The Bravest Kind of Kindness

June 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel“Kindness” has become a buzz word across parenting literature of late. Are we teaching our children to be kind? How do we go about raising kind children? How can we prevent “bullying” on the playground or “mean girls” at play dates?

And yet, for all the lip service we keep giving to the importance of kindness, a recent study found that as many as 80% of youth reported that their parents seemed “more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.”

I find reports like this deeply unsettling, although they’re not entirely unsurprising. After all, kindness can be really hard stuff. It’s one thing to remember a relative’s birthday; to hold the door open for a stranger; to put an arm around a friend who is crying. Undeniably, these are all kind gestures. But it is quite a different thing to put someone’s deepest needs before our own; to step outside our comfort zone; to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes and, in the process, open up our hearts to the potential for understanding, connection, and forgiveness. Stretching the limits of kindness—this is when the real magic happens.

In his gorgeously illustrated and deeply feeling new picture book, The Song of Delphine (Ages 4-8), Kenneth Kraegel tells an unforgettable story of a child’s courageous act of kindness in the face of adversity. It’s an act that not only dramatically changes the course of the two lives in the book, but has the power to transform the reader as well.

You might remember author-illustrator Kenneth Kraegel from his riotous read-aloud romp alongside Arthurian knights and dragons. Here, in The Song of Delphine, Kraegel’s signature watercolor and ink paintings, with their evocative lines and folkloristic feel, are paired with a more sensitive and sophisticated subject. It’s a Cinderella story of sorts, a story of servitude and poverty set against royalty and luxury. Only there’s no fairy godmother to be found, no prince to impress. Our heroine must make her destiny out of her very own humanity. (Oh, and did I mention the story is set in Africa?)

In “the far reaches of the wild savannah,” in the palace of the great Queen Theodora, lives a motherless, fatherless, friendless servant girl named Delphine. Delphine is tasked with keeping the palace clean from morning until night—in short, doing “whatever she was told to do.”

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

One day, a princess arrives to live at the castle. It’s the queen’s niece, a young girl who has allegedly lost her own mother and been rejected by her stepmother. Despite Delphine’s hopes that the two will become friends, it is quickly obvious that the princess intends only to “bully” the other, accusing Delphine of things she did not do, insulting her, and adding to her already endless workload.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

If you haven’t experienced the strong sense of black-and-white justice that runs through a young child, you need only to share this story with him or her. What is omitted in the text is revealed in the pictures, and my children were lightning fast to pick up on it. “But the princess is the one who knocked over the bucket, Mommy!” “The princess is the one tracking dirt across the floor! Delphine isn’t doing any of these things!”

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

Indeed, it is not easy to watch or listen to the abuse Delphine receives. It makes us as uneasy as it does our children. And Kraegel does not sentimentalize it. He paints it clearly and starkly.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

But Delphine has a unique coping gift. She has a beautiful singing voice, which she uses to transcend the everyday toils of sweeping, mopping, and fetching water. It’s a simple act, it’s simply drawn, and yet, let’s admire for a moment the passion and grit in our young heroine.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

As the story develops and Delphine’s suffering increases, her evening singing attracts the attention of the savannah’s wild giraffes, who carry her out the bedroom window, across the tree-dotted plains, and reward her with nuzzles, smiles, and desperately needed companionship. These giraffes, with their regally lifted necks, soft mouths, and beautiful brown spotting, are the heart of this story for my daughter. She simply cannot get enough of them. Frankly, neither can I.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

But here’s where things get really interesting. One night, the giraffes mistakenly return Delphine, not to her own bedroom, but to that of the haughty princess. The latter, assuming Delphine has come to rob or attack her, yells loudly for help, attracting the attention of the queen’s guards, who capture Delphine and lock her in the dungeon. And yet, before she is carried off, something magical happens. Delphine catches sight of a framed portrait in the princess’ room, which she correctly guesses to be that of the princess’ mother.

‘“I never knew my mother,’” Delphine said softly. “You must miss yours terribly.”
The princess stared hard at Delphine.
“When I am feeling lonesome, there is a song that I like to sing,” said Delphine.
“It goes like this…” And, almost whispering at first, Delphine sang. Steadily, her voice grew stronger and stronger, filling the room with sound and feeling.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

Imagine this: a young girl is able to put herself in her tormentor’s shoes and imagine the sadness and pain that must lie beneath the cruel actions. Delphine doesn’t shout, “Stop it, you mean Bully!” or “You’re going to be sorry when I grow up and get out of here!” Instead, she says, I’m sorry for what you are going through, and I want to help. She says, I’m going to make this moment about you, not me. She asks for nothing in return.

This is, after all, a fairy tale of sorts, so we aren’t surprised when Delphine gets her happy ending. Princess Beatrice (named only now that she has become worthy of a name) realizes her mistake, releases Delphine from prison, and brings her before the queen to showcase her beautiful singing voice. Delphine is promoted to the palace’s singer; and—most significantly—she and Beatrice begin a lifelong friendship, beginning with the princess’ sincere apology, “Thank you for being so kind, even when I have been so cruel.” Together, the two enjoy nightly escapades atop giraffes.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

I like to think that Delphine’s happy ending of forgiveness and friendship would come to pass in real life, too. My children’s Montessori school recently held a Parent’s Night, where they challenged us to avoid labels like “bullies” and “mean girls.” “Words like these are a dead-end street,” one teacher said, “and they do nothing to acknowledge or address the motive behind the action.” If we are going to raise kind children, we must teach them to look beyond labels, to not label in the first place. We must teach them empathy.

The message embedded in The Song of Delphine is not an easy one to internalize. Who knows how many readings or reminders or years or examples before my children truly understand what it means to be kind in the face of cruelty.

But perhaps it starts with story time.

Here’s another study (this one cited in a fascinating recent article in The New Yorker about the power of reading fiction both to heal oneself and to develop empathy towards others).

This 2011 study, published in the Annual Review of Psychology and based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

In other words, our children’s reading material has the power to become the moral compass by which they approach their lives.

After the third time I read The Song of Delphine to my almost five year old, she had this to say: “Mommy, sometimes I get a little water in my eye when I listen to this story. It goes away really fast, but it feels kind of funny for a few minutes.”

Perhaps empathy starts here.

Other Favorites With Inspirational Examples of Empathy & Kindness:

The Sandwich Swap, by Queen Rania of Jordan, Kelly DiPucchio & Tricia Tusa (Ages 5-10)
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson & E.B. Lewis (Ages 5-10)
Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson & Tara Calahan King (Ages 5-10)
Desmond and the Very Mean Word, by Desmond Tutu & A.G. Ford (Ages 5-10)
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena & Christian Robinson (Ages 4-10; reviewed here)
Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts & Noah Z. Jones (Ages 6-12)
The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi (Ages 6-12)
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes & Louis Slobodkin (chapter book, Ages 7-14)
The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson (chapter book, Ages 7-14)

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!

The Best Chapter Books Talk to the Heart

May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little Dog, LostI’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.

But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.

Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.

Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)

*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.

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