Jun 3, 2023

ONE SMALL THING: The Power of Kindness


 On this post-holiday, quiet weekend, I bring you a "quiet book" that emanates power and grace. ONE SMALL THING is written by Marsha Diane Arnold and illustrated by Laura Watkins. The quotation marks around "quiet book" are intentional, in that they are so often written by various folks in the picture book business (and it IS a business) in declining submissions (isn't that a kinder word choice than rejection?) that do not involve some frantic or antic actions. "Quiet books" don't sell as strongly as, say, a book about robots or superheroes or magic. And yet, a quiet book in the hands of a "STORYMAGICIAN",  as Arnold's website subheading rightly tags her, can transform lives. I know of no greater superpower than that.
This latest offering from Arnold is launched by a tragedy--  Raccoon's home has burned. The comfort begins immediately, first in knowing that Raccoon is safe, has  supportive friends, and pet Cricket escaped, although is now lost. 
This opening alone would have hooked me, since there were more than a few students in my teaching career, of many ages, who had survived such a trauma. The ultimate "it's not so bad" sense of comfort among friends features as an inadequate way many of us address the immediate and lasting pain and loss of such an event. Would "shelter" of any kind ever feel as safe as it once did? Would the loss of keepsakes and photos and... just the capacity to return to a place of memories... ever ease? As the rest of the community observed their friend recovering, would the impulse to comfort dissolve into daily duties, assuming the one who was traumatized would be as "good as new"?
This seemingly simple story opens with sunny endpapers, suggesting such a casually happy ending. Minimal but marvelous text reveals that those comforting friends are buzzing about this sad occurrence. Each "thank goodness" informs readers of reasons to be grateful despite the losses. They also reveal Raccoon's personality, how he loved living along the river, how his feet were  burned "a bit", and that "silly" cricket jumped away to safety but now no one knows where it is. Who has a pet cricket anyway? 
The illustrator informs us, too, that these are heartfelt words of comfort among friends who ache for Raccoon's loss, but quickly console themselves that all is well and they can return to their own lives. These very appealing and authentic, familiar woodland animals display expressions that  even the very young will recognize and empathize with throughout, another powerful touch that allows such a special book to reach audiences from preverbal to teens and beyond. They also represent the typical range of reactions among friends, from the practical problem-solvers, to the overly sensitive, to those who expect someone else to help, to those who feel helpless, to the grumbler who sees this all as unnecessary fussing. As an adult reader I've witnessed (and experienced) such reactions to tragedy, cringing at the thought that these generally result in nothing being done. 
And that is precisely how Arnold proceeds, allowing each character to return to daily life with no updates on Raccoon, at first. First, in fact, we observe a series of double spreads in which we join each friend in their own own homes/gardens, rich with detail and interests and habits that invite us to linger, to examine closely how the individual has found safety,  comfort, and shelter from a sometimes harsh world outside. Each, in their own way, realizes that they cannot "fix" Raccoon's situation but is able to offer ONE SMALL THING that might be welcomed. Only as those conclusions are reached does Beaver find Raccoon soaking his burned feet in the river, leading him to a new home where the collected friends and their SMALL THINGS are no longer ONE. In fact, such individual acts create a new ONE-ness among them that satisfies thoroughly.
I am purposely not providing details of such small things they chose, not only to avoid spoiling the story (that couldn't happen) but to allow readers to realize how truly SMALL those decisions were but how enormously powerful each decision and action proved to be. 
Most importantly, these combined small things, though unplanned efforts, gave an immeasurably large result. Or at least, as Badger admits, "It was a little something." Only as this gratifying ending occurred and I closed the back cover did I realize that those end papers were not exactly "sunny". Such losses and pain are never gone from us. They are, in fact, revealed in the glow of the day that shows on the cover. I imagined that was the dawn of the day of the tragedy. Iinstead, after seeing the expressions of the friends and the lingering longing of Raccoon, I think those endpapers reflect a blend of dusk with honey and butter and safety and comfort, all of which wrap around a community to offer hope. 
Arnold has proven herself worthy of that STORYMAGICIAN title, as I observed in reviews of LIGHTS OUT, HERE, and LOST AND FOUND, HERE. Each is, in fact, a "quiet book", a blend of story and format and visual narrative that resonates at first reading, calls for return readings, echoing throughout succeeding days and years. My recent move is into an area that has very bright street lights, one of which is outside my living space. I noted that it is using energy-smart bulbs, but not before I noted that the fixtures are designed to cast light down to the streets, blocking it from lighting the sky. I'm aware of DARK SKY activists, and was concerned before reading LIGHTS OUT. Even so, my notice of that  fixture design led me to remember those animals and their journey with a smile on their behalf. Now that's power. 
Do one small thing, please. Begin by finding and reading this book. Then share it with someone. Then carry it forward in your mind and heart, turning kind thoughts and worry into actions for those in need, whether friend or stranger. KINDNESS is not a concept, it is verb.And it is NOT a small thing.

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