, as we gather today and throughout the upcoming holidays, I urge you to share stories of the personal heroes you found in your own lives, especially when you were very young. Share some stories of how Mr. Rogers was a part of your life.

After a full meal, gather up some gently loved books to exchange and take a walk to a Little Free Library near you. (Check the map!) If there is none near you, why not open a conversation about becoming an steward in your own front yard. 

And remember, before stumbling into heated or hurtful conversations, that the young ones gathered round are watching, listening, and absorbing what you say and do. What they see and hear, directly and indirectly, will shape who they one day become. 
As Fred's Grandpa McFeely told him, what he always remembered and grew up to share, "You are wonderful just the way you are."

Happy Thanksgiving.

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