Books as Teachers, Books as Atonement, Books as Lifeline

“I cannot live without books.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams)

Many years ago, a friend gave me a paperweight with that Jefferson quote inscribed on it. It has sat on my desk for more than two decades. I suppose it is a bit of exaggeration to say one cannot live without books. Maslow’s hierarchy did not lump books with food, water, oxygen, or shelter. Had they been mentioned at all, books might have been relegated to the levels where belonging or self-actualization reside.

Less poetic, but perhaps more precise would be to say I cannot imagine a life without books.

Some of my earliest memories are of books. As a morning child in a family of night-owls, I remember reading in bed for two, three, even four hours before my parents got up on weekend mornings. The best Christmas gifts were always books, and the best activity for whiling away the hours on any holiday was to curl up with a book. I recall the excitement of receiving the periodic Scholastic Books catalog in school and running home to see how many my parents would allow me to order, then poring over the catalog with my pencil clutched tightly in my hand. The day the books arrived was as good as Christmas—maybe better—since it didn’t require getting dressed up or spending long hours with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The list of things that concern me about our current President is encyclopedic, and high on that list is the fact the he doesn’t read—and that he seems proud of that fact. He doesn’t need to read other people’s words or think about what other people have experienced; he doesn’t need to understand history or ponder the thoughts of wise men and women from the past. He carries all the wisdom he will ever need in that cotton-candy brain, under that cotton-candy hair. He tells us confidently that he is a “stable genius.” It’s scary that he says it, scarier that he believes it. And scarier still that so many people are willing to blindly accept it because he says it’s true. I wonder whether these people are readers, and what they read, and why some never outgrow a juvenile infatuation with Ayn Rand.

I recently read a news story about five teenagers in Virginia who were arrested for defacing the Ashburn Colored School, a one-room, 19th century schoolhouse that had been used by black children during segregation. The teens were 16- and 17-years old; two were white and three were nonwhite. They spray-painted swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power” on the historic building.

Ordinarily, a conviction for such vandalism would probably have resulted in community service, and perhaps a fine, for the underage offenders. But Judge Avelina Jacob, at the suggestion of Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda, imposed a very different sentence: She made them read books. And after that, they were to submit written reports on what they read and what they learned.

Among the books they could choose from were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Elie Wiesel’s Night, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain; Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave; and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Because of the age of the offenders, their identities were protected, but the New York Times did—with permission—run anonymous excerpts of one young man’s court-ordered essay.

The teen acknowledged that he hadn’t understood what a swastika meant. Now, though, he recognized the swastika as a symbol of oppression and white power, of claims that the white race “is above all else, which is not the case.” He further wrote that “Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex, or orientation. I will do my best to see to it that I am never this ignorant again.”

Judging from that statement alone, I would say that lives were changed as a result of this unusual sentence. The reading penance has since been applied to at least one other Virginia case precipitated by teen bigotry.

Reactions to the punishments have been mixed. Marilyn Nelson, author of A Wreath for Emmett Till—a book of poetry about the young black man lynched in 1955 Mississippi—expressed concern. “I can’t say I’m pleased to know that my work is being inflicted as punishment. Will kids punished by being made to read poetry ever read poetry again?” Her concerns were shared by some teachers who didn’t like the idea of making reading a punishment.

Young people were also divided. One 17-year-old said the sentence “reeks of pampering and no consequences,” and doubted that students—especially minority students—in areas of lesser economic privilege, would be offered such light sentences. A 16-year-old said she thought the punishment made sense and would teach the offenders not only what they did wrong but why it was wrong.

T.C. Boyle, author of The Tortilla Curtain, said he hoped an offending teenager reading his book “will be able to live inside the skin of someone unfamiliar to him … and that the experience will enrich his social perspective.”

And Khaled Hosseini said, “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading The Kite Runner was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”

Personally, I see mostly positive in this creative sentencing approach. While an author might feel a bit of a sting in seeing their book assigned as “punishment,” the possibility of changing lives through one’s words and stories outweighs the sting. Changing and challenging the way people think—including ourselves—is one of the reasons why we write. A young person—or older person for that matter—who sees only the punitive element of being required to read is not likely to be a candidate for further reading, so it’s doubtful that the court has squelched a growing passion.

A larger question—and one that there’s neither time nor space to explore here—is why aren’t kids learning about the meaning of swastikas, the history of oppression and intolerance, and the cultural differences that make us richer as a nation? I was alarmed last month to hear that two-thirds of American millennials have never heard of Auschwitz, and a large number are unaware that the Holocaust took place. Such ignorance is dangerous, dreadfully dangerous.  

Perhaps more of us need to be “sentenced” to read books that will enlighten us and make us think.

Let’s start with the folks who live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” (John F. Kennedy)

[You may have noticed some changes to my website. It has new headers, a new look, and some new pages—huge thanks to my friend Christine for her help. One new feature that I hope you will like is on the home page where I share brief stories of kindness. If you recall a kindness, experience or witness one, I hope you will consider submitting it for inclusion. There’s a link to the submission form. Let’s spread the kindness!]


Raising Kind Children … by the books

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis)

Attribution: Ness Kerton/ AusAID [CC BY 2.0 ( licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution: Ness Kerton/ AusAID [CC BY 2.0 (
licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently came across a study that reported that kind children grow up to be the most successful adults. That’s encouraging news, but the big questions is: how do we raise kind children?

It seems to me that the most important factor is what behaviors their parents, and then other adults in their lives, model. If they see consistent kindness, they are likely to be consistently kind. If the people around them are unkind, how likely is it that they can overcome that example and become models of compassion themselves?

Another factor is surely the media they are exposed to, perhaps “bombarded by” is a more accurate description. What do they see on TV, what do they experience in online games, what do they read or have read to them?

I went on a hunt in our local library for children’s books about kindness, and I’ve spent the last week reading them every evening. So, with Friday marking the start of the holiday shopping season, I thought I’d share with you some fun kids’ books that have kindness as a theme.

One caveat: as I have mentioned before, I do not have kids, I have had virtually no contact with children in my life, and I have never entirely seen the point of them. That being said, I have high hopes that they will make a better world than we have.

When I think back on my childhood Christmases, the best gifts I got were books. One year, my parents gave me the entire set of Cherry Ames books. First in the series was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, and there were dozens that followed (27 in all). Cherry was plucky, daring, quick-witted, and always embroiled in some mystery or adventure. The series included Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse…School Nurse…Camp Nurse…Cruise Nurse…even Department Store Nurse. I devoured them. Unlike Nancy Drew, Cherry seemed to have a brief shelf-life. Has anyone else ever read (or heard of) Cherry Ames?

Another year I got a box with the entire set of classic comic books—these were my first introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, Ivanhoe, and countless others. One of the best things about getting books for Christmas was that I could spend the rest of the day reading, and then the rest of the Christmas vacation. It’s still my favorite thing to do on a holiday or vacation.

For Middle Grade Readers

Back to my recent bedtime reading: Most of the books I read were for little kids, but this first one would be for somewhat older kids—probably in the range of 8-12, maybe 3rd to 7th grade. Actually this book was so good, I would recommend it to any adult who wants to experience the joy of reading—and thinking—again.

Wonder 2Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, is the story of August (Auggie) Pullman, who was born with severe facial disfigurement that prevented him from going to a regular school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade, and not only is he the new kid, he’s the new kid who’s also a freak (his words). Wonder follows the challenges he faces as an ordinary kid whom no one else can see as ordinary, the effect on his family, and the responses to him of teachers, students, and their parents. Auggie is the primary narrator, but Palacio occasionally shifts perspective to other characters. She does it deftly and to great effect—this is a well-written book. Wonder is funny and warm—at times sad—and has a delightfully happy ending. This would be a great book for parents to read at the same time as their kids and have discussions around the dinner table. It would also be a great book for parents to read to think about how they would respond if Auggie were their child, or if Auggie became a classmate of their own child. It’s terrific!

Books for Little Kids

The remainder of the books I’m listing below are for much younger children. I guess you’d call them picture books. Not having any experience with kids, I’m not sure of the ideal age ranges—but I suppose if it’s a picture book, they’re going to be non-readers or at least pretty new to reading….what’s that, maybe 2-5 years old?

I will digress here to explain that age-appropriate reading was not part of my upbringing. My mother started passing her Harold Robbins, Henry Miller, and similarly adult books to me when I was about ten. I still remember the look of horror on my 6th grade teacher’s face when he asked me what I was going to write a book-report on. I told him I had just finished reading Peyton Place, and his eyes got very wide. I ended up writing the book-report on Jane Eyre. I think he gave me an “A” out of pure relief.

Zen TiesThis book was charming. In Zen Ties, Stillwater the Panda is visited by his haiku-speaking young nephew, Koo. Together with their human-children friends they enjoy summer activities and assist a “scary” elderly neighbor, who turns out to be a lovely new friend. I really liked the art in this book, and was totally captivated by the irrelevant but delightful inside cover art of pandas doing tai chi. It’s a fun story of kindness and friendship and our connections to one another. Author and Illustrator: John J. Muth

Paulie PastramiPaulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace would be an enjoyable book to read with a child. It’s silly. Paulie—something of a misfit nerd—wants to achieve world peace before he turns eight. He does it by engaging in simple acts of kindness, and eventually his father joins him and they achieve world peace together. Tolstoy it’s not, but it made me smile and would probably do the same for a little kid. It’s funny and cute, and likely to generate a good conversation about kindness. Author and Illustrator: James Proimos

Each KindnessEach Kindness was the winner of a Coretta Scott King Award and the Jane Addams Peace Award. This would be a thought-provoking book for little ones, and one that could resonate as they make their own decisions about friends and friendship. A new girl, Maya, has joined Chloe’s class, but no one wants to play with her. Chloe and her friends reject Maya’s attempts to join in, and they make fun of her strange ways and second-hand clothes. Later, when their teacher gives a lesson about kindness and asks each child to describe a kindness they have shown, Chloe is unable to think of anything. She realizes how unkind she has been to Maya, and decides she wants to be kind, but Maya has stopped coming to school and her family has moved away. The book ends with Chloe feeling regret for the opportunity she missed to be kind. This one should spark all sorts of good conversations about kindness, bullying, inclusion, and awareness of other people’s feelings. The illustrations are quite lovely. Author: Jacqueline Woodson; Illustrator: E.B. Lewis

Little BirdLittle Bird: I’m a sucker for birds. In this colorful book, a funny little man drives his truck up to a cliff’s edge and opens the back to let out a flock of diverse, strange, and beautiful birds. However, one small bird remains—afraid or unable to fly away. The man and the little bird bond. After sharing a sandwich, the man tries to teach the bird to fly—comically illustrated and with delightful results. It’s a story of friendship, caring, and mutual support. The blocky illustrations in primary colors were fun and kids would probably get some giggles, as well as a warm message. Author: Germano Zullo; Illustrator: Albertine

The Invisible BoyBrian is The Invisible Boy. As the shy and quiet boy in class, neither his classmates nor his teacher seem to ever notice him or include him in anything. When a new boy, Justin, comes to class, they befriend one another and things start to change for Brian. By the end, the two boys are accepted have made other friends, too. The illustrations in this one are engaging, especially Brian, who is drawn as small and only in blacks and greys early in the book, but as he becomes less invisible, he becomes larger and more colorful. Shy kids would find this book affirming. It also includes discussion questions that one could have with a child after reading the book together. Author: Trudy Ludwig; Illustrator: Patrice Barton

Enemy PieIn Enemy Pie, a new kid moves into town and “ruins” the summer for our unnamed hero/narrator. Dad offers to bake an “enemy pie”—guaranteed to get rid of the new boy. But there’s a catch, before enemy pie can work, our hero must spend one entire day with his enemy. So that’s what he sets out to do, and, of course, by the end of the day, the two boys are fast friends. It’s a sweet book, with endearing illustrations and a simple but important message about friendship and getting to know people before we judge them or shun them. It’s not Proust, but what 5-year-old wants Proust? Author: Derek Munson; Illustrator: Tara Calahan King

Bear In LoveSpeaking of not being Proust, Daniel Pinkwater’s Bear in Love is a cute story of a bear with a secret friend who is leaving delicious carrots and other treats for him every night. Unable to stay awake to identify the mystery creature, the bear leaves treats for it, and, of course, a friendship is formed between two very different animals. There’s no deep meaning here—just a sweet story of friendship, unexpected kindness, and sharing. You need to be outrageous and somewhat theatrical while reading this one out loud to a child. If you can do that, you—and the book—will probably be a hit. Author: Daniel Pinkwater; Illustrator: Will Hillenbrand

If any of these sound good to you, see if your local library has them (warning: they are likely to be a bit sticky), or take a chance and order from your local bookseller. Use them as an opportunity to have a conversation about kindness with the child in your life.

Are there books you’d recommend for helping kids or teens learn the importance of kindness?

If we’re ever going to have a kind world, it will be because we learned how to raise kind children. What better place to start than the books we give our children or grandchildren, or the books we read to them as we put them to bed?

Anybody know where I could rent a kid? 

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” (Marcel Proust)