Small Acts of Kindness and Cooperation Make a Difference
Marilyn Carpenter, Holly Johnson, Janelle Mathis, and Jean Schroeder
The Red Apple by Feridun Oral
Holly: This month I cannot help but think about small changes that build and eventually make a difference. I think it is because of the coming of spring in Cincinnati. A book that would fall into the theme of how small acts, kindness, and cooperation can make a difference is The Red Apple written and illustrated by Feridun Oral. One of the selections on the USBBY’s Outstanding International Books for 2016, The Red Apple is a Turkish tale about hungry Rabbit who ventures out into the winter cold in search of food. Rabbit spots one lone apple still high up in a tree only to discover that the apple is beyond reach. Thinking that perhaps Mouse could help get the apple, Rabbit asks for help. Mouse is too frightened to scale the tree so suggests standing on Rabbit’s head. They are still too short to reach the apple. With the eventual enlistment of two others, Fox and Bear, the four animals are able to reach the apple and enjoy a snack before they settle in for a winter’s nap. Together.
What I like so much about this book is the attention to the process of working collectively to problem-solve the apple dilemma. Mouse “listened carefully” to rabbit and decides to help. Thus, it becomes both Rabbit’s and Mouse’s problem. Not because they are both presented with the problem, but because Mouse agrees to help Rabbit. And Fox and Bear are also enlisted, and agree to help, and thus they all confront the problem and solve it together. All are then rewarded by splitting the apple.
This books suggests that when we work with others, we agree to carry the burden but are also rewarded by our collective efforts. In this case, readers know the reward and thus the animals know toward what they are striving. When I first read it, I was a bit apprehensive that when they finally got the apple, there might be a problem with who gets the apple. I was very happy with the outcome! What do you all think?
Jean: A couple of things crossed my mind as I read The Red Apple. When Rabbit discovered the fruit my first thought was Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. Would Rabbit give up and continue looking for some nourishment making an excuse for not reaching the apple. Even when Mouse joined the effort my thoughts were still in line with sour grapes. My thinking changes totally with the introduction of Fox and Bear. Ha! I thought, here comes Fox. But I had to change gears when he agrees to help, and Bear joins the group. At this point what strikes me is that these animals would be adversaries normally – not collaborators. This makes the story richer for me. It gives way to thinking about people who would not regularly spend time together but who might find themselves in critical circumstances and working together is the only option for surviving. I think about global warming and the recent global decision to work against the Earth’s temperature rising. There are many world issues that will need all of us working toward common goals.
Marilyn: Jean, your words make me think of the headline this morning about the European Union’s decision to ship all the Syrian refugees back to Turkey. In order to induce Turkey to do so, promises were made that will benefit Turkey. But, what about the refugees who have lost their homes, members of their families, and their work? Have they been consulted? No, and the agreement doesn’t even mention any of the thousands of other refugees from other countries who are trapped behind border fences. What are they to do? The story of The Red Apple provides a model of what could be done to cooperate and work for the common good of everyone. Not only the refugees but also for the humanity of the world.
Holly, your words – “This book suggests that when we work with others, we agree to carry the burden but are also rewarded by our collective efforts” makes me think how satisfying it is to discover the value of sharing the burden but also how the collective effort makes that burden lighter for all. This morning, I am working to help relieve the load of a neighbor. Her husband is in the process of dying and it is taking a long time. It is a tough and sad time for both of them. She needs some time to take care of her needs. So I am calling other neighbors this morning to ask them to sit with him during the day so the wife can get some relief. Everyone has been most helpful, even saying they can devote more time than requested. With such a common effort we are supporting each other and that knowledge is our reward. Even an apparently simple picture books offers a healing lesson. That is one of the rewards for children as well as adults of reading such books.
Janelle: When I first opened The Red Apple, I was drawn in by the illustrations—continuous snow landing on shades of wintry browns and tan. Animals in their winter coats carrying out the seasonal theme as well as bare trees and snow covered ground. The red apple is the pivotal point on each page where it appears as its bright red color draws the attention of the animals as well as reader. I must admit that when thinking about the practicality of cooperation, I was apprehensive in that among the animals were natural predators who not only worked together but ended up sleeping together for the winter. Ah, but this is fantasy and if an apple can remain brilliantly red on a barren tree during what appears to be freezing temperatures, then animals can befriend each other despite natural tendencies. Which, brings another thought to mind: that of putting aside differences and distrusts in times of need—an understanding that people of all ages and backgrounds need to adopt. Reality of this particular theme helps me think of the reality that each had some reason not to climb the tree: health, tiredness, fear. Such reasons cannot be ignored, but as Holly has mentioned, working together, the animals can be successful in spite of their various personal issues. Returning to the art, however, I think my favorite aspect is the expressions of each animal as they focus on the apple and the task at hand.
Why Dogs Have Wet Noses by Kenneth Steven; illustrated by Øyvind Torseter.
Jean: Never in my wildest dream would I have guessed that all the wet noses on my favorite dogs came about because of Noah’s Ark! Kenneth Steven offers a version of Noah’s adventure that has some variation from the biblical tale. He gathers up all the animals, but there is room to believe that more than the unicorn was left behind. And the careful accounting that one male and one female of each animal rode the waves for 40 days and night might also be questioned. But let’s think about the dog. I think he came alone – no mate. He follows Noah around faithfully through the beginning of the journey until the ark springs a leak. The pup who is right at Noah’s heels becomes, involuntarily, the solution as Noah picks him up and stuffs his nose in the hole to plug the leak. And there he remains throughout the journey. How he eats, breathes or takes a potty break is left up to the reader to question. The illustrations by Oyvind Torseter tell much of the adventure and will have children poring over the book laughing at what they find. Author and illustrator bring a sense of humor to the telling. Back to the dog. When they bump into land everyone disembarks, but the dog is stuck . . . and forgotten until Noah runs back and retrieves him. The dog, true to his nature, had stayed completely still with his nose in the hole because he was devoted to his master. He saved the day! The dog sacrifices his own comfort for the love of another and in the process the entire community survives and grows.
The comical illustrations sport conveniences Noah never dreamed could even exist. The animals board with luggage on wheels. Noah’s wife has a tea bag, there is a line to the bathroom, and a turntable and vinyl operated by a deer that keeps everyone dancing. Despite the cramped quarters, the community is seen at peace with each other.
Marilyn: I loved the pourquoi tale flavor of this story. It is an irreverent and heartwarming take on the Noah story that reminds me of Peter Spiers’ Noah’s Ark, a Caldecott winner from the 70’s. Spiers’ Noah also grapples with the hard work of ushering all the animals onto the ark, feeding them and then cleaning up after them. I enjoyed how in this version the dog is true to the nature of most dogs, following Noah at his heels and staying at a task when told.
Recently, I told our dog to sit and stay while I performed a task in the yard. She was still there 20 minutes later when I returned. Not quite as long as Noah’s dog plugging the leak, but still impressive. I am sure kids are going inquire how the dog stayed at his post for so long. Was food provided? Did he get to pee? I think it would be fun to discuss the colorful language in the book with students such as “lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snake’s tongues” (np).
Janelle: There is so much to love about this book! The use of a well-known Biblical story mixed with images that reflect contemporary life and a modern tall tale invite readers into long periods of reading illustrations – the bull at the cafe, the monkey with his rolling luggage, the insect with his cane and phone in use as he walks to the ark. All this while still on the second page spread! But along with my fellow dog lovers, the faithful “funny mixture” with the soft black nose, captures one’s attention as he remains faithful to Noah’s request–plugging the ark’s hole with his nose. As noted, there is much entertainment in the images of this community of animals–each creature personified within modern day activities. Yet the dog touches our hearts as he exemplifies our notions of faithfulness, helping, and dependence upon humans to be faithful in return. The book reminds me of the shared stories across global cultures as well as the universality in humor and in our appreciation of animals.
Holly: The concepts of faithfulness, helpfulness, and loyalty are all encapsulated in the dog’s diligence in plugging the hole. So, underneath all that humor supplied by the illustrations, I think this book captures shared values that cross many nations, just as you note, Janelle. Of course, for some nations, dogs do not hold the same affection for their human families as they do in the West, but this shows not only the dog’s faithfulness to the task at hand, but also his work ethic, which could be understood in many cultures. I also think this book transcends cultures in respect to just how communities function! A bit willy-nilly but with an optimism that all will survive together.
As Marilyn notes, I wondered about all the questions a young reader might ponder as they read the book. I think that pondering should be valued as it is a great way to attend to empathy. Feeling what that dog may have felt, I was VERY concerned for HIS welfare! Of course, poor Noah, having to put up with all the shenanigans on the ark. Can you imagine? Lovely, humorous story out of Norway that I think a lot of readers would enjoy.
My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald; illustrated by Freya Blackwood.
Janelle: Cartwheel, a name given to the child in My Two Blankets by her Auntie, is forced to leave her rural home because of war and seek safety in a city where everything is strange. This theme is not uncommon in immigrant stories for children, but unique to this story is how the author metaphorically describes language as a blanket. Cartwheel describes her old blanket as one of her “own words and sounds” that was warm, soft and safe. It was a place where she could hide from the “waterfall” of strange sounds, words that made her feel alone, cold and not herself. One day, she and her auntie are walking in the park and a girl smiles and waves which leads to a friendship of sharing games as well as words. Over time as these words began to form a new blanket and with two comfortable blankets of words to use, Cartwheel knows, “I will always be me.” This story of what a small gesture of friendship and support can do for a newly immigrated child is told as well by the illustrations.
Using bold water colors and oil paint, the illustrator reveals just a bit about the girl’s rural home in warm red and orange hues. We might assume it is Sudan as the author says the story was inspired by a friend of her daughter from Sudan. These same warm hues also depict the old blanket while the illustrator uses cool colors and white space to show the cold of the new environment. Perhaps this is Australia as that is where the author lives, however, it could be any large city. Unique to the illustrations are the shapes and symbols flowing out of stranger’s mouths that represent words. These same images are used to weave the new blanket of language at the story’s end.
This simplistic, first person account carries a powerful message of the hope we can give in simple ways to those newly arrived in our country. Just as we do not know much about Cartwheel’s family, life before immigration, and the journey to her new home, we may not know a lot about the background of the newcomers we meet. Yet, supporting them in the present as they adapt makes a difference in their negotiation of identity in a new community.
Were you personally touched by this story, as was I?
Jean: My Two Blankets brought many connections to mind. I related to another immigrant story, Here I Am by Patti Kim (illustrations by Sonia Sanchez), in which the young boy hides from his new environment by staying in his apartment. When he has to go out into the community he is met with the sights, sounds, smells and smiles that help him find his way. Also in this story the words on signs are garbled lettering making them in comprehensible. This child, like Cartwheel, had two blankets and found the small acts of friendship pave the way for him.
In reality what seem like the small kindnesses in the three books we have highlighted are actually monumental: surviving a harsh winter, saving all those on the Arc, adjusting to a new culture and creating a new definition of “home”. The characters performing those acts are also small in as much as they are not the “in charge” adult figures, but rather they are peers or companions taking on major roles. In The Red Apple I was reminded of a group of children working on a project. The dog in Why Dogs Have Wet Noses was Noah’s companion, not a highly trained rescue or specialty dog. In My Two Blankets it is a young girl who reaches out. It would be hard not to be touched by these kindnesses.
Marilyn: I made a lot of connections to this story, too. I remember a kindergarten child that came late in the year as a new student. She seemed so sad because no one in the class spoke her language. It was heartwarming to see how the other children took her under their wing and taught her English. She made more progress in her learning with her peers than she did with the formal ESL classes she attended. That’s one of the elements that stood out to me in this story, how the kindness of another child helped the immigrant child weave a blanket of new words, which lifted her sadness. The child in the park was an ambassador to the immigrant child, building a friendship through sharing language.
There is such a warmth to this story. I particularly found the metaphors – blanket, waterfall – evocative. They made me feel like I was part of the emotions of the story. I especially resonated to the idea of the blankets of words. So many children find comfort in their blankets. I also thought that the ending was powerful. The blanket of new words didn’t replace the old. Finally, the illustrations by Freya Blackwood are favorites of mine. They remind me of picture books from my childhood. Another book illustrated by Blackwood is a particular favorite of mine Harry and Hopper written by Margaret Wild.
Holly: Yes, with My Two Blankets the theme of how small actions can make a real difference becomes really evident. In The Red Apple, each of the animals involved helped Rabbit in a small way—offering to help with reaching an apple in a tree. Why Dogs Have Wet Noses presents a wonderful dog standing loyal to his task of using his nose to plug the leak in Noah’s ark. Now, in My Two Blankets, the small kindness of a smile from a girl in the park gives Cartwheel a sense of being seen and eventually of belonging and an expansion of identity, which is no small thing. Through first the budding friendship and then the help of learning a new language, Cartwheel comes to understand that regardless of what language she uses, she is still herself.
And as Janelle noted, the illustrations really help tell the story and do give a sense of the author’s environment of Australia. This doesn’t mean, however, that this is not a universal story for all readers everywhere. Just noticing what is happening in the world right now tells me we need more stories and models of kindness. These three books can provide wonderful ways to address kindness with and to others.
Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago. Translated by Elisa Amado, with pictures by Rafael Yockteng
Marilyn: Two White Rabbits is one of the Recommended Books for the 2016 Charlotte Huck Award that is given by NCTE. The Award criteria includes fiction with “potential to transform children’s lives, invites compassion, imagination and wonder” along with connecting children to their own humanity. This story chronicles the journey of a father and his young daughter as they travel by walking, floating across a river, sitting on the top of a freight train, being transported by a truck, and then by walking again. Carefully told through the little girl’s perspective, readers don’t really know why this family of two is traveling. The little girl asks, but never receives an answer. As they travel, she counts what she sees; even learning to count to one hundred by observing the different shapes in the clouds overhead.
The author and illustrator’s skill in capturing the child’s viewpoint will encourage children reading or listening to the story to wonder what is happening in the story, especially in the final open-ended pages. At the end of their travels the father releases two white rabbits that the girl was given by a little boy who had befriended her on the journey. In return, she had given her stuffed rabbit to the boy. The white rabbits appear to go free but the way forward is blocked by a tall wall. Children will be inspired to think about what is happening. Why is there a wall? What will happen to the father and daughter? Where will they go next? The ending made me go back and review both the words and the illustrations carefully. I think children will also want to do so. I gleaned new information especially in the detailed illustrations, some with and others not, accompanied by text. Since this book springs from the headlines about immigrants fleeing to new places, discussing this book will be most valuable.
Jean: I find this story very scary…and one that will generate a lot of discussion. While I agree with Marilyn that it captures the child’s perspective, but the child doesn’t send many clues to what she is feeling. However, Father’s face perhaps speaks for both of them. The “chucho” that seemingly adopts the pair is very fox-like in appearance. In story culture the fox often represents the sly and cunning predator. In thinking about kindness, the act of giving the girl the two rabbits was done with good intention – at least we assume that is so. It is also an act of friendship as it is really an exchange. The boy receives the girl’s toy rabbit that she cherishes. When the white rabbits are released I was frustrated by conflicting emotions. Is releasing the rabbits an act of kindness? These rabbits were hand-raised and had no idea how to exist in a desert environment and, therefore, are most likely doomed. At the same time, I kept thinking these rabbits are a food source for the father and daughter that might mean their own survival. But could the father actually make that choice with his daughter’s pets? Harsh decisions. Walls seems to appear from thin air.
Janelle: I was first introduced to this book at the USBBY Regional Conference last fall. I was reading it with a colleague who was a bit puzzled about the story. We found Kathy S. to chat a bit about it and immediately she was retelling the story of so many Mexican immigrants trying to cross the border by paying a “coyote”– a story anyone living in the border states would easily recognize. I shared this with colleagues as well as reviewed in last fall for WOW Review, and though I’ve considered the simple text and illustrations numerous times, the message still resonates and replays as the rabbits reflect the innocence and dependency of the father and child making their way to what they hope is a better life, only to be abandoned by the coyote (who appears in most pictures with them) at a most pivotal point in their journey. This open-ended story will leave readers wondering what the father and daughter did when confronted with the wall. It is a mix of fiction and metaphor created within what is reality for many people today. I also thought of the many challenges that these immigrants face — challenges beyond the wall but just as critical in their search to better life.
Holly: We have been talking about books that show themes of kindness and how that can make a difference. In Two White Rabbits, we still see that theme as the father and daughter make their way toward a better life. People are kind along the way, many of whom are in situations similar to the two chronicled in this book. The text has readers stop and think, however, when the coyote leaves them at the wall. Jean, your noting of the fox in story culture representing the sly and predatory brings into stark relief the metaphor of the two white rabbits and how often the coyotes prey on the innocence (represented by the white fur of the rabbits) of those who cast their hope on these predators. Of course their innocence keeps them from knowing they are predators. How often do those seeking a better life really know what is in store for them if they are relying—oh, my—on the kindness of strangers.
The two characters find themselves faced with two major roadblocks on their journey of hope: no longer have a guide and no longer an open road. And so, yes, Marilyn, the questions arise: What is going to happen to them? Where do they go next? And my own question: Who will be there to help them?
This book creates a trouble ending if these four books were read in the order we have discussed them. I think that might be a good thing. Literature has the power to evoke and provoke, and I find that our society has to be provoked into thinking about the negative rhetoric concerning immigrants coming to the United States. I have yet to actually know of anyone who has had their rights or privileges (or their jobs for that matter) taken away because of those who have immigrated to the USA. Of course, it is also ridiculous rhetoric in light of US history. Two White Rabbits has the power to stir our compassion, and by extension, our kindness toward those who have made their way to our country. And perhaps, this book will have us revisit our own historical hope as a nation, when so many of us crossed borders to make our way here.
What a wonderful and provocative text set of books to be used with readers of any age!