MTYT: I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati and Marilyn Carpenter, Professor Emeritus, Eastern Washington University

In the last April MTYT, Holly and Marilyn discuss the not-so-simple acts of kindness as seen in I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët.

I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness

HOLLY: As we end this month, Marilyn, I cannot help but think about how often people seem to choose anger and hate over kindness and concern. There are so many books for young people that promote peace and loving kindness, but our national and cosmic stories are often so filled with how we harm and hate one another. I am struck by how a “simple” act of kindness (as noted in our posting from last week) take so little effort, but we don’t often celebrate those kinds of acts as often as we should.

MARILYN: Like the other books in this set, this book appears to be simple but is not. The title even includes the words, “A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness, which is misleading, because the act of kindness in the story takes thoughtful observation, leadership, courage and collaboration in addition to kindness. It is not a simple act of kindness. This wordless picturebook’s illustrations carry the story and depict a boy bulling a new student as she walks home from school with other children. Another girl notices and also sees how sad this makes the new girl. The observer tells the other walkers about what she witnessed. All night long she struggles to find a way to help the new girl. At breakfast she has an idea. She goes to the new girl’s house and invites her to walk to school with her. As they make their way to school, the new student is introduced to other children who are walking to school. They embrace her, even holding hands with her, as they make their way to class. Other children join in and surround her. The illustration shows the bully, red with embarrassment. The author’s note gives children ideas about what to do when they see a child who is being hurt or bullied.

HOLLY: I keep thinking the books we have selected are, for the most part, quite simple stories that present simple ways in which people have the opportunity to be kind to one another, or to be accepting of each other. I keep using the word “simple,” and yet, it seems that kindness takes so much more than one simple act. It takes volition, the idea that “you gotta wanna,” and then intentionality leads to action. Actions often mean defying the status quo. So, maybe, being kind isn’t so simple, but is, in fact, revolutionary, because these acts are bigger than the concept of simple.

In many ways, taking the first step can be simple, but we have to get there mentally. I say, we encourage young people, old people and all those people in between. Try it. Take the first step. This books shows both the thinking and the action, making us think about acts of kindness with students and others. Is kindness simple, Marilyn?

MARILYN: Definitely not. It’s clear the illustrators carefully chose to show the girl’s steps to help the bullied girl. It would be valuable for an adult reader to give the children plenty of time to read the pictures and interpret them. Many of the illustrations are small and require careful attention to discern the expressions on the characters’ faces. This is another book that will grab the attention of a wide ranges of ages. After observing and interpreting these images, a discussion will support children as they work out how to respond to bullies.

HOLLY: Or as they work out a way of embracing, and not ignoring, others. People don’t need to be bullied to feel sad, dejected, hopeless or angry. They can be ignored, which results in an alienation that can be harmful to the individual and to the community. Everyone’s voice is important, and when that is missing, the community has missed an opportunity to know more, to be more and to create more. I Walk with Vanessa could be a great book at the start or end of a unit. As the other books we have discussed this month, it can compel action, but this book pulls no punches. It presents an action as it is, no questions asked. Let’s discuss other books that address similar themes.

The picture books that I might add to a text set that shows acts of kindness include The Lion and the Bird (Dubac, 2014) or The Promise (Davies, 2017), Hope Springs (Walters, 2014) or Thank You, Jackson (Daly, 2015). These are books from various parts of the world, but can be found in libraries or from booksellers. Perhaps if adults decided to spend a bit more time thinking about and acting upon our better natures, we might begin to create communities (big and small) that would be more inclusive, more understanding and more accepting. What do you think, Marilyn? Do you have other books we could add to this text set?

MARILYN: Several books come to mind that would enrich this text-set and enlarge the ideas about being kind. The first two are by Jacqueline Woodson. Both The Other Side (2001) and Each Kindness (2012) further develop the themes in our text set. Then I Am Enough (Byers, 2018) shows that each person needs to value who she is in order to respect and to be kind to others. Finally, two books by Bob Graham: How to Heal a Broken Wing (2008) and Rose Meets Mr. Wintergreen (1992) will also expand the theme of kindness. These two titles by Graham will inspire discussion about kind deeds. Students will want to hear or read each story again and again. Each title will encourage discussion and lead children to think about being kind in new ways. As these read-aloud titles present opportunities to develop deeper understandings, children will gain new views of what it means to be kind.

HOLLY: Ultimately, our topic of kindness is not only an alternative for a way of living in the world, but perhaps the only realistic alternative for survival of the world itself and its people. These books give readers a choice. We always have a decision to make when encountering others in pleasant or not-so-pleasant circumstances. We can attempt to reach out in kindness or remain alienated through distrust and suspicion. Given the history of the world, and some of our individual histories, choosing kindness may seem naïve or unrealistic. Perhaps these books are about maintaining the hope of kindness, especially when we are confronted with world, national and community events that would suggest otherwise. It would be interesting to look across any number of books about disastrous events in the world and determine moments of potential kindness and what may have resulted. We are already in a “choose your own adventure” world, so why not take that thinking to historical events to show that throughout history, there has always already been someone who chose kindness rather than fear, anger, or hate. We need to begin to think more about this as our world becomes smaller and each action has a global impact.

Title: I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness
Author and Illustrator: Kerascoët
ISBN: 9781524769567
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Publication Date: April 24, 2018

This wraps up April 2019’s MTYT and our discussion on kindness. Read how this theme is represented in Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, The Day War Came, and The Day You Begin. Tell us what you think and come back for next month’s MTYT.

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