Bully Prevention Month has me reflecting as a veteran classroom teacher on the variations of meanness, cruelty, and hurt that children find to inflect emotional pain on each other. Not only have I observed it, but recollect well my own firsthand experiences with it as a child. Sometimes the meanness is temporary and due to hurt feelings, lack of knowing, or something where the children being mean truly don’t realize what is happening. In such cases, once they are made aware, they easily change their behavior and the hurt is gone. But sometimes it is more complicated, sometimes things aren’t made perfect, aren’t fixed no matter how much we try. It is this sort of situation that Jacqueline Woodson captures so perfectly in her new picture book Each Kindness illustrated by E.B. Lewis.
Taking the tight first person perspective of elementary student Chloe, Woodson has us peer out through her eyes and mind as she devastatingly ignores, dismisses, and is out-and-out cruel to her new classmate, Maya. Chloe’s emotional slights and hurts are excruciatingly real, building up day after day. While we only have Chloe’s perspective we can only imagine Maya’s.
And then comes Chloe’s epiphany thanks to her teacher who offers a simple lesson featuring the tossing of pebbles into water and watching the ripples go out, a gentle non-judgemental way to help both the fictional Chloe and the real child readers consider how their smallest actions have consequences. Finally aware and ashamed of her behavior toward Maya, Chloe wants to make amends, but discovers that it isn’t always so easy to do that. Woodson lets her child readers know that actions are not always reversible, sometimes you have to live with your mistakes. But she also makes it clear that you can learn from them. The hopeful message from this stark tale is that — you can always do better the next time. For while Chloe may not be able to fix and make right her actions toward Maya she is less likely to do the same sort of hurting again.
In exquisitely spare and poetic prose, Woodson’s story is perfectly complimented by Lewis’ art. His depiction of the way the children stand and behave in their small, but enormously hurtful acts of cruelty and exclusion as well as Maya’s poignant responses are perfectly beautifully represented. Among the many well-intentioned books featuring issues of exclusion among children of different ages, Each Kindness is for me the most transcendent with Woodson and Lewis taking this far-from simple issue to a profound place of emotional depth and truth.