January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments
(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)
A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).
When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.
I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:
This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.
Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!
I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.
My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.
The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.
The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.
The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.
A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.
An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?
But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)
Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”
And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”
And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.
Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.
What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.
Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?
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Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 20, 2016 § 3 Comments
Invoking the eloquent and emotionally-charged words of Michelle Obama last week, I must echo that what is happening in our country right now has “shaken me to my core.” It’s not just the vulgar “locker room” banter from a certain presidential candidate, loaded language that has awakened sordid memories of my own experience with sexual aggression and objectification—and made me suddenly painfully aware that my own daughter will likely walk a similar and sometimes terrifying path.
It’s not just the blatant hostility slathered across so many of the election signs lining our highways, obscene graphics and words that render me speechless as I struggle to explain to my inquiring children why a certain presidential candidate would be depicted on a billboard as the Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s not just the new jumpiness that I feel this week, with talk of impending riots following Election Day, of conspiracy theories and refusals to concede, and of indirect but horrifying calls for assassination.
It’s all of this put together: the vitriolic rhetoric, the fear mongering, the way we have divided as a country and turned on one another. If we complain, we are told by defenders: calm down, these are just words. Just bragging. Just jokes. Just ego.
This not what our country is about, I say to my children. These are not the values upon which our country was built: values of decency, of tolerance, of humility, of freedom. A country that harbors knowledge, that respects facts and invites intellectual discourse. A place where we can agree to disagree and do it with grown-up words and handshakes.
We can do better than this.
In my quest to cleanse our family from the oppugnancy of this election—because, if only for the sake of self-preservation, I have to believe it can be done—I was fortunate to come upon a new title in the Grandfather Gandhi series. The original picture book, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12), came out in 2014 (you can read my post here) and is written by children’s author Bethany Hegedus in partnership with Arun Gandhi, the 82-year old fifth grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who spent two formative years as a teenager living alongside his grandfather at the Sevagram ashram in India. We have returned to this story in our house time and again, the story of a boy struggling to make sense of his grandfather’s vision for peaceful living. (In fact, it was my son who suggested we re-read it just last month on International Peace Day; proud moment for @thebookmommy.)
Imagine our collective joy upon discovering that Hegedus has again teamed up with Arun Gandhi to write another true story from the latter’s experience on the ashram, this new book titled Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Ages 6-12). The title is a nod to perhaps the most frequently quoted of Gandhi’s teachings: Be the change you wish to see.
I can’t let another moment pass without mentioning the extraordinary power that illustrator Evan Turk bestows upon both of these stories with his breathtaking mixed-media spreads, involving watercolor, pencil, thread, and cotton, just to name a few. When I tell you that my children can’t get enough of Turk’s pictures, I am not exaggerating. From these illustrations, my children can feel the heat of the sun in the fiery sky. They can feel the bodies pressing up against one another as they crowd together to hear Gandhi speak. They can feel the gentle love in Gandhi’s hand gestures. And they can feel the confusion and frustration and awe radiating from Arun’s bright young eyes.
If the first Grandfather Gandhi story is concerned specifically with anger—with the idea that we have a choice in how we express our anger, in what we let it do to both our body and to the bodies of others—then this new story addresses the hurt we can do to ourselves and to one another in the seemingly quieter moments of our life. Be the Change raises the specific link between violence and waste, a link that the teenaged Arun doesn’t initially understand when he comes to live at the ashram.
“The purpose of ashram life,” our young narrator tells us, “was to live simply and non-violently,” and everyone had to take vows to that effect. “The one I found the hardest was the vow not to waste…I wasn’t sure how not wasting food or other items made life nonviolent.” He listens to his grandfather give speeches about how nonviolence should “pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts,” but these complicated words just make Arun’s brain hurt.
As in the first story, things come to a head in a moment of young rebellion, as Arun surrenders to his own frustration. Tired of having to make do with a “nubby” stub of a pencil—all because he took a vow not to waste—Arun tosses it freely into the tall grass on his walk home from lessons one day.
I left it there. On purpose. I was a Gandhi—didn’t I deserve a new pencil? Why is a nubby pencil so important?
That evening, after the sun goes down, when Arun approaches his grandfather about a new pencil, Gandhi reminds his grandson about the sacredness of taking a vow before others. He tells him, smilingly, “This morning you had what appeared to be a perfectly good pencil…You will have to go and look for it.” And then he walks Arun to the door, hands him a flashlight, and points him “toward the night.” (You go, Mahatma! How about that for parental inspiration?)
My children were spellbound by what I can only describe as the sheer humility that seeps from Turk’s subsequent illustration, from the tall scrubby grass through which Arun crawls on his hands and knees “for hours,” feeling for the pencil, and the swirling openness of the deep purple sky above him. We are small and the world is enormous.
In the months that follow, through the relentless rains of the monsoon season, Gandhi seeks to help his grandson internalize the relationship between waste and violence. The concept of passive violence, as contrasted to physical violence, begins to take shape for Arun, as it does for us readers. We begin to understand that there are environmental and social ramifications of depleting resources, that our own seemingly small actions can send into motion a chain of events (deprivation can lead to hoarding which can lead to people striking out) that can physically hurt both our planet and ourselves.
And here’s where it gets really good. Together, Gandhi and Arun craft a sketch of a tree, with examples of physical violence hung from the branches on one side and examples of passive violence on the other. In the weeks that follow, Arun incorporates different types of thoughts and actions onto one side or another. “Both branches were heavy with leaves, but the passive side became enormous.”
This might be one of the most useful things I’ve ever done as a parent. The kids and I had to work a bit to make out Arun’s chicken scratch, but once we started, we couldn’t stop. Things like yelling, teasing, leaving the lights on, lying, being jealous, taking a friend’s things, gossiping, not sharing, not forgiving (this last one is particularly interesting): these are just a few of the things that Arun labels as passive violence. “Have you ever thought about these things as acts of violence?” I asked my kids. “No way,” JP answered. “I thought violence just meant shooting people and stuff.”
You guys, this is how we will stand up to these politicians, to the indecent and inhumane rhetoric surrounding this election. This is how we will take back our country. Alongside our children, we will seek to identify and nullify passive violence. We will reform ourselves, and then we will raise a generation of Americans who carefully and intentionally weigh their words and actions against how they may affect others, of the hurt and pain and even physical harm that could arise. We will teach our children to prioritize peace, not only when it’s convenient, but because it is always essential.
We must be the change we wish to see.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
December 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have been waiting all year to tell you about this book. Then, last week, terrorists stormed a school in Pakistan and savagely butchered innocent children. My heart broke as I watched the news coverage; and suddenly, I didn’t want to wait a second longer to discuss this special book. Let’s all hold hands and agree to share this book with our children early and often. Please.
Amidst its powerful message of familial relationships and responsibilities, set against the historical backdrop of one of the greatest leaders our world has ever seen, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12) is also about the very real, very universal feeling of anger. What the book reminds us is that, however inevitable our anger may be, we always, always have a choice in how we express it.
But let me back up. Let me start by saying that Grandfather Gandhi is not a traditional biography of Mahatma Gandhi (in fact, the book assumes the reader has some basic biographical knowledge—a feat easily accomplished by a parent elaborating as he or she shares this book aloud).
Rather, this picture book is a deeply personal account of Gandhi as an old man—as seen through the eyes of his adolescent grandson. A collaborative effort between American author Bethany Hegedus and Mahatma Gandhi’s fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi, Grandfather Gandhi was first conceived a month after 9/11, when Hegedus attended one of Arun’s speeches in New York City. She listened to him speak about the two years he spent as a boy living with his grandfather at Sevagram, the ashram where Gandhi lived towards the end of his life. From age twelve to fourteen, Arun not only got to know his grandfather, about whom he had only ever heard stories, but he learned one of the greatest lessons of his life.
Grandfather Gandhi does a masterful job of gently inviting the reader into this difficult time of transition for Arun. For the young boy, coming from his home in South Africa (where his favorite pastime was watching John Wayne movies on TV), life on the dusty ashram could not have felt more foreign. The mushy pumpkin porridge, the 4am call to prayer, the communal labor (from weeding the garden to changing toilet buckets), and the strict daily tutoring in the language of Gujarati all threaten to overwhelm and frustrate him. Arun wants to impress his grandfather, his Bapu, who smells of peanut oil and takes him on walks around the ashram; and yet, Arun finds himself coming up against his own perceived inadequacies (he can’t sit still during meditation; he can’t form proper letters with the tiny pencil stub he has to use). Bapu tells his grandson to have faith and be patient, but his advice initially falls on deaf ears.
One of Grandfather Gandhi’s greatest strengths is the way in which first-time illustrator Evan Turk allows the reader to experience something as abstract as Arun’s simmering anger. Undoubtedly, an enormous part of this book’s appeal for children—why they will want to listen to this story again and again—lies in Turk’s rich, compelling collages, which combine paint with paper cut-outs and three-dimensional materials chosen to highlight aspects of life on the ashram (like tin foil to represent the tin bowls in which all food was eaten, and plain white cotton gauze for Gandhi’s clothes).
One of the materials Turk invokes throughout the story is yarn, a reference to Gandhi’s passion for his spinning wheel, which he used as a way to quiet and focus his mind. Oftentimes, though, the yarn in Turk’s illustrations is black, tangled, and wiry, spreading out around young Arun’s head as a way to signal his confusion and frustration.
We’ve had no shortage of anger in our house this year. It never fails to stun me how my son can be smiling and calm one minute, then exploding with rage the very next: the injustice or shame or hurt spilling messily forth from his clenched fists, his leaky eyes, his accosting voice. These outbursts, however normal or age-appropriate they may be, never fail to push every button inside me, until my own anger and helplessness threaten to consume me as well—and, worse, threaten to wedge resentment into our relationship. It has been a tremendous year of growth for both of us, and we have made great strides. And in many, many instances, I have found myself coming back to this book—and to the climactic moment in which Arun’s own seething anger drives him straight to his grandfather’s hut.
Already anxious and upset by his perceived failure in the eyes of his grandfather at adjusting to life on the ashram, Arun is finally pushed to the breaking point while playing a game of soccer with some of the other children. One of the cousins shoves Arun and steals the ball, inadvertently sending Arun face down into the dirt, blood trickling from his lips. Arun stands up and snatches a rock, screaming, “You did that on purpose!” His cousin tells him to calm down. “But I didn’t want to calm down. I wanted to throw the rock, to hit Suman, like he hit me.”
There is not a living being who cannot relate to this desire for retaliation.
Arun is convinced that his angry reaction in the soccer game only confirms that he doesn’t fit with the peaceful values of his family and the ashram. How could he, a Gandhi, be so easy to anger? Arun drops the rock and runs to find his grandfather, the great Teacher of Peace.
“Do not be ashamed, we all feel anger.”
But that wasn’t possible. Suman and Kanu, maybe, but not Grandfather.
“Even you?” I asked.
“Even me,” said Grandfather.
Gandhi then introduces the boy to the spinning wheel, and as their fingers go to work, Gandhi tells him that anger is like electricity: “Anger can strike, like lightning, and split a living tree in two.”
“Or it can be channeled, transformed. A switch can be flipped, and it can shed light like a lamp…Then anger can illuminate. It can turn the darkness into light…Arun, we can all work to use our anger, instead of letting it use us.”
Gandhi doesn’t shame his grandson. He doesn’t judge him. He does what we as parents are told to do in today’s parenting books: he validates Arun’s emotions; he helps him understand that what he is feeling is part of being human. But Gandhi also invites the boy to choose—then and forever—between lightning and light, each time he feels the anger rising inside of him.
I was so moved by the way in which Grandfather Gandhi, not only humanizes for our children a great historic leader, but also presents a rich metaphor for how we might handle our own experiences of anger—that I was ecstatic when our local bookstore (Hooray for Books!) offered to bring the book’s co-author, Bethany Hegedus, to my son’s Montessori classroom. (Through this exercise, I’ve learned that Maria Montessori and Gandhi were good buds, which explains why my son is given knitting and crocheting to do in school, whenever he needs a break.)
As we prepare to wind down the year, to welcome the holidays surrounded by loved ones, to stare up at the clear, star-filled night sky and pray for a more peaceful future at home and on the other side of the world, I want to leave you with this picture of my son and his classmates listening, transfixed, as Ms. Hegedus reads from her book. These boys and girls—along with their peers around the world—hold great power in their hands, as do the adults who model for them. We can let our anger consume us, inviting more violence, more tragic crimes against humanity; or we can channel kindness and tolerance and forgiveness. We can choose light. We can choose peace. We can choose a future together.
I wish you all a blessed holiday and a peaceful 2015.
All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!