*In my Diversity in Children’s Literature course at the University of Minnesota, I was to write my final critical analysis paper on a theme of my choice that I believe is important to have represented in children’s books. I wrote my paper on the power of kindness. The beauty of books is how well they empower, encourage, and inspire! Here I am sharing my work for those who are interested.
Inspiring + Empowering Kindness, One Story at a Time
Literature is an incredibly powerful tool with which we can immerse ourselves into the stories of others to learn about the world around us, experience life from new perspectives, and nurture empathy for those who are living these experiences. Beloved children’s author Linda Sue Park explored this fascinating theme of the power of children’s books. She shared, “Can a children’s book save the world? No. But the young people who read them can.” Her powerful statement beautifully expresses why literature is so important in the lives of young children. Stories offer a wealth of inspiration for their readers to explore how they can make a difference. One of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children is kindness, and children’s literature is rich in stories that illustrate the power of kindness and empathy.
According to extensive studies done by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one in five children report being bullied. The increasing rate at which children are experiencing belittling, unkind treatment from their peers is alarming and demands to see intervention. We need to be instilling the value of kindness in our children from a young age. Stories offer an accessible, engaging, and compelling delivery of this message. A particularly adored children’s book that illuminates this theme is The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. This is the story of Brian who goes unnoticed in his class and uninvited by his classmates to parties and the lunch table. One day, a new student named Justin arrives and is made fun of for his unique food in his lunch. Brian wonders, “Which is worse – being laughed at or feeling invisible.” Brian reaches out and offers encouragement to Justin, and in return, Justin ensures that Brian is included in a group project. His classmates start to notice him and appreciate him for his special gifts he contributes to the project.
When I shared this heartwarming story as a read aloud with a class of second graders, I asked them, “How many friends did it take to help Brian feel less invisible and start to feel appreciated?” As I scanned my quiet audience, I saw individuals start to hold up one finger. They explained that Justin alone had the power to make a difference by reaching out and showing kindness to Brian. One friend from my audience spoke up and expressed, “Wow. I get it.” I have the confidence to say that this voice spoke for all of us as we realized the impact this kindness had, not only to encourage Brian but also to inspire fellow classmates to be kind as well. The acknowledgement of the difference an individual can make is extremely important, as over half of bullying circumstances stop when a peer intervenes. Thoughtful studies have demonstrated that 57% of peer interventions are effective (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig, 2001). If The Invisible Boy illustrates that it only takes one person doing one act of kindness to make a difference, sharing stories has significant power to inspire children to be kind.
Not only do we have stories where we develop empathy for characters like Brian, but we have stories that put us in a different perspective. In Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, the protagonist is not the character who suffers from loneliness and unkindness like Brian, but the protagonist is instead one of the leading characters who chooses not to go out of her way to be kind. Each Kindness shares a similar theme but from a different perspective. Chloe and her friends act as an exclusive group upon the arrival of a new classmate named Maya. Despite Maya’s loneliness and nervousness about being new to the school and having to make new friends, Chloe guides her group to turn away from Maya when she comes around. They do not make any effort to reach out to her or welcome her.
Suddenly, Maya stops coming to school. After a lesson on how impactful small acts of kindness can be, Chloe regrets being unkind. She thinks about the difference she could have made had she been compassionate towards Maya. This perspective gives readers the opportunity to connect to Chloe’s character by reflecting on a time they may have felt a similar emotion. It is human nature to look back on a time and wish we could change our words or actions. But once something has been said or done, we cannot take it back that easily. Having the opportunity to connect with a character through a story is powerful because we are also developing empathy for Maya and wishing right along with Chloe that she could have been treated differently. This perspective is valuable, eye opening, and important. Readers make strong, emotional connections with characters in literature. Sharing stories is an inspiring and engaging illustration that is accessible to children regarding why kindness and empathy are so important.
The harsh reality is that in the craziness of the climate that we are living in today, it is not uncommon to be surrounded by people who are not treating others with kindness and empathy. Now more than ever, we need to teach children kindness. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center conducted a study and found that we have the capacity to learn compassion. A graduate student and lead author of the report, Helen Weng, says, “It’s kind of like weight training. Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.” Sharing stories of friendship and empathy through children’s literature is an attainable and delightful way to teach and strengthen this “compassion muscle” and teach children the power of kindness.
Thankfully, despite the difficulties we face in our current climate, the world is still full of genuine people with good hearts. Even when times are hard or something does not go the way we had hoped, we need to be positive role models for those around us by mirroring the kindness we are teaching. The beauty of books is that we can see that even one individual has the power to make a difference by being kind. The highly admired and cherished children’s author Roald Dahl says, “Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.” Literature is an incredibly comprehensible and compelling tool we can share to teach kindness and inspire others to value their power to change the world.