Butterflies & Black Boxes: Helping Shoulder the Burden of Grief

May 2, 2019 § 9 Comments

Grief can be the loneliest feeling in the world. In the immediate aftermath of a great loss, we are often surrounded by an outpouring of love and affection. We receive letters, phone calls, dishes of food, offers of help. But, in the weeks and months ahead, most around us will eventually resume their own lives, leaving us to sit quietly, restlessly, fearfully with our grief. Some will stop mentioning it at all, perhaps worried that talk of it will bring up fresh sadness. Some prefer to stop thinking about it all together, lest the tragedy of what happened to us be contagious. None of this is ill-intentioned. It stems from our basic human instinct to protect and survive.

It may also stem from inexperience.

The new picture book, Maybe Tomorrow? (Ages 4-8), by Charlotte Agell, with illustrations by Ana Ramírez González, is a whimsical, hopeful, deeply touching story about a new friendship forged in the aftermath of grief. It is one of the most delicate and perfect manifestations of grief I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book—but it also does something else. It presents a window into what it’s like to be on the outside of grief. It invites us to empathize with those who are mourning, then gives us some ideas for how to help another shoulder the burden of grief.

When I started college, in the fall of 1994, I had lost my father three months earlier. I had had an entire summer to mourn. To cry, to rage, to field calls from concerned relatives and friends, to fight and make up with my mother and sister more times than I could count. When I walked onto campus that September and neatly unpacked my things into my single room, I felt pressure to put my grief behind me. To fit in. To throw myself into making friends and studying hard and not be known as “the girl who just lost her father.”

And then, suddenly, I couldn’t see.

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My New Year’s Resolution

January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

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!

Taking Cues from Mother Nature

June 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyJP has decorated his summer journal and is ready to record our adventures (here’s hoping his motivation extends past the first week). Many of these adventures will take us into nature, where there are always metaphors to be discovered about life. Take, for example, our vegetable garden: each morning we wake to budding strawberries, and each evening we return to discover that they have been devoured by the squirrels and cardinals (how dare the latter betray me after I sung their praises right here?!). There’s a lesson somewhere in there about patience and not expecting to get things right the first time. And so we return to bed with renewed hope.

The Dandelion’s Tale (Ages 4-8), a new picture book by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, offers us another metaphor, this one about the fleeting, cyclical nature of life. This gem of a book takes what can be a heavy subject and delivers it in such a subtle, eloquent, kind, and accessible way, that children won’t realize they’re being taught a Great Lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it stars a dandelion. You’d be hard pressed to find a child that isn’t obsessed with dandelions. A yellow flower that I can pick with no adult getting mad (not to mention wind into chains, tuck behind my ear, or proudly proffer to whatever grown-up happens to be standing near)? A billowy white flower with such delicate seeds that the tiniest puff of breath sends them sailing across the grass? Yes, a child’s love for dandelions runs deep. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Lure of the Balloon

June 3, 2012 Comments Off on The Lure of the Balloon

At 20 months, my daughter is starting to move away from board books and into short, simple picture books; consequently, she (and I) have fallen in love with Emily’s Balloon (Ages 18 mos-3 yrs), by Japanese author-artist Komako Sakai. I know, I know, you’re thinking that we’re partial to this book because my daughter’s name also happens to be Emily. But before I even had kids, I used to sell gobs of this book when it first came out in 2006; customers would only have to page through the gorgeous charcoal-and-wash pages to fall in love.

Some of my favorite children’s books have been imported from Japan; their illustrative style so beautifully transports us back to the carefree days of our own youth, when making dandelion crowns for a balloon might easily occupy an afternoon. What is it with toddlers and balloons? Balloons have a buoyancy that seems fascinating in its unpredictability, yet non-threatening in its softness; but, most significantly, its perfect sphere-like shape is just the right size for little eyes to track.

No one understands this appeal more than Komako Sakai, who sets a bright yellow balloon against muted browns and grays on every page, giving it a tangibility that little fingers can’t help but point out. When our heroine Emily is first given the balloon from a street vendor, she immediately loses it into the sky. She continues to experiment with her second balloon, getting it stuck on the ceiling when she gets home (the lovely sparseness of the text means that this page gets a simple “Uh oh” which my Emily loves), until her mother cleverly ties the balloon around Emily’s spoon (“Look! It floats, but it doesn’t fly away!”).

Emily and her balloon spend the afternoon together, playing house and making said dandelion crowns. But a toddler is never far from disappointment, and just before dinnertime, a strong breeze sends the balloon high up into a tree. Here follows a sad mealtime, where Emily encounters and verbalizes regret (“We wanted to eat together.”); she wistfully imagines herself sitting at the dinner table with her balloon and, later, helping it into a night cap before bed. Modern parenting scholars would likely celebrate this book that validates a very real emotion from our toddlers; we can also herald the mother, who doesn’t turn the family’s schedule upside down to rescue the balloon right then and there but instead reassures her daughter: “Tomorrow, I’ll borrow a ladder and get it down.” “Really?” “Really.” “Really and truly?” “Really and truly.”

The book leaves us with Emily tucked snugly into bed but still thinking about the balloon. As she peeks out her darkened window, she sees her balloon in the tree, shining big and golden as the moon. As we’re reminded, life is filled with silver (and gold) linings.

 

Other Favorites Where Balloons Can Be Tracked On (Almost) Every Page:
Goodnight, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann (Ages 1-3)
A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead & Erin Stead (Ages 2-5)
The Red Balloon, by Albert Lamorisse (Ages 6-10)

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