The kindness of strangers

| 12

Earlier this month Besty Bird at Fuse 8 said of Playing by the book “this site just pours its heart into each and every post“. She’s right. I’ve always been told I wear my heart on my sleeve, and today is no different. Except that perhaps today’s post is even more personal than usual. It’s about something that has profoundly touched my heart.

Photo: Olgierd Pstrykotwórca

Two months ago today a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Canterbury region in New Zealand’s South Island. My thoughts immediately flew to Christchurch resident Bronwyn, a reader of my blog, a person I’ve never met, I’ve never even spoken to, but with whom I had a small connection thanks to comments here on Playing by the book. As it happens we first “met” via last year’s International Postcard Swap for Families (I do wonder what unknown friendships and consequences lie ahead as a result of this year’s swap!)

Upon hearing the news I wanted to let Bronwyn know I was thinking of her and her family, and to do something to help her and the others affected. A few short tweets later I was happy to hear that Bronwyn and her family were safe, their house was damaged, but they were alive. We exchanged some ideas and very quickly these coalesced around two ideas ; working together to get books quickly into welfare centres for those who had lost their homes and setting up a scheme to pair families from around the world with families in Christchurch to send a book parcel as a sign of friendship, support and solidarity through a very difficult time. To find out more, you can read the original blog post here.

Thanks to the incredible, humbling, heartbreaking kindness of strangers Bronwyn and I worked together and got approximately 565 books into welfare centres and care packages to provide families with something to enjoy, some relief as they started to try to move on and rebuild their lives.

I want to thank so very much author Justin Brown, Nic McCloy from Allen and Unwin, Julia Marshall of Gecko Press, Darnia Hobson, Emily Perkins, Rachel, Ngaire Mackle and Nikki Crowther for sending books and vouchers to Bronwyn for distribution in Christchurch.

We also paired up 50 families from the UK, US, India, La Reunion, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand with families in Christchurch, some of whom had lost everything including all their books. I want to thank, honour and celebrate these tremendously generous people who reached out, who shared their love of books and extended a hand of friendship at a time of need.

Amy, Valerie, Zoe, Vicki, Debra, Shelley, Bonnie, Sonya, Jax, Elizabeth, Melanie D, Patricia, Melanie C, Ami, Sandhya, Kathleen, Sheonad, Rebecca, Jean, Jacqueline, Jane, Bridget, Maria-Cristina, Annette, Christina, Katherine, Anne, Susan, Jan, Holly, Keris, Janelle, Alexandra, Sue, Dee, Katherine W, Julie Ann, Ali, Anne, Angela, Maggy, Roberta, Katherine S, Tricia, Kate, Vanessa, Kathryn and Daisy

Because these amazing people were so generous we helped 122 children and their families. One very kind donor sent a large package of books to a preschool with even more children. We’re also in the process of helping a library in the US pair up with a library in Christchurch!

I’ve had lovely emails back from the families who received books, so grateful for the kindness extended, for the sense of being part of a larger community. I’ve heard of children who have been sleeping with their new books so happy, so thrilled have they been with their gift from a stranger.

You, me, us, as part of a community, we made a difference, and I’m proud and inspired by what we were able to achieve together and this post is to say thank you to you all for what you did.

In a world where strangers are all too often depicted as a threat to be wary of I want to celebrate the kindness strangers can show. I want to celebrate the fact that people, given half a chance, want to help and will be generous beyond belief. It’s a great thing to have experienced.

With the help of many people I don’t know I’ve also compiled a list of examples of the kindness of strangers in children’s literature – a source of future inspiration for me and perhaps you when we need to be reminded of how kind people can be.

The Shaking Bag by Gwendolyn Battle-Lavert and Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
“Battle-Lavert takes the folklore motif of kindness to a stranger and spins a brilliant, beautifully written original tale. The rhythmic language demands to be read aloud, and children will enjoy chiming in on Raven’s magical chant. ” (SLJ review)

The Paper Crane by Molly Bang
Thanks to the generosity of a poor visitor, a restaurant owner is able to revive his fortunes.
The Star by Ute Blaich and Julie Litty
“Owl tries to explain the concept of Christmas to his hungry companions Raven, White Grouse, Sheep, and Mouse. They are confused and skeptical, especially when Owl tries to convince them that there are good human beings. He tells them about Christmas, which he calls “the Feast of Peace and Love.” Sheep points out that humans eat meat during this celebration, and Owl has to agree. “People,” he says, “have their own definition of peace and love.” The others still aren’t convinced, until a man and a child come out of the forest and leave the animals food so that they, too, can celebrate.” (School Library Journal review)
The Gifts by Regina Fackelmayer and Christa Unzer
“In this appealing Christmas fantasy, an old-fashioned-looking girl named Mia buys a turkey for dinner, gifts for her dog and cat, a hat for herself, and a Christmas tree. Stopping to help an old man who has slipped on the ice, she leaves her tree outdoors. When she goes out searching for her forgotten tree, she gives her new hat to a little boy who has lost his. Later that night, the man and the boy appear at her doorway with her Christmas tree, decorated and lit with candles. Mia makes a likable protagonist, with her independent ways and her kind heart. A German import, the story is written with clarity and restraint, right down to the hint of magic in the ending.” (Booklist review)
Tom Finder by Martine Leavitt
This story about a homeless boy has a couple great examples of strangers showing kindness. The newspaper man’s kindness is important to both the plot and internal arc of the main character. He shows up a few times in the book and is mentioned in the closing lines. A librarian also shows kindness (and introduces Tom to poetry). You can read an interview with Martine Leavitt about Tom Finder here.

Shaun Tan‘s The Arrival and The Lost Thing both feature the kindness of strangers. In The Arrival helped by the kindness of others an immigrant gradually settles in to new country, finds a job and is able to save enough to pay for his wife and daughter to join him. One day his daughter goes shopping and she herself helps out another new arrival and thus one journey comes full circle as a new one is just beginning (you can read my full review here). In The Lost Thing they boy and the huge alien Lost Thing have nothing in common, and yet the boy puts himself out to find a home for it.

Somebody Loves You, Mr Hatch written by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Paul Yalowitz
A story all about how love and tender regard can turn round a lacklustre existence. One Valentine’s Day Mr. Hatch receives a giant candy-filled heart is with a note that reads, “Somebody loves you.” The mere thought of someone taking an interest in him completely changes the way Mr. Hatch interacts with his neighbours and co-workers. And when it turns out the gift was delivered to the wrong address his wonderful new friends rally round – all their lives have been changed because one person felt loved.
The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust written by Karen Gray Ruelle, illustrated by Deborah Durland DeSaix
This picture book for older children retells a small part of Second World War history in France, of how the Muslims of the Grand Mosque of Paris saved Jewish lives by offering them sanctuary in the Mosque. You can read an interesting review of this book on the Paper Tigers website.
Any Small Goodness by Tony Johnston
This book has a segment in which Mr. Love finds and cares for the Rodriguez family cat, Huitlacoche. Papi explains to Arturo that Mr. Love’s act was especially good as it was done with no attention or fanfare: “When no eyes are upon him, that is a person’s true test.” (p36).
The Stray by Dick King-Smith has many lovely examples of strangers being kind.
In Lassie, Come Home by Eric Knight, the collie meets both cruel and kind strangers.
A favorite picture book at our house (writes Katharine Wright), Tim All Alone by Edward Ardizzone, has Tim kindly treated by sailors when he signs on as a cabin boy, and by a single woman who nurses him back to health. There are also, though, a crew of unkindly sailors and a “nice” lady who tries to drag him into the orphanage.
The Scarebird by Sid Fleischman. Makes a great connection between how helping others often leads to making our own situations better.

Other examples of the kindness of strangers in children’s literature could include Boo Radley’s kindness in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the Brothers Cheeryble in Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens, Markus Zuzek’s I am the Messenger, Ministering Children by Maria Louisa Charlesworth, Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Railway Children by Nesbit.

Thanks to Sarah Blake Johnson, Virginia Lowe, Kim Alexander, Marjorie Coughlan, Melissa Henderson, Kerry Bryna, Stephanie Nystrom, Katharine Wright, Tammy Flanders for helping me compile this list of examples of the kindness of strangers.

If you have any more examples of the kindness of strangers in children’s books please let me know and I’ll add them to our list!

12 Responses

  1. Natalia Ortega-Brown

    I’ve loved children’s books forever, but it was only two months ago that I decided to profess my love out loud by blogging about them. Since then, I feel like I’ve discovered this whole new world of bloggers who share the same love and passion…and it almost makes me sad to have not been aware of it before. I truly believe the past two months reading and writing about children’s books has changed me.
    I say all this, because your most recent post really touched me and solidified those feeling I just mentioned. How truly AWESOME it is that you were able to make that connection with someone so far away! And make a difference in the lives of so many families! Again, awesome!
    Let me just add that I look forward to reading your posts.
    Kind Regards from Peekskill, NY
    Natalia Ortega-Brown recently posted..While You Are Sleeping

  2. victoria

    What you did was a wonderful thing.
    Three Australian picture books on your theme of helping others are:
    * Amelia Ellicott’s Garden by Lilliana Stafford & Stephen Michael King
    * Nobody’s Granny by Tess Brady
    * Leaves for Mr Walter Janeen Brian
    All should be available in libraries if not still in print and at shops.

  3. maggy, red ted art

    You made me all teary!! Don’t forget to thank yourself for organising us all into helping others… not just Christchurch, but also Japan!!

    And love the list of books!

    Maggy xx

  4. Ali B

    I agree with Maggy. What you and Bronwyn was a wonderful thing, and proof that individual acts can make great differences. My favourite example of the kindness of strangers is Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper (from the Dark Is Rising series)- Jane’s sympathy for the Green Witch figure leads to her saving the day.
    Ali B recently posted..London Bookfair 2011

  5. Zoe

    Thankyou Maggy, Ali and Melitsa.

    One thing that really came home to me was that if you just give people the chance, they want to help. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help – with Christchurch, and then Japan I think we all felt overwhelmed, like it was/is just too enormous and awful for us as individuals to make any difference. This project (for want of a much better word) gave us all a way to make a small difference, and those small differences have added up to make a bigger difference.

  6. Allie

    I agree that what you guys did was a wonderful thing — my kids have been really stressed and upset and getting those books and knowing someone was thinking of them made a world of difference. To cap it off my middle son, who is not a confident reader, has flown ahead in his reading thanks to wanting to read his new books by himself in bed at night.

    Thank you a million times over for the idea, for carrying it out and for making my kids happy. Special thanks to Amy and family who were so generous to my kids. Between you all, you really did make a huge difference.

    • Zoe

      Yes, it’s a great thing to have been made possible by twitter, email and FB isn’t it?

  7. Liz

    This is a really beautiful post, it totally made me teary. And I think you’re right about focusing on the positive with strangers, what a great message!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.