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Friday, December 21, 2012

Each Kindness, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 5 and up

"The weeks passed. Every day, we whispered about Maya, laughing at her clothes, her shoes, the strange food she brought for lunch. Some days, Maya held out her hand to show us what she brought to school - a deck of cards, pick up sticks, a small tattered doll."

This is both a 'mirror' and a 'window' book. I think those who read it, or hear it, will find themselves thinking about their own actions and the actions of others. When they look in the mirror, they might see themselves and consider how their actions (no matter how small they are) have a ripple effect in their world. When they look out the window, they may be able to see exactly what is happening to a child who is being bullied and begin to understand the heartbreak felt.

It is Chloe's voice we hear as we read. She is in her classroom when the new girl arrives. Maya is quiet and unwilling to look up and into the eyes of her new classmates. Her clothing is old, her shoes broken. The only place for her to sit is in the desk next to Chloe's. Chloe is resolute in her refusal to look Maya's way or to interact with her. There is no smiling, no invitation offered to play, no acknowledgement that Maya has feelings. Despite Maya's attempts to make friends, the other girls ignore her.

Then, one day, Maya's seat is empty. A shrewd teacher determines to teach a gentle lesson about kindness by showing her students how a pebble dropped in water causes ripples to form and to spread out from the center. She asks her students to share an act of kindness. When it's Chloe's turn to drop the pebble and share, she has nothing to say.

Chloe's mind fills with the many times she might have been kind to Maya. If only she had a chance to smile back, she would do so. She waits for Maya to return to school so that she can right the wrongs.
When the teacher tells the class that Maya has moved on, Chloe must live with what she has done. Girls are very good at this type of bullying...ignore another student and dismiss them as irrelevant or unacceptable. It is a story that needs to be shared to try to help them understand that their actions do have consequences, sometimes for themselves. Chloe will not get the chance to change how she treated Maya; she may think twice the next time someone new comes to the classroom door.

This pairing of author and artist is a beautiful thing to see for a second time. The Other Side (Putnam, 2002) has a forever place on my 'keeper' shelf and remains a story that I return to often for sharing.
E. B. Lewis fashions a very realistic look at Maya's world as she first arrives and then tries to thrive in a new classroom with new classmates. We are made aware of how isolated she feels every day as she is first ignored, then teased by unfeeling classmates. She is alone at her desk, in the cafeteria, on the playground.  When Maya is gone and the pebbles dropped, it is Chloe who is alone, holding the rock she could not drop.

This is one of the few books for young readers that does not end well, and is sure to spark much discussion in capable hands. We know how Chloe feels, but can only imagine the same for Maya. Stepping into an illustration (putting yourself into that person's place) may offer ideas for sharing the feelings being felt. There is so much truth and emotion in the words and pictures. We are blessed to have such truly brilliant artists making picture books that will long live in our collective memory and that are sure to impact our thinking.

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