Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Each Kindness

By  Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
$16.99, ages 5-8, 32 pages

A school girl is overcome by regret when she loses her chance to apologize to a classmate she was mean to, in this extraordinary picture book.

Told from the perspective of a child who bullies, the story reveals how painful it can be to hurt someone and how paralyzing it is when you can no longer say you're sorry.

Acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson draws from a time when she was unkind and also shows that at some point everyone behaves badly and must face the ugliness inside of them.

When a new girl named Maya starts school, Chloe refuses to even return her smile. The girl's clothes are ragged and the class ignores her, so Chloe does too. She scoots her desk away from Maya to try to separate herself.

As the days go by, Chloe's cool reserve grows into disdain, as she and her two close friends whisper secrets behind Maya's back, and make fun of her clothes and lunch. Maya must hear what they say, yet she is kind and tries to win them over.

Day after day Maya comes up to the girls, holds out what she brought to school to share (a set of jacks, pick-up sticks or a tattered doll) and asks if they will play with her. And each time, the girls refuse and stay locked in their ugly moods.

They put on airs and seem to take delight in hurting her. At one point, a cool satisfied look comes over their faces as they follow Maya walking away from them. Maya's brow is now creased with sadness and readers' hearts sink too.

Then one day, Maya doesn't come to school and Chloe's teacher gives a lesson about kindness. Ms. Albert has her class gather around a big bowl of water, and she drops in a stone and talks about how the waves ripple out.

"This is what kindness does," she tells them. "Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world." Afterward, Ms. Albert asks each student to drop in a stone and share what nice things they've done -- only Chloe can't think of any.

It is a pivotal moment and illustrator E. B. Lewis angles down on Chloe from above. He's whited out the background to put readers' focus on Chloe, who now stares down ashamedly at the stone.

Suddenly it's as if all of Chloe's mean behavior rushes back to her and she can think of little else but how to make things better with Maya. But where is Maya? She's still not come back to school.

"Each morning, I walked to school slowly, hoping this would be the day Maya returned and she'd look at me and smile," Chloe says. "I promised myself this would be the day I smile back."

But the opportunity never comes and one day, Ms. Albert announces that Maya's family has moved away and Chloe's throat fills with all the things she wished she would have said to her.

That afternoon, Chloe walks home alone, her eyes cast down to the ground. On the way, she stops at a pond, squats down on the bank and begins tossing in small stones over and over, and watches how the ripples go out and way.

"Like each kindness -- done and not done," Woodson writes. "Like every girl somewhere -- holding a small gift out to someone and that someone turning away from it." And Chloe realizes her chance to be kind to Maya "is becoming more and more forever gone."

Chloe's painful, yet empowering story shows readers not only how awful it feels to be unkind, but how important is to be nice as much as they can. Chloe's pain of being mean is compounded by her inability to say she's sorry.

The book also enlightens like few others have, by showing that bullying can come from anyone, even from kids who try to be good. As Woodson put it in an interview, the capacity to hurt others "exists in all of us."

"I think it's easier for the world to say, 'That person is a bully and THAT person is being bullied,'" she continued. "But the truth is, it's much more complicated than that and until we can each take an internal look, we're not going to understand the enormity of…of anything."

Celebrated illustrator Lewis, who collaborated with Woodson on two other award-winning books, does a masterful job at echoing Woodson's words. He seems to have an intuitive sense of how to express deeply felt emotion and bares everything the characters are feeling in his watercolors.

As a result, characters' emotions seem to sizzle on the page and readers may feel as if they're also welling up inside of them.

This is a brilliantly handled book that explores bullying without being judgmental -- and then inspires readers to be brave, own up to their mistakes, and always try, every day, to do something nice for someone else.

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