Each Kindness

A library colleague (who has a terrific blog over at Great Kid Books) brought Each Kindness to my attention last fall and I finally got around to reading it for myself.  I am still reflecting on the book so what follows is less a review and more a reaction.  (For a great review of this title, head over here).

Each KindnessRipples in the water are a familiar metaphor for cause and effect, used here by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson to teach young Chloe the impact of small acts of kindness.

When the principal introduces new student Maya, hardly anyone in the class bothers to greet her.  Chloe does not return Maya’s smile when the girls are seated next to each other.  Soon Maya is nicknamed “Never New” by her classmates because her clothes, shoes and toys all seem to have belonged to others before they belonged to Maya.  On the playground, Maya plays by herself because no one will join her, despite her invitations.  When she is absent no one notices.  One day, the teacher gives a lesson about kindness, using a small stone dropped into a bowl of water to show the ripple effect of being nice.  When it is Chloe’s turn to share an example of how she has been kind, all she can think of is how she wasn’t kind to Maya.  Though Chloe makes up her mind to smile at Maya the next chance she gets, Chloe finds out that she won’t have the chance because Maya won’t be coming back to class.  The story ends with Chloe’s wistful regrets.

The Hundred DressesIn this way, Each Kindness is very different from the story it echoes, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.  Chloe does not experience the kind of closure that Peggy and Maddie find after Wanda moves away.  As an adult reader I appreciate Chloe’s less-than-happy ending, but I am hesitant to say that children will enjoy this conclusion.  I am not sure what to do with the first person narration from Chloe’s point of view, and I think that Maddie’s reflections on her behavior toward Wanda are much more insightful.   The steps Maddie takes to set things right prove cathartic.  Also, much is revealed about Wanda in the course of The Hundred Dresses, whereas Chloe learns nothing about Maya—did she have siblings?  Who were her parents?  What kind of strange food did she eat at lunch?  Why did she go away?

Unfortunately, Maya is forgettable as a character, and while Woodson’s point may be the lesson Chloe learns, I am unsure of the lesson a young reader will take away from the story.

Yet I think Each Kindness has potential, particularly as a concise variation of The Hundred Dresses.  As part of a larger character education curriculum or as a one-off lesson on kindness, this book subtly raises the issue of bullying from the bully’s perspective.

Discussion Points* for Each Kindness:

*I thought up these questions with 7-8 year olds in mind.  Please share your adaptations for younger or older children and/or the highlights of your discussions of the book.

  • Chloe is observant.  When the principal introduces Maya, Chloe notices that Maya’s coat is open, her clothes are “old and ragged,” and she wears broken “spring shoes” in the winter.  When you meet someone for the first time, what are some of the things that you notice?  What would you like other people to notice about you?
  • “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”  What does this saying mean to you?  Do you agree or disagree?  How would you change the saying to be about people?
  • Chloe and her friends whisper and laugh about the strange food Maya brings for lunch.  What kind of food would be strange for a kid to bring to school for lunch?
  • New clothes and toys seem to matter a lot to Maya’s classmates.  Why do you think they prefer new things?
  • Andrew seems to be taunting Chloe when he says she has a new friend and Chloe tells him that Maya is not her friend.  Chloe’s best friends are Kendra and Sophie.  How many friends should a person have?  With your school friends, how does it work if someone makes a new friend?  How does it work if someone does not want to be friends with someone else?
  • What are some kind things that you have done for others?
  • What emotions do you think Chloe feels…when it is her turn to drop the stone into the water?  …when she decides to smile at Maya? …when she learns Maya has moved away?

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I Swear: Thoughts about Bullying, Lane Davis’ novel, and a New Year’s Resolution

In the past I have posted a booklist on the topic of bullying, reviewed The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, and shared my thoughts on how books can help to open up dialogue on this sensitive topic.

This year, with No Name Calling Week coming quickly (January 21-25), I am thinking yet more deeply about why the issue of bullying is something I take so seriously as an educator, a parent, and as a human being.  Some life lessons came hard and fast over the past couple months and I think I’m still reeling.   Between the experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, cyberbullying, slut shaming and the limits of free speech are all on my mind.

Particularly when verbal bullying is involved—as I have learned firsthand—too many people, including teachers, school administrators and parents, are uncomfortable with the word “bullying.”  They are reluctant to identify problematic behaviors for what they are, downplaying the victims’ feelings, giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the victims are crying “wolf.”  In a culture in which people are so quick to defend their right to free speech, what happens to the rights of others to be free from verbal violence?

Last fall, I read I Swear, the debut novel from writer/actor Lane Davis.  Narrated alternately by four friends, the novel explores the fallout of a bullycide tragedy:  Leslie Gatlin, after enduring years of relentless bullying and systematic humiliation, kills herself in her parents’ garage.  Jake, perhaps Leslie’s only friend, is the last person to see her alive.  Jillian, Jake’s twin sister, is best friends with Macie Merrick, the mastermind behind the schemes, pranks, and cyberbullying that targeted Leslie. Katherine and Beth, Leslie’s classmates, each played her own part as well.  With Leslie’s parents pursuing a wrongful death suit, everyone is forced to confront an uncomfortable reality:  even if the truth comes to light, will it bring justice?

While all the expected characters round out the cast—the queen bee and her sidekicks, the wannabes, the love interest, and the bystander-turned-heroine—Davis does a remarkable job developing the standard players and in the right hands this fascinating novel could become a powerful screenplay.  As the events unfold, the narrators reflect on their reasons for going along with Macie’s cruelty to Leslie—what is it about Macie that compels both girls and guys to crave her approval?  How can any teenager be expected to find his or her own voice when so many others—peers’ and adults’—are quick to speak for them?

Unfortunately, some of the Macie Merricks we knew in high school are now adults who continue their vicious, brutal behavior in the workplace or other communities, always managing to come out on top because they’ve crushed the people in their way.  Recognizing this, Davis ends the story with all the complexity and ambiguity that suicide demands—and the novel is all the more successful for it.

As a teacher and parent, I swear, I will be vigilant in raising awareness of the realities of bullying.  To this end I’ve decided to study—concurrently with my library science work—character development.  I hope to integrate my background in morality and social justice and my extensive reading of young adult literature with strategies for teaching character and values.  I am excited to see what comes of it all.  My official New Year’s resolution is inspired by One, presented here by author Kathryn Otoshi:  I am only one educator, but one student, one classroom, one school at a time, I will help build communities that foster compassion and respect.

Upcoming:  a few more recommended titles on bullying.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

One of the projects in my high school creative writing class was a photo journalism assignment with a twist:  after taking pictures of an event, we sifted through the images and selected one or two to serve as the inspiration for a short story.  The only caveat was that the story had to be completely removed from the actual event in the photo.

Reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I kept thinking of that creative writing assignment and wondering if Riggs went through a similar process to come up with the plot and characters for this novel.   From authentic, vintage photographs culled from the personal archives of several special collectors comes an unexpected, well-plotted and highly unusual story peopled with fascinating characters.   This imaginative cross-over novel begs for a sequel.

When he was a child, Jacob believed the bizarre stories his Grandpa Portman told him about horrific monsters and he was enthralled with the strange photographs he shared of the levitating, invisible, and freakishly strong children with whom he’d once lived.  As time passes however, Jacob loses interest in fantastic tales and his family grows stronger in their opinion that Grandpa is losing his mind.  Then a shocking family tragedy occurs that sets Jacob on a path to visit the remote island where his grandfather once lived and uncover the secrets of the children’s home where the stories and photos originated.  Jacob’s discoveries will leave him doubting all he ever knew about his family history and believing in things he never dreamed possible.

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The House of the Scorpion

housescorpionI finished reading my first book of the New Year:  The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.  I found this book at one of my favorite used bookstores and couldn’t pass up such a great deal ($2!).  The House of the Scorpion, first published in 2002, is a Newbery Honor Book, a Printz Honor Book, and a National Book Award winner.

In some ways, this novel is a typical coming-of-age story in which the protagonist must reconcile his childhood experiences with his discovered identity and his hopes for the future.  However, this story comes with surprisingly intense themes—biomedical ethics, socio-economics, and geo-political borders—relevant to contemporary readers regardless of how long ago they were teenagers.

After reading, I’m pondering the following questions:  in a future where cloning is more than a mere possibility, what separates humans from animals?  When it comes to science and human life, where will we draw the line between what we can do and what we should do?  In a world of unfairly distributed wealth, what is a government’s responsibility to its people?  What is the people’s to their government?

In The House of the Scorpion, main character Matt is harvested from the womb of a cow after being cloned from the skin cells of 140-year-old Mateo Alacrán, known as El Patrón, the drug lord who controls the borderland between the United States and Aztlán.   When he is six years old, after spending his whole life in a small shack with his caretaker Celia, Matt discovers his true identity at the same time that he learns clones are less than animals, less even than the eejits who have computer chips implanted in their brains so that they are little more than zombies.   As he grows from a boy to a man, Matt demonstrates that he is intelligent, talented, empathetic and sincere.  But with his genetic code the exact copy of a ruthless, power-hungry man who hoards his wealth while his workers waste away, how can Matt ever prove himself to be human, let alone his own person?

This novel would make an excellent whole class read for a course on ethics or morality, and would also provide interesting discussion points for Mexican American history and politics.  Books with similar themes:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel, and Across the Universe by Beth Revis (science and ethics); Red Glass by Laura Resau, Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, and Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (culture, identity and self-discovery, geo-political borders).

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My Summer of Reading

ImageI didn’t mean to create a book tower but earlier in the summer I stacked a couple titles on my nightstand after I’d finished them and I’ve been adding on over the past several weeks.  Total so far: 35. Now if I could just discipline myself to write about what I read this whole reading blog thing could really come together for me…

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Triangles

At ALA Annual last weekend, I met Ellen Hopkins(!!) when she was signing for Simon and Schuster.  I first discovered Hopkins’ work in 2010, around the time of the incident in Humble, Texas when Hopkins’ invitation to speak at a literature festival was rescinded after a complaint about the content of her books.  I am not one to gush, but Ellen Hopkins is an Amazing writer.  Her novels in verse are unflinchingly honest, tackling important contemporary issues.  No, her books aren’t for everyone.  They’re gritty and raw and offer hopeful, not happy, endings, but anyone who works with teens or is parenting a teen should be aware of her work.  Standouts are Crank and Perfect, though all of her YA books are great.

I did not know that last year Hopkins published an adult novel, Triangles (newly available in paperback).  I just finished reading it and was blown away.  Did I say already that Hopkins is an Amazing writer?  I don’t make recommendations often and I know that many people prefer light reading.  Triangles is intense but perhaps the style—poetic verse, as all of Hopkins’ books are written—prevents the novel from feeling too heavy.  Some of my friends have been discussing 50 Shades of Grey recently (a book that doesn’t interest me in the least) and they may enjoy Triangles.

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The story opens at the beginning of a desert summer in a Nevada suburb.  Holly, bored mom of three, decides she wants to write erotica and justifies extramarital sex as “research.”  Andrea, Holly’s best friend, is a devoted single mom searching for a meaningful relationship with a man.  Marissa, Andrea’s sister, copes with both her daughter’s and her marriage’s terminal illness.  While the plot and characters may be a bit Desperate Housewives and perhaps less entertaining , the poetry of Triangles shows Hopkins at her best—beautiful language that gracefully handles sensitive issues without judgment.  Let me know if you read it; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Tough Cookies

It’s nearly Girl Scout cookie season!  Troops across the country are gearing up with kick-off events and lotteries for site sales.

Do you know where the money goes for each box of cookies sold?  $1 goes to the baker, $.65 goes directly to the troop, and the rest of the money goes to the troop’s GS council to support programs and facilities.

A few months ago I read Tough Cookies by former Girl Scouts USA CEO Kathy Cloninger.  If you judge the book by its cover (which we all do from time to time, admit it), you might think that it has nothing to do with you unless you have a Girl Scout in your household.  True, anyone affiliated with Girl Scouts should certainly read this book.  However, if you care about girls’ education in any way, there’s something in this book for you.  Or if you have even the slightest interest in the management of a non-profit organization, there’s something in this book for you.  In short, this book has a lot to offer beyond just the history of Girl Scout cookies.

Cloninger took over as CEO of GSUSA shortly after the turn of the century and recognized the need for the organization to revamp itself as the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouts approached (it’s this year, by the way).  Under her leadership, a nation-wide restructuring and re-branding took place, preserving some of the beloved traditions of Girl Scouts and adjusting for the challenges faced by modern girls.  Cloninger’s narrative is a testament to the accomplishments of generations of girl scouts, and to the tremendous potential of female leadership in the future.

Here is a link to a video of Cloninger’s appearance on Fox & Friends:  http://blog.girlscouts.org/2011/11/smart-cookies-what-girl-scouts-can.html

So whether your favorites are Samoas or Tagalongs, remember

And here’s a great video about the cookies:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeYCunQdWo4

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