Feb 8, 2021

TOGETHER WE GROW: Building a Peaceable Kingdom

 I've been called a romantic idealist. 

A cockeyed optimist.

I'm a silver-lining, glass-half-full person by nature.

I'm also a STRONGLY opinionated defender of human rights, civil rights, and any underdogs. I speak my mind freely and often (respectfully, but freely). As such, I am always invested in both changing minds and bending others to my opinion.

Despite that, I believe in listening to differences, to opinions other than my own. I have NO SPACE in my life for cruelty or violence or injustice, but I can make space for others, even if we are not on the same page.  How long that tolerance lasts can vary, but I'm not expected to spend every minute of my life with people who upset me, right? When it comes to people in need,  though, There is no litmus test that must be passed before attempting to offer help.

I can't be the only one who craves a peaceable kingdom, at least for short periods. We all find ourselves sharing this one and only planet, a country, a workplace, or a neighborhood.

Simon and Schuster 
Paula Wiseman Books, 2020

In that spirit, I share with you 

TOGETHER WE GROW, written in rhyming verse by novelist SUSAN VAUGHT and illustrated (glowingly, expressively)  by Kelly Murphy
The story is simple. A severe storm sends the farm animals into the barn. Wilder creatures follow after, but ones that often share outdoor spaces with the domesticated residents. Certainly not predators:
You get the idea.

Before the story launches, we can imagine a peaceable gathering through a look at the endpapers, which are some of the most informative and effective of any I've seen. They suggest the dramatic arc, the impending threats, the setting and mood. Both the troubled opening and the calm closing connect readers with familiar experiences:

Front end papers: TOGETHER WE GROW (Vaught/Murphy)

Final end papers: TOGETHER WE GROW (Vaught/Murphy)

You may have read (or written) a picture book story that is lovely (as this is), and wonderfully written and illustrated (as this is), but you completed it feeling that it was "very nice". Perhaps you may have felt  it was "slight" or "simple". On the other hand, if you've LOVED a seemingly simple story, it is likely because that story unfolded with layers and depth that were written and illustrated into it (as this is). 

That's how I feel about TOGETHER WE GROW. Before the minimal rhymed lines are launched in the opening text, we see that the pouring rain is flooding the den of Fox and her family. Fox investigates the barn, cautiously, from a broken window, seeking a safe haven. 

But, a FOX? A known ENEMY? In a crowded space with limited resources, among already anxious and storm-threatened beings, including those who have a RIGHT to the barn? Those who BELONG there?

Interior spread TOGETHER WE GROW (Vaught/Murphy)
"Go away! We're full today!"

The response of those huddled inside will not surprise you. Many would call theirs a perfectly reasonable reaction. Would you?

It only takes one to connect to the plight of Fox. 

To empathize. To take a risk.

Interior spread. TOGETHER WE GROW. (Vaught/Murphy)

It takes only ONE to offer hope.

Don't imagine that I've provided too many spoilers here, that there is no point in checking out the book for yourself now that I've revealed so much. I guarantee there are more depths to plumb. I have only scratched the surface. This is a book that will be beloved by the youngest toddlers, with character expressions and details and worry and joy and gratifying resolutions to explore again and again. It will also be loved by the adults who share it with them. 

It's also one of this picture books that I celebrate for use across all ages. Established readers will appreciate the beauty of the language, the complexity of the story arc, the relationships and perspectives of individual creatures, and the group dynamic among those seeking shelter. In fact, it invites analogous discussions about refugees and communities, including considerations, opinions, attitudes, alternative choices, and group dynamics.

Is this story realistic on the surface? Perhaps not. (If not, though, how did Noah supposedly manage competing interest on the Ark?)  

Are any among us able to become the ONE to offer hope? Are YOU?

Is this a book worth reading, sharing, discussing, and loving? 

In my opinionated view, yes. Please do.

Anchor in time: I've scheduled this for February 8, 2021, the week when the Senate impeachment trial begins. Too much of our nation's population continues to be polarized and hunkered down within like-minded camps. It feels like we live in a barn-door-slamming society. 

We are also beginning a second year of Covid time, with effective vaccines becoming possible but unequally available, schools operating in a variety of formats, and wide variation in availability of essential life resources to those who need them most. All too often, injustices of care and access in our society are based on race, age, and economic security. Self-interest also guides many who refuse to wear masks, socially distance, or otherwise protect the wider community.

I wonder if the wisdom of the animals could actually guide us. When needs are greatest, couldn't we agree to bring ourselves together? Not forever, not hoping to turn a snake into a sheep or a moose into a horse. Just consider working to tolerate each other with respect, knowing that underneath it all, we are all human. We are rational. We do not need to CHANGE each other, but simply abide each other.

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