Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson & illustrated by E. B. Lewis

By Maureen Tai, 3 March 2019

“Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.” – Ms. Albert

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Each Kindness is a thoughtful and nuanced picture book about a trait that seems to be in short supply these days. The story is told in the first person, unusually from the point of view of a protagonist who is complicit in the unkindness shown to a new girl at school. However, the “heroine” (if we can call her that) is uncharitable yet not unthinking. In fact, she is relatable.  What she sees in her reflection in the pond is an uncomfortable truth that resonates with all of us. We’ve all been her at some point in our lives.

 

The story begins during a snowy winter when a new girl, Maya, is introduced to Chloe’s class. The teacher, Ms. Albert – who looks like a “traditional” school teacher with spectacles, short greying hair and conservative clothes – is holding the hand of a shy and timid child, who is looking down at the floor at her spring shoes, one of which has a broken strap. The children notice the inappropriate shoes and Maya’s ragged clothes.  Maya takes the empty seat next to Chloe, and Chloe instinctively shrinks away, distancing herself from the new girl. When Maya looks at Chloe, she looks away.  When Maya smiles at Chloe, she doesn’t smile back.

In the days and weeks that follow, Maya attempts to befriend her classmates. She offers them fairly typical toys to play with – jacks, cards, pick up sticks – but she is rebuffed each time.  None of the children, including Chloe, make any effort or show any interest in getting to know Maya despite there being nothing obviously “wrong” with her or anything distinctly different about her (both from the text and from the lovely watercolour illustrations). Apart from her “strange lunch food” and clothing that suggests she is underprivileged, Maya is a young child like any other. Like my daughter, or my son, or like me when I was 8 years old.  It is inexplicable why Maya is laughed at and ostracised. Perhaps that is the point, that most acts of unkindness, small as they might be, are the result of unknowing, thoughtlessness and passivity.

On a day when Maya is absent from school, Ms. Albert decides to teach the children about kindness (I wonder if the author meant to show that the events had precipitated to such an extent that adult intervention was now needed). Each child is asked to think of something kind that they have done and to drop a little stone in a bucket of water, to see the ripples that would be created from that one act. Holding the stone in her hand, Chloe realises that she has nothing to share.  She passes the stone on without dropping it in the bucket. This moment of awareness is quietly painful for both Chloe and for the reader.

From then on, Chloe decides that she will be kind, and that she’ll smile back at Maya when she next comes to school. But it is too late. Maya never returns to the classroom and in not so many words, Chloe is left with the lifelong regret of kindness never shown. The book ends on a reflective but sad note. Chloe is now wiser, as we are, as we realise that every act of kindness is a gift within us to offer, and that we should offer, before the chance to do so passes us by.

For ages 8 and up.

 

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