Empowering Empathy

I’ve got four special middle grade novels to share with you today!

Novels for young people are unique breed. They are meant to entertain and educate, and some even have the power to foster a life-long passion for the written word. But perhaps most importantly, these stories can have a special role in encouraging a reader’s awareness and acceptance of others.

A good book lets you peek into the window of someone else’s life, and safely ask, “what makes that person behave the way they do?” The answer is often surprising and enlightening. And at its best, empathy empowering.

1) In Elly Swartz’s FINDING PERFECT, readers follow Molly Nathans as her desire for things to be perfect and well-ordered increasingly controls her life, vs. the other way around. We watch with growing concern as her ‘quirks’ become a more obvious and invasive obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is an extremely helpful read for anyone struggling to understand the behavior of OCD, and how ‘out of control’ one can feel…wrapped up with the hopeful message of what may lie on the other side of treatment.

2) Melissa Roske’s KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN  also explores the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, this time from the point of view of middle schooler Kat Greene, who watches her mother struggle with increasingly problematic behaviors. The story achingly shows how anxiety can manifest (and take over) in everyday life, and the things we do to deny that it’s happening (to ourselves and others). Readers will take away the message of “keep talking to helpful adults” woven into this compelling story of friendship & growth. 

3) Ellie Terry’s FORGET ME NOT is the story of a girl with Tourette syndrome who starts a new school and tries to hide her quirks. The window into understanding and feeling the unpredictability and frustration that is Tourette Syndrome is wide open as we follow Calliope June’s journey toward self-acceptance. Based in part on the author’s own experiences with TS, this beautiful novel in verse shows the realities and hardships of navigating new friendships, and is buoyed by a rich and realistic cast of supporting characters.

4) INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling (yes that’s her real name!) also gives readers an honest look at what it’s like to navigate life with ‘significant’ differences. Main character Aven Green “loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them.” (Goodreads). When she moves to a new town, she is befriended by Connor, a boy who barks and spits because of his Tourette Syndrome. Both Aven and Connor understand what it feels like to not fit in, and more importantly, they both also know how to be a true friend.

I hope that you and/or a child in your life enjoy reading these fantastic new books on the kid lit scene. I’m grateful to the authors  for creating and sharing these lovable, strong, important characters. I know their stories will open minds and hearts.

Guerilla Kindness

justbeniceIt has been a rough couple of weeks for this Pollyanna of politics. I’ve been thrust out of several bubbles I had been living in. And it’s uncomfortable. (I was the white lady reaching for the Xanax in that SNL skit about election night.) I thought that since the people I chose to surround myself with held values similar to mine, that meant that most other people did, too. It was hard to see how wrong I was about that. It was hard to imagine someone being able to ignore the ugly packaging and vote for what I believed to be a message of reversal of times, reversal of progress.

I spent the first few days after the election reading, reading, reading. Trying to understand. I know Republicans who are really good people, and some who aren’t. I know Democrats who are really good people, and some who aren’t. I know Independents who are good people, and some who aren’t. My chosen candidate has lost more than once in my adult life. But this was the first time the outcome of an election made me so despondent. I did not and still do not know how to reconcile the fact that the president-elect of our county embodies the antithesis of what I value most: kindness toward others.

I had to figure out what I was going to do next. After sitting on the couch under my blanket fort for a few days, I knew I needed to start acting. What I’ve decided is that now is the time for Guerilla Kindness.

I first learned the term guerilla warfare in 8th grade, when I was writing an essay about the Iran-Contra Affair (I was an overambitious English student). Before that, I had heard the term but had pictured angry gorillas flinging dung at one another. Guerilla warfare is the use of hit-and-run tactics by small, mobile groups of irregular forces operating in territory controlled by a hostile, regular force (Dictionary.com).

The idea of guerilla kindness came to me after hearing this post-election story: A woman saw a mother and son behind her in a fast-food drive thru line, pointing and laughing at her political bumper stickers. She made a split-second decision to turn her anger into action. She paid for their meals. You see? Guerilla kindness. And nothing they can do about it.

My call to action/forward motion:

safetypin After the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, incidents of racism skyrocketed, and people began donning safety pins as a way of showing their support for the immigrants living in the country, assuring that they’re safe with them. And I had noticed that the trend had spread to the U.S. after our election results similarly emboldened people to act even more overtly on their bigotry.

My first act of guerilla kindness started small, with something I did to make myself feel better. I scrounged in my jewelry box and came up with a safety pin, which I affixed to my burse (my backpack-purse, which is a thing. At least it is to me.) I’m not sure what I thought this little piece of metal would accomplish, but somehow it helped me get my shoes on and out the door. You see, it was my first outing since the election, and my heart was heavy. But I had been waiting 6 months for a one-day-only mattress sale, so off I went to help stabilize our economy. The sales person who greeted me looked similarly glum. We’ll call him Abdelhadi (because that’s his name).

When I pulled my burse off my shoulder to pay, he saw my safety pin. And once my transaction was complete, he whispered, “My wife has not gone to work for two days. She can’t stop crying.” I told him I had been crying on and off, too. “You?” he said with surprise. “You cried?”

I told him it was hard being confronted with just how out of touch I was with the racial divide in our country, how painful it was to have the illusion that I had been paying attention be broken. “Now you know,” he told me. Then he reached out for my hand and said more softly, “now you know.” It destroyed me. Here was this Muslim man from Dubai comforting me about my sadness.

When we parted ways, we shared a lingering handshake. “Tell you wife…” I started, but I couldn’t finish my thought. Tell her what? What could I possibly say to her to make her feel better? Hadi came to my rescue. “I’ll tell her you cried,” he said. “I’ll tell her you cried, too.”

 

 

wabanakibook

Okay, you put a pin on your purse. What now? What else?

I’ve written before about a service organization called hawkwing, Inc (the h is not capitalized, no matter how much I want it to be).  They “provide essential services and support for the people of the Cheyenne River Lakota (Sioux) Indian Reservation,” and run an annual holiday giveaway that is organized in a warehouse near my home. “The Annual Giveaway brings joy each winter to some 2,600 children on the Reservation, many of whom would otherwise receive nothing for the holidays. Each child receives new toys, books, warm clothes and personal care products. We also supply dozens of Tribal programs and schools with equipment, supplies, coats, shoes and educational materials.” They are partnered with First Book and one of my favorite stations in the warehouse is the book corner. But I noticed a need for books for older kids, and when I saw WABANAKI BLUES by Melissa Zobel at a local bookstore, I picked up a copy and dropped it off at hawkwing. Stealth. Guerilla. Kindness.

 

cookies

Okay, you put on a pin, and you bought a book. What else? I thought about the Syrian refugee family, new to my town, sponsored in their transition by IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) and supported by my place of worship. I had been meaning to say a formal “hello and welcome.” This would probably be a good time for me to take them cookies. Making the cookies was easy (and delish). Taking them to the door was harder. I wasn’t sure how much English they knew. Would they be confused about who I was, what I was doing there? Turns out holding a Tupperware of baked goods is the universal sign for “I’m here to say hello.” I got smiles. I got introductions. I got invited in.

I know there are many people whose opinions differ from mine on the topic of immigration and resettlement. I would implore those interested to read the Time Magazine article: This is how the Syrian Refugee Screening Process Works. “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees [people from Syria] are the single most heavily screened and vetted.” – Jana Mason, senior adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Picture the kids from Aleppo you’ve seen, covered in ash from bombing raids. Now picture them living next to and playing on the Hubbard Green in Glastonbury, CT. Which would you want if it was your child?

We must put education before fear. We must see each other as human beings. Cookie-eating, book-reading, family-loving, human beings. My way of doing that is going to be with this idea of Guerilla Kindness. I’m going to be a mobile irregular force of small hit-and-run acts of kindness. And I’m going to be kind to you no matter who you voted for. Or how you worship. Or where you came from. Or who you love. And you can’t stop me.

Like a friend’s yard sign says:

“🇺🇸  we treat all people with dignity regardless of origin, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views ”

 

Join me?

 

carmagnet

 

 

 

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