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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Love in the time of kholera: Kids books about love and kindness

Kids books on the basics of love and kindness (in time for Valentine’s Day)

No, it’s not a misprint — “kholera” is the Greek word for the English “choler,” meaning bitterness, anger, malevolence, bile and diarrhea. (Sounds like the Pepto-Bismol song, amirite?) Because of its relation to “cholera,” I think it nicely combines hot-tempered meanness and contagious illness, a concept useful for describing the epidemic of virulent viciousness we see sweeping the world. Is there something in the water?

I get it. Plagues happen. But this one is particularly nasty, because the sick are attacking the rest of us. Hate crimes have increased dramatically. Things once only whispered behind closed doors are now shouted from pulpits and podiums.

Bullying, in-person and online, has surged. People who are in any way different are being shamed, harassed and assaulted. Children, especially, have been harmed by infected classmates. An appalling number of bullied children, some as young as 8, have committed suicide.

A wise man once said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” This is on us. Unless we find a remedy, there will be more blood, broken bodies and broken hearts. We will enable a future where might makes right and mean is keen; a future trashed by abusers and littered with their victims.

Beginning now, we need to reassure our children of our love, and give them reason to hope that this disturbance in the force will end. We must provide clear, consistent rules of social engagement that deter abuse. Doing so may address the spread of the disease, but what about the cause? Can anything be done about the tribalism that breeds such hate?

The Beatles advised us that “All you need is love.” That’s lucky, because that’s all we’ve got. Nothing else. Nada. Zip, zero, zilch. Just love. In all of our time on this planet, nobody anywhere — not philosophers, prophets, poets — has come up with anything better than “love one another.”

That’s so simple, such a cliché! We want fancy: a complicated answer with bells and whistles. We want the big reveal, one so complex and difficult that we can say, “Wow! That’s why we never got it right!” At the same time, we want someone else to do the heavy lifting. We want an app.

Oh, wait; we have apps for love, actually. But only for eros. Charity or agape, the Greek term for love for all, is a tough love for all of us, even the app gods. Humanity is so loud, colorful, rude and strange! It’s in our faces and on our screens 24/7; and seriously, those shoes?

Even cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” lamented, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”

Love for our partners, friends and families needs only a spark — a pheromone, a shared passion for sci-fi, the curve of a baby’s cheek — and a circuit for our hearts to travel. Agape needs a mental jumpstart of commitment and courage before our hearts move to complete an emotional connection with strangers.

For that to happen, the ideal, “love one another,” must become the practical, “do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.” So, how do we do, beyond our own backyards? It’s easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer size of humanity and its needs, but Mother Teresa reminds us that “there are no great things, only small things done with great love.”

We must begin with those who are just outside our fences, and do just as we do inside them: We make things personal and we do things with kindness. Kindness is love in action. A small act of kindness can be so powerful that it can ignite both a chain reaction of goodness and feedback loops of happiness for everyone involved.

The Episcopal prayer book of my childhood describes a sacrament, like Holy Communion, as “an outward, visible sign of inward, spiritual grace.” I like to think of kindness the same way. Using a smile and whatever is at hand instead of a wafer and wine, we demonstrate a greater love. Kindness is the most human of sacraments: it is a communion between one person and another, based not upon faith but upon hope.

On this Valentine’s Day in the time of kholera, tribalism threatens our peace and prosperity. We can immunize our children, to the maximum degree possible, by helping them to love outside the tribe, by encouraging them to care for people different from themselves and by inspiring them to be kind.

Is compassion a risk? Of course. But the reward is a healthier, happier world.

Good books can aid in this endeavor by increasing children’s sensitivity to others’ hearts and minds. Well-told stories can change lives, even change history. But our lives and how we live them are stories, too — the most important stories our children will ever learn. Let’s teach them well.

These books were selected because they focus on the basics of love and kindness, and on their rewards for the giver. There are many dozens of other fine works that explore specific examples involving bullying and prejudice. Check our website or ask your favorite librarian or bookseller for help finding them.

Picture books

 

“A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love” by Michelle Edwards. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Mrs. Goldman shows her love for her neighborhood by knitting hats for everyone. Sophia helps by making pom-poms. When she realizes everyone has a hat but busy, generous Mrs. Goldman, she decides to knit one for her.

 

“Here We Are” written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Created as a love letter to his baby son, Jeffers celebrates the glory of life on Earth with lovely paintings and quiet wisdom and humor.

 

“Love Is” by Diane Adams. Illustrated by Claire Keane. A story of evolving and sometimes exhausting love and caring between a girl and her adopted duckling.

 

“Plant A Kiss” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. A Little Miss literally plants a kiss and against all expectations, with careful tending, it grows into something wonderful.

 

“Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch” by Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Paula Yalowitz. Drab, dreary Mr. Hatch gets a candy-filled heart with a note — Somebody Loves You — on Valentines’ Day, and it changes him, which changes his life. A classic.

Middle-grade novels

“The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” by Kate Di Camillo. Illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. The tale of a beloved, but vain and arrogant china rabbit who is lost to his human family and spends years slowly and painfully learning to love. Beautiful and very moving.

 

“The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate. Illustrations by Patricia Castelao. Sometimes our best teachers are creatures. Ivan is a shopping-mall gorilla who had given up his dreams of freedom until he becomes the advocate for and protector of a baby elephant also stolen from the wild. The absolutely marvelous 2013 Newbery Medal Winner.

 

“The Wild Robot” written and illustrated by Peter Brown. A shipwreck lands Roz the Robot on an un(human)-populated island. As she learns to survive, she makes friends, adapts to her neighbors and becomes an indispensable and beloved part of her community.

 

“Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate. Illustrations by Charles Santoso. Did you know that trees can talk? Red, a 216-year-old oak, certainly can. Stalwart Red is the working-class Irish neighborhood’s beloved “wishtree,” to which wish-inscribed bits of cloth are tied annually. When a refugee family moves to Red’s territory, big problems ensue and Red is forced to act — and speak up. Heart-warming, funny and completely charming.

 

“A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. When their scientist dad is kidnapped by evil interstellar forces, Meg and Charles Wallace Murry journey through spacetime to rescue him and save the universe. (Disney’s feature film based on L’Engle’s book and starring Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Zach Galifianakis, and Chris Pine will be in theaters March 9.) Believe it or not, this 1963 Newbery Medal Winner is all about the awesome power of love.

 

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Debra Citron

Debra Citron, of Phoenix, is a writer and lifelong supporter of children's literature and literacy.

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