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Mitali Perkins: How Books Shape a Child's Heart

Posted by Ben Terris  February 10, 2009 07:32 AM

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By Mitali Perkins

Stories are powerful allies as we seek to raise a generation of compassionate children. I distinctly remember the moment when I grasped the beauty of sacrificial giving. I was nine years old and befriending Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett's THE LITTLE PRINCESS for the first time.

It was the middle of the story, and my heroine had plummeted from wealth to poverty. She was trudging through a snowstorm, hungry and wet, when she actually found a four-penny piece. Oh, how I rejoiced over that find!

As she entered a baker's shop, though, Sara passed a little figure more forlorn than herself with big, hollow, hungry eyes. She bought four buns and the kind baker added two more. One by one, Sara placed five buns in the other girl's lap, keeping only one for herself.

I remember being astounded by the gesture because at that point in the story my heart was aching over Sara's suffering. And now my literary friend had given away the food I had so wanted her to relish! But somehow I knew it was the right thing to do. From that point on, in my travels across the globe, as I encountered children begging on the streets, I would remember that scene in THE LITTLE PRINCESS and be stirred to respond.

In her now-classic Horn Book essay, Against Borders, Hazel Rochman explains why stories have this mysterious power to build community:

They can break down borders. And the way that they do that is not with role models and recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person ‹ their meanness and their courage ‹ then you¹ve reached beyond stereotype.

If Afghanistan is in the headlines, for example, it¹s worth a trip to a library or bookstore to bring back FOUR FEET, TWO SANDALS by Karen Lynn Williams (Eerdmans Books), a story of two girls in a Pakistani refugee camp waiting for resettlement to North America. I recently read this moving portrayal of friendship aloud to a young visitor, and we both got choked up as Feroza gave Lina a farewell gift of one sandal, completing the pair the two of them had shared.

Doesn't it seem like the common North American view of Africa is a troubling narrow one, replete with famine, war, and disease? Broaden a child's view of the riches on that continent with books like AMADI'S SNOWMAN by Katia Novet Saint-Lot (Tilbury House). The vivid illustrations by Dimitria Tokunbo of an Igbo village and Amadi¹s joyful spirit will add depth and breadth to anybody¹s mental picture of Nigeria, as well as reminding us not to take literacy for granted.

Children will gain insight into homelessness as you read FLY AWAY HOME (Houghton Mifflin) by Eve Bunting, the story of a father and son seeking shelter in an airport. They sleep upright, foraging for food and washing in the restroom, hoping not to be noticed. Consider this young reader¹s review on Barnes and Noble¹s website if you doubt the impact of this story:

This book finds me very sad. Just yesterday we read it in school. I almost cried. It's about a mom who died and she left her son and her father. They don't have much money at all. The Dad says wearing the same things is one way you can't be noticed. My teacher says that if they get caught the child will get put in a home and the father will be out on the streets like they both used to be.

Do you know a child who hates school? He might gain perspective on his own situation by realizing how precious an education seems to many children in other parts of the world. You could tell him that, of course, but the lesson could be effortlessly communicated by reading RUNNING SHOES (Charlesbridge). This story by Frederick Lipp is set in a Cambodian village, where an education for girls is often seen as a luxury, not a necessity. Try skipping any extra adult commentary to make the connections as Sophy¹s courageous journey sinks deep into the child¹s soul.

The next time you eat apples, read AMELIA'S ROAD (Lee and Low) by Linda Jacobs Altman. Let a child hold and enjoy the fruit as she hears the story of Amelia, a migrant farm worker who yearns for a place to call home. What treasures would you bury in a box if you had to move again and again? How can we be grateful for the hands that harvested the food we eat?

Feroza. Lina. Amadi. Andrew. Sophy. Amelia. Their enthralling, individual stories illuminate life on the road as a migrant worker, in a Nigerian or Cambodian village, a Pakistani refugee camp, or even in an airport. Introducing them to the children under your tutelage is one of the best ways to widen their hearts and their world. Not to mention your own.

And please don¹t forget Sara Crewe. I read THE LITTLE PRINCESS aloud to our twins when they were nine. We reached the narrative about Sara giving away those fresh-baked pieces of bread, and my voice quavered a bit, but I powered through to the end of the chapter.

The room was quiet with that listening stillness easily recognized by every reading parent or teacher. Looking up, I saw the thoughtfulness in the boys' expressions and the compassion in their eyes.

I didn't comment, and we moved on. But I knew that once again, Burnett's powerful story had accomplished its heart-shaping work. We were one step closer to our goal of raising children to change the world.

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