At the end of April, Jews across the world will take a special moment to pause and reflect about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Passover, another Jewish holiday that started Monday night, is also a time where we often focus on commemorating and retelling the tragedy of the Holocaust and the amazing efforts that many Jews took to escape the Nazis and start a new life.
There are many truly amazing books for younger readers about the Holocaust. While a number of them are what you might consider middle grade fiction, and sometimes non-fiction, there are also some picture books that tell the story very well. It is a difficult topic to touch on, so all good books have to tread somewhat lightly and focus on the resilience and perseverance of a nation of people rather than on the tragedy itself. Here are a few of the books we have managed to read.
Out of heartbreak can come amazing strength.
Helen Frances Theresa Delaney Martini was an ordinary woman living in New York. When her first baby died and doctors said that she couldn’t have any more children, her heart broke. So did her husband’s. To ease that pain, her husband, Frank, followed his heart and got a job at the Bronx Zoo. Two years later, he brought home an abandoned lion cub and Helen’s life changed forever.
In Mother to Tigers, George Ella Lyon tells the amazing story of Helen Martini. When her husband brought a lion cub named MacArthur home, he told her to “do for him what you would do for a human baby,” and she did. She fed and cared for the lion cub in her living room. When she helped her husband bring three tigers back to the zoo after nursing them at home, she realized that not only did the cubs still need her attention, but that there would always be zoo babies in need and yet there was nowhere at the zoo to take care of them.
She begged the zoo to give her a room and on her own she created the first zoo nursery. For a time her work was unpaid and then in August 1944 she became the first woman keeper in the history of the Bronx Zoo. She helped many baby animals survive and her concept of a zoo nursery soon spread. Her work was monumentally important in the lives on many animals and it is about time her achievements were shared.
I have been encouraged by the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy to post about a nonfiction title each week. While I wouldn’t classify this book as a nonfiction picture book, most of the books that I post on Wednesdays will be. Please check out Kid Lit Frenzy for an amazing resource of nonfiction picture books.
Over the years, many have told the story of Stone Soup in which hungry strangers trick a town into feeding them by making soup from a stone. As with many folk tales, the story changes with each retelling, but the backbone stays the same. A hungry stranger, or two, enters a town. When the locals refuse to help him he proceeds to make some form of stone soup. The natives are curious about how you could possibly do this and set about watching him. They are then wisely tricked into providing the actual sustenance and the town shares a meal together. It is a tale in which people are initially unwilling to help a stranger, but in the end, realize that kindness and sharing make everything better.
A very fun version of the story is Fandango Stew, by David Davis. In this telling, Luis and his grandfather are dead broke, but as they ride into the town of Skinflint, they have a plant to make Fandango stew for the town, with one tiny bean. They slowly get people to offer up ingredients, playing on the fact that the folks of Skinflint don’t want to be out done by any of the other town that Luis and his abuelo have been to. The town comes together, as all do, and make a fine fandango stew. When the sherriff asks where he can find a fandango bean, they explain that they are just simple pinto beans – “Any bean makes a fine fandango stew. Just add generosity and kindness.”
In a very similar style, Eric A. Kimmel brings forth his version in Cactus Soup. Per his author’s note, Kimmel sets his version in the time of the Mexican Revolution, somewhere between 1910 and 1922. When a group of hungry soldiers ride into San Miguel, the townspeople don’t want to share their food. They hide their tortillas, tamales, beans, and flour and put on torn clothes to look poor. But the Capitán is not fooled. He asks for a cactus thorn to make some cactus soup, and before long he has tricked the townspeople into giving him salt and chilies, vegetables, and a chicken as well! He goes a step further and tells the town that cactus soup always tastes better if you have something to go with it, and soon a full fiesta is thrown with tamales, chorizo, camotes, and several fat roasting pigs.
Linda Glaser takes us to the village of Chelm, known in Jewish folklore as a village of fools, in Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls. When a poor stranger arrives as Passover is about to start, even though it is a part of the Passover tradition to welcome the stranger, the village encourages him to go elsewhere. No food? No worries. He will make the most delicious matzoh ball soup from a stone. He of course tricks them into bringing the specific ingredients, but Yenta is unconvinced because there are still no matzoh balls. Oh yes! “That stone of mine makes the best matzoh balls in the world – so big and heavy they’ll sit in your belly like rocks all 8 days of Passover.” Very few people like heavy matzoh balls and most claim theirs are the lightest and fluffiest. The women of Chelm step up and say they make the best matzoh balls ever and make hundreds to add to the soup. The town must hold their seder in the synagogue for it is the only place in town that will hold everyone, and that Passover, everyone in Chelm had a fully belly and a full heart.
Jon J. Muth retells the story with three monks who are contemplating what makes one truly happy as they come upon a village that had been through many hard times. The villagers had become distrustful of strangers and even of other villagers. When the monks entered the village, all inhabitants pretended not to be there. “These people do not know happiness, but today we will show them how to make stone soup.”As with all stone soup stories, the monks trick the villagers into adding extras. “Something magical begins to happen among the villagers. As each person opened their heart to give, the next person gave even more and as this happened the soup grew richer and smelled more delicious.” The town was able to enjoy a wonderful feast together, and as the monks got ready to leave, the villagers thanked them for making them realize that “sharing makes us all richer.”
Heather Forest takes the stinginess to a different level in her rendition of Stone Soup. Two hungry travelers arrive at a village expecting to find a household that will share a bit of food, as has been the custom along their journey. They come to the first door and kindly ask the woman, “Please, we are hungry. Do you care? will you share? do you have any food?” To their surprise, villager after villager refuses to share, each one closing the door with a bang. As they sit to rest beside a well, one of the travelers observes that if the townspeople have no food to share, they must be “in greater need than we are.” With that, the travelers demonstrate their special recipe for a magical soup, using a stone as a starter. They explain that the soup would be better with a carrot or onion, but knew that they had asked before and everyone had nothing to share with them. However, before long, everyone in the town had been able to give just a little and it soon became a lot. The town was amazed that the travelers had made such a delicious soup out of a stone. But it was not just a stone, it was “out of a stone and a magical ingredient…sharing.”
In Bone Button Borscht, by Aubrey Davis, a hungry beggar comes to a poor town on a cold and snowy evening. No door is opened to him until he sees a light and enters the synagogue. The caretaker, the shamas, does not answer his greeting so the beggar takes the five buttons off his coat and asks for one more in order to make Bone Button Borscht. Bowls, cups, ladles, and a pot wouldn’t hurt either, he explains. As the shamas goes from door to door seeking the ingredients, the incredulous townspeople gather round and provide the food that will make the soup just a little more tasty. Such a miracle. Such a joyous feast. They don’t need a single button to make a soup. In times of scarcity, they need each other. And that, writes Davis, is “.. the real miracle the beggar left behind.”
No matter which version you choose, this is a timeless story that encourages children to think of the bigger society instead of just themselves. Soup, and food in general, always tastes better when it is shared with others. Now I’m off to make some more soup here before the snow hits.
Adults are familiar with the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but in our efforts to heal our wounded world, our children need to hear his message. Fortunately, Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams have come together to write “Desmond and the Very Mean Word” about the hurt that words can cause and the power of forgiveness.The first powerful moment of this book came in the form of an introductory letter from Tutu to the child reading his book. In his book, he speaks to children urging them to consider what it would be like if someone told you that a group of people was better than another group just because they had some physical feature, which they had no control over.
The story itself is simple. Young Desmond is excited about his new bike and wants to show it to Father Trevor. On his way, however, he encounters a gang of boys. He doesn’t want to stop for fear that they will steal his bike. But as he rides through, one boy shouts out a very mean word. What that word is doesn’t matter, it just cuts Desmond to the core.
Desmond wants to get back at the boys. Father Trevor explains why that won’t solve anything – “You will get them back, and then they will get you back, and soon our whole world will be filled with nothing but ‘getting back.'”(ain’t that the truth!)
Desmond tries to get past it, but can’t, a wonderful reminder that he is a kid. When he sees the boys again, he shouts the meanest word he can think of at them. At first he feels proud for getting back at them, but then he realizes that the mean word has “left a bitter taste in his mouth.”
Desmond realizes that while he has figured out a way to hurt the boys, hurting them actually hurts him too. This is a lesson many children’s books have tried to get across, most notably, How Full is Your Bucket.
What finally frees Desmond is his ability to apologize for his own ugly words and to forgive the red-haired boy for his. In that moment, “Desmond felt a little stronger and a little braver and stood up a little taller.”
When we were children we were taught the mantra that sticks and stone may break your bones but words could never hurt you. In reality, words leave a much more lasting impact on us. It is far easier to hold on to the one negative comment than to remember ten positive ones. What Tutu learned as a child, and hopes to impart to children everywhere, is that we can only raise ourselves up and hope to raise up others by promoting a world of kind words and deeds. Hate speech has never gotten us anywhere, but love, love has the power to heal. As we enter 2017, I hope that we can all learn a little something about kindness and love to all.
We read picture books to better understand the world around us. We read picture books to teach lessons in an enjoyable way. Sometimes picture books can help encourage children to change their behaviors, try new things, consider things in a different way. The Sandwich Swap, by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah is one of those wonderful books that gently reminds children that having the courage to try something new can have wonderful results.
This story tells of two little girls who are best friends at school. We see that they are inseparable and love doing things together, including eating lunch. But what they eat each day is different – Lily eats PB&J and Salma eats hummus and pita. Silently, each girl looked at her friend’s lunch and thought it was gross and strange. One day, Lily just couldn’t hold back her negative thoughts and tells Salma that she thinks her sandwich looks kind of yucky.
Salma is of course hurt by the unkind words and lashes back with similar words of her own. A rift grows between the girls. At the same time, the rest of the school hears of the peanut butter vs. hummus story and people start to take sides. More negative words fly about the food, but pretty soon the rude insults have nothing to do with food and are just mean. A food fight ends the name calling and both girls wind up in the principal’s office.
But the fight has made the girls realize that things have gotten out of hand and that their friendship was more important. They decide to try each other’s sandwiches and realize that what they thought was disgusting is actually quite delicious. The two hatch a plan for a special school-wide event encouraging everyone to try foods from all of the various nations of the students.
Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah wrote The Sandwich Swap loosely based on experiences that she had as a child. Every day, her mother would send her to school with a hummus and pita sandwich. One day she watched a friend open her lunch box and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and was revolted. She tasted her friend’s sandwich because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings and was shocked that the item she thought was so disgusting was actually quite delicious.
As the Queen says in the back of this splendid book, “It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we come across something new or foreign or strange. But if we take the time to get to know each other, stand in each other’s shoes, and listen to a different point of view, we learn something wonderful – about someone else and about ourselves.”
It is once again time for the Jewish High Holiday season. I haven’t written about books that cover this ten day period of reflection and repentance in a few years, so I thought it was time to approach it again.
The holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are important not only because they are the start of the new year, but because they are a time for people to think about their behaviors over the past year and how to approach the new year in a better way. It is time to cast off the sins and bad behaviors you might have had and to approach the year with a clean slate. Given the importance of these holidays for those in the Jewish faith, there are a number of truly excellent books to help younger children understand the complicated notion of Teshuva or returning to spiritual purity.
Talia and the Rude Vegetables – This fun book takes a misunderstanding of the term “root vegetables” and spins it into a parable of rude behaviors. Talia’s grandmother asks her to get seven different root vegetables from the garden for a Rosh Hashana stew, but she thinks she has been asked to get rude vegetables. “How can a vegetable be rude? Does it annoy its brothers and sisters? Does it talk back to its parents?” As she ponders these questions, she realizes that her own behavior over the past year hasn’t been perfect and that she must ask for forgiveness and do better.
Talia begins digging up vegetables. Since her grandmother requested rude vegetables, she places the beautiful ones into a separate basket. The “ornery onion” that doesn’t want to be pulled up, however, gets put into the pot for grandmother, as does the “garish garlic” who is just trying to show off.
Before bringing her grandmother the rude vegetables, Talia brings the good ones to the rabbi so that someone else can enjoy them. Without even meaning to, she performed the perfect mitzvah of helping feed others while also thinking about how to make her own behaviors better for the coming year. A great book for kids about thinking about their own actions while also doing good and caring for those around them.
Gabriel’s Horn – I think that Eric Kimmel might be one of my favorite authors when it comes to Jewish children’s books. This year he has a new book out called Gabriel’s horn. I have not gotten my hands on this book yet, but the little bits of preview and this information from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency show how wonderful it is.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a young African-American soldier knocks on the door of the apartment where a young boy, Gabriel, lives with his parents, who are struggling to hang on to their small antiques shop. The solider explains he is going overseas and has no one to care for his special horn that once belonged to his grandpa, a musician, and brings good luck. Gabriel convinces his reluctant mom they can care for the horn. The name on the soldier’s uniform says Tishbi — the birthplace of the prophet Elijah, who is said to appear mysteriously on Earth, often disguised as a beggar who leaves behind him blessings of good fortune or health. Over the years Gabriel engages in tzedakah (acts of charity), and the horn magically brightens each time until its gleaming shine represents Gabriel’s family’s kindness and new prosperity.
This book will help children understand just how important tzedekah (helping those in need) is in the Jewish culture. When Gabriel and his family were blessed with what they needed, they then turned around and helped others in need. It will show children that people will often be blessed when they reach out to help and bless others, even when times look desperate.
Even Higher – There are actually two versions of this story available, but the basic story is the same as they are adapted from I.L Peretz’s “If Not Higher.”
In Richard Unger’s version published in 2007, the boys of Nemirov are curious as to where their esteemed rabbi goes each year on the day before Rosh Hashanah. Rumor has it that he ascends to heaven to beg God to forgive the sins of the villagers, but Yossel, Menachem, and Reuven are skeptical and the bigger boys agree that Reuven should find out exactly what the rabbi is up to. He secretly follows him home, hides under his bed, and trails him the next day. Discovering that the man, disguised as a woodcutter, ventures into the forest to chop wood and deliver it to a poor widow, the boy reports back to his friends that not only does the rabbi ascend to heaven, but he ascends “even higher.”
In 2010, Eric Kimmel tells the same story from the viewpoint of a skeptical Litvak stranger, who does not believe in miracles. The villagers are certain their rabbi flies up to heaven to speak with God before the fate of every soul is decided for the coming year. But a skeptical Litvak scoffs at the villagers, claiming miracles cannot happen, and secretly follows the rabbi early one morning. What he witnesses–an enormous act of human compassion–changes his heart. The bright mixed-media pictures in folk-art style show the rabbi’s hard work and joyful movements, a powerful, earthy contrast to the magic realism that the shtetl people imagine. Steeped in Yiddish idiom, the story sends an unforgettable message: the skeptic changes and sees that ordinary kindness is enough to save the world.
The Secret Shofar of Barcelona – Many of the books about the High Holidays are aimed at a very young audience. This book really raises the bar being aimed at children grades 2-5. The first page of the book tells about a time in history when the rulers of Spain decreed that everyone must be Catholic. While most Jews sailed to other lands, many stayed in Spain and pretended to follow Catholic ways.
In the story, young Rafael’s father is the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona. He convinces the Duke to hold a concert on Rosh Hashana so that Conversos could come together to celebrate the New Year being shielded by the celebration for the concert. Rafael thinks it would be special to add the call of the Shofar in with the other native instruments that his father has planned – hiding the shofar in plain sight.
The book explains the history of the shofar and the significance of the four different calls made yearly at Rosh Hashana. The Jews at the festival are touched by the sound they have longed to hear for so long and the Duke enjoys the music as well. A great way to bring an interesting part of Jewish history into the Rosh Hashana story.
Tashlich is an important ceremony that many people do as a part of their Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur observance. Usually it takes place on Rosh Hashana, however, in our little congregation we have Tashlich on the Sunday between the two holidays. The concept of Tashlich is to throw away the sins of the past year by throwing breadcrumbs into the water.
Tashlilch at Turtle Rock was co-written by Rabbi Susan Schnur and her daughter Anna Schnur-Fishman. What is wonderful about this book is that it is based on additional customs that their family have incorporated into Tashlich. Not only do they cast off their sins, they focus on the good things that have happened in the past year and a promise they would like to make for the coming year. In the story, young Annie leads them on a hiking path and they spend their time contemplating their year and changes they would like to see for the future. They share them all with each other except for the sins that they throw away with the breadcrumbs. They complete their hike at the old log where they share in apples and honey symbolizing the sweetness of the Jewish New Year. They also recite a special prayer that Annie’s mother has written:
“God, we have thrown out our mistakes and regrets. And we have picked the best things from the year to keep with us. Help us start over. Help us remember our vows and promises. And protect us this whole long year.” For that, may everyone say, Amen!
Gershon’s Monster – Another fabulous Eric Kimmel book to add to the list! In this tale, based on a Chasidic story, Kimmel brings in the importance not only of repenting for one’s sins or wrong-doings, but actually going about making changes. It is not enough to say you’ve done something bad, you must actually take the steps to amend your ways or your sins will come back to haunt you.
Gershon was not always the best person he could be. True, the mistakes he made were common, ordinary things: a broken promise, a temper lost for no reason, a little untruth told here and there. But unlike most people, Gershon never regretted what he did. He never apologized or asked anyone’s forgiveness. Rather than regret or atone for his everyday mistakes, baker Gershon simply sweeps them into his basement. At Rosh Hashana, he places all his sins and flaws, that hang on you like fringes with faces, from the cellar into a sack and take them down to the Black Sea. There in the Sea, he deposits them and forgets them. But do sins just disappear if true repentance is missing?
Of course, Gershon must discover sooner or later that his selfish acts cannot be disposed of so easily. In spite of a pointed warning from a rabbi, Gershon refuses to realize that his behavior will come back to haunt him someday. It’s only when he is faced with the monstrous bulk of his misdeeds that Gershon finally, truly repents.
Shira at the Temple – This summer at a Jewish educators conference I stumbled upon the Shira Series of books by Galia Sabbag. This series was inspired by Sabbag’s many years as a teacher herself and the students in her classes. Shira at the Temple is the story of a little girl trying to understand the holiday of Yom Kippur and how to pray to God. The story itself was inspired by a Chasidic folk tale that our rabbi actually used as his story for the children at this year’s Rosh Hashana service.
The first part of the book is about Yom Kippur itself – that it is the day of looking inward and asking if you were the best person you could be. It explains why adults fast and the importance of saying that you are sorry to people you may have hurt. I love the fact that the book is sprinkled with actual words in Hebrew, not just transliterated Hebrew.
As Shira goes sits at the temple on Yom Kippur listening to the Rabbi and cantor chanting prayers, mostly in Hebrew, she wants to pray, but doesn’t know how, especially since she cannot yet read Hebrew. While she couldn’t yet read Hebrew, she could recite her Hebrew alef-bet. She offers that up to God as her prayer so that God could take the letters and “make the most wonderful Yom Kippur prayer out of them.” The Rabbi hugged Shira and told her how special her prayer was simply because it was true and told from her heart. This is a series that I’m very glad to have found.
The Hardest Word – This is by far one of my favorite tales for the High Holidays and for every day. This story tells the tale of a mythical creature called the Ziz. He is a giant flying bird creature who happens to be something of a klutz. When flying through the air, he sometimes knocks into objects that have repercussions when they fall down to earth. He always tries to fix the problems before anyone notices, but one day he does some damage that he can’t figure out how to repair. The Ziz can’t figure it out on his own, so he goes to Mt. Sinai to have a talk with God. God tells him that he needs to search for “the hardest word.” He brings back a number of words and God keeps telling him that while the word might be hard to hear or hard for a child to say, it isn’t the hardest word. After bringing God more than 100 words, he hangs his head and tells God that he is sorry, but that he can’t find the hardest word. In that one instance, God tells him that he has finally found it – “sorry” is the hardest word. This really focuses on the truth behind teshuva – actually going up to the person that you have wronged and apologizing is a very difficult thing to do. The Mishnah says “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” We must do the hardest act and actually apologize to those that we have wronged. They may or may not accept that apology, but it is the only way to clear your soul. In a culture where we are so used to saying a blanket sorry for everything, it is good for children to learn that there is so much more to it.
These are all wonderful books to learn about the important time of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for Jewish families and to teach everyone a little bit about kindness and generosity.
Every once in a while a book completely surprises you. “It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel,” by Firoozeh Dumas, was one of those books. I had heard about it in an article in Time Magazine referencing the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement which I have followed for some time. The book sounded like a fun read and I was thrilled when I managed to get a library copy over the summer.
The premise of this book is that Zomorod Yousefzadeh has just moved to Newport Beach and is trying more than anything to fit in. Zomorod is an 11 year old Iranian girl whose father works for the oil industry and their family has had to move many times in the US as well as in Iran. She goes so far as to go by the name Cindy, since her given name is difficult to pronounce as well as “different.”
As the book starts out, it is mainly about being how challenging it is for Cindy and her family to fit in with Newport Beach life in 1978. Cindy is an avid reader and constantly looking out for her mother, who seems to be very lonely living in the United States. She struggles with the fact that her name is hard for everyone to pronounce, her mother only speaks Persian, and the foods that her family eats are not like everyone else’s. The idea of being different is a common theme in children’s literature, although having the main character be Iranian definitely sets it apart.
What sets this book apart from other coming of age stories is when it started to bring in the Iranian Revolution. Most middle school kids know nothing about when the Iranian shah was overthrown and the events that unfolded after that. I will be the first to admit that I am not all that knowledgeable about that part of history, and this book was like a lesson in what happened in the late 1970s.
When the Iranian Revolution hits and the subsequent hostage crisis, Cindy’s family deals with the fallout of being Iranian in the United States. Her father loses his job due to the political unrest, her teachers want her to be able to answer questions about what is happening in her country that she doesn’t have answers to, and some people start to treat her poorly and play nasty pranks. This was true to what was happening in the late ’70s, but it also felt too close for comfort to things that are going on in this country right now.
The book continues to go between the political issues abroad and social issues for Cindy’s family in the United States. There are so many wonderful aspects of this book. Whether it be the free history lesson of a period that many adults don’t fully understand, the true to life notions of trying to fit in when your customs and background are different from those around you, or wanting to be the hero of your own family when they start to face their own struggles, this book has a little bit of everything and it is handled with humor and heart-felt emotion.
Through it all, Cindy keeps in mind advice from her father: “Kindness is our religion and if we treat everybody the way we would like to be treated, the world would be a better place.”
In the world of children’s literature, there are a few names that you often hear repeated over and over again. For the younger girls ages 3-7, Fancy Nancy is one of those names. My younger daughter, who is now 5, absolutely loves Fancy Nancy. Jane O’Connor created a truly fun character and then gave her a surprising amount of depth. Some might not consider Nancy a super strong character, but they would be wrong. These days, not only do we love reading Nancy books, we even have a collection of stories that we bought on audible that my daughter could listen to over and over again. I laugh when my daughter uses big words and then tells me “that’s fancy for….” just like they say throughout the Nancy books.
In the first book simply called “Fancy Nancy,” Nancy explains how she perceives the world around her and that “more is always better when it comes to being fancy.” In her world, being fancy makes her simply feel better. A personal favorite from this book is when she explains to her mother that “lace-trimmed socks do help me play soccer better.” She wants to teach her family how to be more like her, but when she trips over her own fancy shoes, she realizes that love is love no matter what.
Throughout that long-running series, Nancy learns a variety of lessons. In “Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet,” Nancy has to learn about not always getting what you want and then also dealing with the evil green jealousy monster when someone close to you does. Both Nancy and her best friend, Bree, assume that they will get to be mermaids in the upcoming ballet because they are glamorous and like to play mermaid from time to time. When neither gets the role, they are shocked and Nancy is bummed to be playing a dreary, dull tree. When Bree gets to step into the role of mermaid at the last minute, Nancy is incredibly jealous. She “lies” to Bree and tells her that she is happy for her, but knows that deep down she is not. Nancy finds a way to still shine in her tree costume, which she decides is fabulous and not dull and dreary and the show is a smashing success.
Nancy learns a lesson about being kind to her sister in “Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique.” In this story, when Nancy goes shopping for her sister’s birthday present, she also wants to buy a fancy fan for herself, but doesn’t have enough money after buying her sister a gift. She decides to sell off some of her fabulous fashions to raise the money. She’s doing great until her sister decides that she wants a fancy necklace that Nancy has already promised to someone else. She doesn’t want her sister to be disappointed on her birthday so she goes over to the twins who purchased the necklace and asks if there is any way that she can “persuade” them to part with it so she can give it to her sister for her birthday. They do, but it means that she can’t afford her fan. Her father sees how kind she has been to her sister and surprises her with the fan as well.
In “Fancy Nancy and the Mean Girl,” which is a part of the “I Can Read” collection, Nancy has to deal with a girl who hurts her feelings. Much to Nancy’s dismay, Nancy has been chosen for the relay team in this year’s Field Day at school. Despite her many natural talents, Nancy isn’t much of a runner. She’s afraid of letting her team down—especially after finding out that an unkind (that’s another word for mean) girl in her class is on the team too. With a little help from her dad, Nancy tries her best, stands up for herself, and makes a new friend.
Nancy wants everything to be fancy, but in “Fancy Nancy: My Family History,”she learns that making things up just so that they are fancy can hurt other people and that when you are supposed to be writing a report based on truth, exaggerating can turn into outright lying. Nancy and her classmates are learning about ancestors, “people who lived long ago.” Bree’s great-grandfather was a war hero. Robert’s great-grandmother is 101 and came to America on a ship that almost sank! When Nancy talks to her grandfather about her great-grandparents, she finds that “they were nice ordinary people.” “Ordinary?” Nancy thinks, “that’s like plain. I wish I had fancy ancestors.” She writes her report for school about her great-grandfather, but makes things up so he seems less ordinary. However, when she learns that Grandpa will be there to hear her read the report aloud she realizes she was dishonest. By the time her grandpa comes, she has written a new report that sticks to the truth.
One that we only recently learned about by listening to our audio version is “Fancy Nancy: Aspiring Artist.” After listening to it a few times, I felt the need to purchase it because it nicely taught about various artists and styles in a simple manner. Nancy is sad because Bree has gone on vacation for spring break, so her mother cheers her up with new glitter markers. Inspiration strikes and she decides to turn her clubhouse into an art studio filled with her creations. Inspiration strikes again when she goes to her dance class and realizes that the studio is full of posters of art by Edgar Degas. When she tells her neighbor about her art studio idea, she teaches Nancy about Claude Monet. Nancy also experiments with the styles of Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollack. She learns about various ways of allowing yourself to be inspired and visits the art museum. It is a marvelous way to show children the world of art.
A similar book that brings the world of poetry alive for young readers and encourages them to create their own anthologies of poems that they enjoy is “Fancy Nancy: Poet Extraordinare.” In this book, Nancy’s class is doing a survey of people’s favorite poems, which of course Nancy shares with the reader and then each child is supposed to write their own poem. From nursery rhymes to song lyrics, silly limericks to acrostics and odes. This book is a fun way to encourage children to start considering poetry and maybe even writing some themselves!
I could go on and on with these books, especially since the audio version has 31 different stories that we listen to over and over and over again, but instead I will simply say to give Nancy a chance, especially if you have a budding fashionista with a love of accessorizing like I do.
“Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.” So says Stephen Sondheim in the beginning the song “Children Will Listen.”
Sometimes people forget that children are little sponges who soak it all up and they notice everything that we do. In light of everything going on in the news right now, is is especially important to show our children through our actions and deeds how to be kind to others. Showing your children kindness and being kind to others is an important first step, but sometimes it is also important to reinforce those ideas through books. Fortunately there are a wealth of them that help children see the value of being kind to others.
For the simplest stories and the youngest of readers, the best books are soothing and lighthearted. Books such as “Good People Everywhere,” “Because Amelia Smiled,” and “Stick and Stone” can warm children up to the concept very early on.
“Good People Everywhere” is a soothing book that shows how we are all interconnected. Small deeds that people do everyday reverberate with their impact. When it comes to trying to encourage children to be kinder to those around them and to their world, this is a beautiful place to start. From the mother cooking for her child, the teacher explaining a math problem, a farmer growing food, or the driver getting it to the market. We touch other people with the deeds that we do. We can also help a friend who skinned their knee or help rebuild a home damaged by a storm, it all begins with simple acts that bring us together.
Anyone familiar with Laura Numeroff’s “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…” series is well versed in the notion that every action produces another counter-reaction. In the beautifully illustrated “Because Amelia Smiled,” because one little girl smiled while she was walking down the street, Mrs. Higgens also smiled. The little girl made Mrs. Higgens think about her grandson in Mexico and she decided to bake him some cookies. Her grandson shared his cookies with others and the smile continued to spread. Through a sweet story and beautiful illustrations, this book shows that positive outlooks and kind deeds spread joy.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but in the book “Stick and Stone” they actually stand up for each other. When Pinecone tries to use words to hurt them, the two lonely figures learn that standing up for a friend is the best thing you can do to counter-balance a bully. It’s a comical take on the old rhyme that we all grew up hearing and perhaps better than ignoring the taunt, shows kids to stand up for others, even if they are not your friend to start with, you may make a friend in the end. As stick tells stone, “You rock.” And stone replies, “That’s just what stones do. Best friendship rocks too.”
For slightly longer stories, and children willing to listen a little more, “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed” and “Someone Loves You, Mr. Hatch,” are both books that shine a light on how being kind makes such a huge difference for people. “Chrysanthemum” is a long-time favorite and “The Invisible Boy” shows one perspective of what it feels like when others are unkind.
In “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed,” a chain reaction similar to the one that happened in “Because Amelia Smiled,” starts because a little girl gives her neighbor some freshly picked blueberries. From there, it isn’t just a matter of being kind, but actually paying forward the good deed by doing something else for another stranger – baking muffins, helping someone with heavy bags and even helping the homeless. What looks like an ordinary deed to you might make an extraordinary difference to someone else.
In “Someone Loves You, Mr. Hatch,” children see a man go from being lonely and depressed to sharing joy with those around him because he had received a valentine. When it turns out the valentine was a mistaken gift, it crushes him so much that he goes back to his old ways. But the neighborhood was used to the happiness and love that he had spread that they go out of their way to find a way make sure that he knows that many people truly love him. A touching book that shows the impact of positive thoughts and actions.
I will admit that I am biased when it comes to “Chrystanthemum.” I love just about anything by Kevin Henkes and this is one of my favorites. The main concept of this story is how mean words can make us wilt, but kind words can make us bloom (similar notion to filling a bucket). When a few girls at school ridicule Chrysanthemum because she has a long name and was named after a flower, it is her teacher who they all love who comes to her rescue. Mean words hurt, no matter how much we try to ignore them. The best medicine is to help those being mean to stop.
In “The Invisible Boy” we are looking a little more closely at what it feels like when people are not kind. Children often only consider their own feelings in a given situation, but it is much more challenging to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Whether it be a child acting out in class because he desperately wants friends or allowing himself to become invisible so that no one will make fun of him. In this book, poor Brian feels like he is invisible – no one picks him to be on their team, he isn’t invited to parties, and he is simply lonely. Amazingly, his invisibility is highlighted in the book by having him be a pencil drawing in a world of vivid color and ink. When he made a new student feel welcomed instead of laughing at his differences, the new kid in turn helped Brian be less invisible and more included. This is a great way to open discussions about challenging topics, like which is worse, being laughed at or being invisible? A remarkable book for elementary school kids.
Once children get the notion of being kind, the goal is to set them out there to try new good deeds. Whether through the awesome story of Mrs. Ruler’s class or through Bernadette Russell’s idea for chronicling your good deeds in some way, there are a lot of great ideas floating out there to get more children spreading kindness.
The back of the book “Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler” says it all – “When Mrs. Ruler asks five of her kindergarteners to miss recess, she’s got a special plan up her sleeve. She’s about to teach a new golden rule: KINDNESS IS COOL! From clearing the table after dinner, to helping the elderly, one kindergarten class is proving that kids really can make a difference.” The five students had been acting up in class, and rather than being mean to each other, she wanted them to each go home and do 5 acts of kindness towards their families. When one little boy asks “What if I don’t want to be kind?” she responds that “good deeds fill needs.”
The kids learn that each kind act leads to more. They move from just being kind at home to being kind in school. When that one little boy still doesn’t fully buy in to the concept, his classmates intervene and help him see the benefits. By the end of the book, the children have done 100 fabulous and fabulously simple acts of kindness at home, school and throughout their community. A great way to show kids that being kind doesn’t mean anything outrageous, it can mean simply setting the table without being asked.
Bernadette Russell created two books that showcase good deeds – “Do Nice. Be Kind. Spread Happy,” and “Be the Change. Make it Happen.” In these books, Russell encourages children to be special agents of kindness and change. Each book offers over 80 ideas of good deeds towards others and the planet. Whether sending a hug through the mail, passing on a favorite book to a stranger, or organizing a clothing drive, these are amazing ways to get children involved in the act of being kind. A seemingly small act to us, like sitting and talking with someone in a retirement home, makes a big impact to the other person. These books are full of lessons we could all learn from.
So now let your children learn from you, and perhaps we can learn from them, to make this world a better place.