Picture Book Spotlight: A STORY ABOUT AFIYA

Some picture books are too good to pass up.

A STORY ABOUT AFIYA, written by James Berry and illustrated by Anna Cunha, is a magical trip into the world of a young girl. We follow Afiya, whose name means “physical, mental, and spiritual health” in Swahili, as she encounters the beauty and excitement of the natural world. She takes each experience home with her on her plain, white dress, which stands out brilliantly against her beautiful black skin. The next day, the dress is clean and plain white again, ready for the next journey – to the sea, the field, the zoo – everywhere children go to experience nature’s full effect.

The breathtaking illustrations only enhance the poem’s world, drawing you into Afiya’s world as she dances and smiles amid nature’s bounty.

About the Author

James Berry was born in Jamaica in 1924. When he was 17, the United States entered WWII and began recruiting farmhands in the Caribbean, to fill vacancies left by young men who had been drafted. Berry and a few of his friends were excited at the possibilities of work in America. They headed to the States as soon as possible, but it wasn’t what they thought. They were disheartened by the inequality and mistreatment of black people and only stayed in the US a short time. According to Berry, “There was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people.” He returned to the Caribbean for a short time in 1948, before moving to Great Britain to work as a telegrapher, while attending night school and writing.

Author and Poet, James Berry, Wikipedia

Berry wrote prolifically, releasing several books of poetry and many children’s stories. In 1981, he was the first West Indian poet to win Britain’s National Poetry Competition. He became known for his work examining the relationship between the black and white communities, particularly the relationship between British citizens and Caribbean immigrants. He was awarded an OBE, the highest honor a poet can attain in Britain, as well as many other awards and recognitions. Berry died in 2017 at age 92, and his work is still beloved by many around the world for its depth and beauty.

Kid Lit Motivates

It’s no wonder A STORY ABOUT AFIYA made the NY Times List of Children’s Picture Books in 2020. It’s suitable as a stand-alone read-aloud, at storytime circle or bedtime. It also opens the door to a lot of activities and conversations. If diversifying your picture book collection and gently opening a conversation about the history of racial injustice in America is important to you (I hope it is), Afiya is a girl we can relate to and Berry’s biography shows us a contrasting experience. The story lends itself to discussing Berry’s work as a poet and many of his poems are for children explicitly. It’s also a beautiful way to discuss Jamaica, even though there’s no way of knowing where Afiya lives because her world is the ubiquitous world of childhood joy.

As with all great picture books, once I finished reading it, I was flush with ideas of how to use the story as an anchor for so many topics and how to extend the story for group storytime activities. I’ve put together a resource pack, available for download on TpT, to go alongside these activities, with the caveat that buying the book is essential – supporting the illustrator, the publisher, and the estate of the author is incredibly important. Please, buy the book.

First and foremost, I can see using the story as a way of discussing James Berry, his life and work, Jamaica, his home country, and Swahili, the language from which the name Afiya comes. I confess that I am not an expert nor an important voice in the conversation about racial injustice and racial equality, specifically how to educate children about it, and I recommend everyone seek out qualified speakers, educators, and authors on this topic. Admitting that, I’ve included a short biography of James Berry, a fact sheet about Jamaica, and some beginner information and phrases in Swahili. Hopefully, this is a respectful start.

Make the plot tangible by having kids draw some of the things Afiya collected on her skirt and matching those things to the places she visited. Stoke the fires of their imagination by asking them to imagine what their clothes might catch if they were like Afiya’s, and have them discuss and draw on their choice of a tee-shirt or dress template. What if their clothing was magical but with different powers than Afiya’s? What powers could their clothing have? (I think my magical clothes would be self-washing, but I’m sure kids will be more imaginative than that!) What memory would they most want to walk around wearing? It’s such a great story for talking about memory and imagination and I’ve designed a simple, effective worksheet as a guide for each of these questions.

The story opens with a title page that explains Afiya (pronounced A-fee-ya) means health and wellness in Swahili. I see this as a great opportunity to talk about names, how important they are, where they come from, and even brainstorming new names or nicknames. This leads into self-esteem activities – drawing their names in large letters with their favorite things surrounding it, or collaging all the things that make them unique, and then sharing this information with the group if preferred.

Since Afiya’s name means health and wellness, use the story as an anchor for health and wellness topics. Lead a conversation on what it means to be healthy, both in body and mind, and how to make healthy choices for whole health. Talk about coping with strong emotions, and have kids think about times a friend (or teacher or parent) helped them with a feeling, and/or a time when a friend could not. Using the experiences I had while working as a therapist, I’ve simplified these conversations for you and provided basic activities to coincide.

As memory and thoughts are part of our health and wellness, talk about how to keep a memory. The conversation goes something like this:

Unlike Afiya’s dress, we don’t get to carry it home on our clothing, but there are ways to make a memory stick.

And what about memories we want to forget? We can’t wash our minds clean and return them to the start like Afiya’s dress when something bad happens, so we must talk to an adult about these kinds of thoughts and have them guide us into changing our thought processes or reframing the experience for us.

There are even things we forget but want to remember! We might want to forget losing a soccer game and remember to bring our lunchbox to school every day.

Simple ways of approaching these conversations as well as worksheets have been created for this purpose.

Finally, talking about memory and thoughts leads me into self-awareness and mindfulness. Learning to unstick distracting thoughts is an important skill that can be learned with practice. Use the scripts and 3 mindfulness exercises I’ve included in the packet to assist with this. A STORY ABOUT AFIYA never mentions mindfulness (or memory for that matter), but there are clearly tie-ins to be made.

We carry our experiences with us and we start fresh in the morning. Sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the flowers, or dance among the butterflies, or wade into the water to look for fish. Sometimes we see a tiger, and perhaps that’s scary and something we want to forget. These are all important ideas that have to do with our health and wellness. Every kid deserves the chance to play freely in nature. We are all Afiya in some way.

For Storytime

I’m a firm believer in having tangible, large-scale, hand-made manipulatives when I lead story time, as they always help to draw in even the most distracted or antsy kid. To that end, Afiya’s journey inspired me to make a poster-size painting of her in her white dress, with dress attachments drawn up like each of the things Afiya experiences. (I’m by no means as talented as Anna Cunha, but I hope that I’ve done her work justice.) Listen for the birds and attach the bird dress (over the static white dress.) Watch for the roses and attach the rose dress. Finally, using sticky dry erase contact paper, I made a dress that can be drawn upon and erased, to give each kid a turn to share their favorite memory with the group or even play a version of Pictionary with their special memory while other kids guess.

To view the companion resource, please visit our TpT store:

Guided, Educational Activities for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by Kid Lit Motivates (teacherspayteachers.com)

Custom Educational Resource for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by James Berry and Anna Cunha, img credit: Kid Lit Motivates

For more information or to commission a customized educational resource like the ones described above, please email us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com.

For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

What about Maddie?

The author explains it all.

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is the first picture book for Kid Lit Motivates, but hopefully not the last. After a weekend of networking with young readers and parents, I realized there were things I wanted to explain that won’t be obvious in the first read and also some background about the work itself.

Since publishing the book, my best friend/partner/love has joined me in the KLM mission -(Sunshine and the Scientist) – and while I tend to refer to the book as mine, it is now ours, and we consider “I” and “we” interchangeable here.

Cover image of Maddie

The Plot

Maddie is a can-do girl on a mission to make a new outfit for an Art-Show-Style-Party (whatever that is), and she’s never done that before. She RSVP’s to the party, but makes a few mistakes in the response. Then she dreams up a gown she’d love to wear, researches how to design, then gets to work shopping, sketching, sewing, and adding embellishments. The story ends with her arrival at her friend’s house, wearing her crafty, new dress and excited to get partying.

“It’s the book I would have loved when I was a kid!” 

I hear this often. Thank you, same here. I wanted books I could read over and over again, with complicated illustrations, pictures in pictures, jokes within jokes. 

Spoiler alert: It is not ABOUT fashion design.

First, to dispel the notion: this book will not teach your child how to sew. There are no patterns included in the back of the book and no direct instructions for budding fashion designers.. (We are currently creating these as an extension workbook, due to the popular demand and the curiosity the notion seems to instill. It likely won’t be available before the end of the year, and was not part of the original idea.) MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER was never intended to be a sewing manual for kids – but this is the primary criticism I receive., so it’s worth noting.

Maddie checking the mail.

Inspired by Real Life

The book was inspired by a particular client I worked with when I was doing in-home work with autistic children. At 10-years-old, L had been diagnosed with a learning disability and was struggling academically and socially. She had difficulty initiating choices, and at the gates of puberty, was starting to recede into her cell phone, her dark bedroom, and stormy, unpredictable moods. She loved fashion – wanting to look put together all the time – and it became clear early that she was a perfectionist, and one that struggled to accept average, but imperfect grades. Test stress suffocated her. As I got to know L., I realized she was becoming obsessive about boys and friends, and she had difficulty maintaining a conversation that wasn’t centered around her. L might have a learning disability, but it seemed clear to me that she was autistic.

(‘Female’ presentation of autism is generally much different than the more male-type presentations, which is not to say that boys won’t have the more ‘female’ traits or vice versa. There are generalizations, but every child should be treated with the respect of individuality. I can talk about autism and our culture for hours, so I won’t dive further in to that here.)

Necessity, as always, is the Mother of Invention

In any case, it was clear that my responsibility to L was not primarily academic support, as initially suspected. I had the opportunity to impart the social and emotional knowledge she was understandably lacking, the things that they don’t usually teach in school. Self-awareness and self-acceptance were primary goals. We found a lot of success after about 6 months in emotion identification, coping, and social awareness. We even made progress away from isolation and obsession. The hardest thing to work through was the desire to be perfect.

Perhaps it was so hard to approach perfectionism, in part, because it was something I struggled with until recently myself.

I spent hours in various children’s libraries around my county, searching for a picture book that might help me show, rather than tell, this particular lesson. Yes, L., was 12, and capable of reading middle grade chapter books – but the picture book format was a lot more accessible in an hour-long session, and the images could be more impactful than the words for a more youtube-centric generation. I believed, even before Kid Lit Motivates was born, that a picture book could open the door to any conversation. Despite endless searching, I was disappointed at the selection.

Maddie focused on JENGA.

We should encourage ALL girls, all kids, to think, whether or not they love STEM.

L.’s interests were narrow – and within those interests I could find nothing available that addressed her needs or represented her struggle. The thinking/planning books were all math- and science-based. There were books geared to much younger kids about making friends, but no picture books with the awkward struggle of the pre-teen. There were books where children finished projects, even books about overcoming perfectionism, but none that showed HOW to do it, only how to FEEL as you do it. And the only books available regarding fashion were vapid and useless – can’t a girl love clothes and still learn to think?

I shudder when I remember one Barbie book that was recommended to me by a librarian- Ken comes over to fetch Barbie for a date, and Barbie keeps him waiting on the porch while she quite literally gets lost in the wide expansive wonderland of her own closet. She returns much, much later, after an entire fashion show of dress and shoe options, to find him asleep on the porch. Not to worry, Ken says something degrading about how that’s the best he can expect from her, and off they go on a giggling, happy date. Book over. Jaw on the floor. To me, disgraceful. Is this really the best we can do for girls and boys?

I write rhythmic, rhyming bits to cope.

MADDIE, quite literally, began as a poem I wrote to cope with the absolute despair I felt in the search. Rooms full of craft supplies and I could not find the way to explain, model, or demonstrate to L how to get a project started without worrying about the way it came out. We tried a lot of craft projects together, any hobby she expressed the slightest interest in, but she couldn’t take pride in any of them or do anything twice, because she couldn’t accept the reality of a learning curve. Perfection or bust.

The poem stayed with me, reworking itself in my mind, line by line, at odd moments in time. It did nothing to help L. and eventually our time together ended. It was a year or so after our sessions terminated that I hired an illustrator to make my vision a reality. I had a poem that had a tight rhyming lilt, that felt like a folk song but for a modern audience. In my mind, I saw it unfolding like a mix between Looney Tunes-style animation, referential meta humor, and details that felt like real life.

Self-Publishing Amateur Style

I confess I was very directive with the illustrator, who was phenomenally skilled, patient and kind. He added the stuffed bear in homage to a beloved teacher (the bear appears on nearly every page). and he understood the pop culture nods and winks I hoped to add. He is solely responsible for every one of Maddie’s fun tees, for the Indiana Jones and Bob Ross reference images (and others), and for the humor inside the humor.

On the first edition of the cover, he didn’t put his name on the work, and I felt quite badly about it. I still do. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should tell him to add his name, demand it, implore him to take credit – I thought artists signed their work when they wanted to stand by it, and since I’d described each page in great detail, perhaps he just didn’t want to be associated with my project. When he reworked the cover for me (to add the giant picture of Maddie, as I realized was standard for picture books), I insisted he take credit. (If you ever read this, Aaron, thank you so much for everything. My desire to see my vision through was so intense that it wasn’t the collaboration it could have been. I was new to the industry, I’m very grateful for the character you added to her character, and I sincerely apologize.)

The interaction we had was only the first step of my lacking confidence in Maddie, there would be many other stumbles along the way.

Maddie pricks her finger.

Criticism is Understandable

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is not like other picture books. This was – sort of – the intention.

The text is too advanced for the picture book industry. Despite being an acceptable number of words and pages, the content and vocabulary level far outpaces the typical picture book audience.

Since the book was meant to be aimed at a preteen audience, it’s an honest, if unfounded, criticism. It wasn’t meant to be read by or to early readers. It was meant as an anchor activity to begin any number of difficult or tricky conversations, while modeling what it is to have a dream, set a goal, learn a skill, and accept the outcome.

Where are the Teens?

Teens and preteens are practically nonexistent in picture books. Mostly, the books involve human or animal characters ranging in age from baby to age 10 or so, and full-grown adults. Occasionally a teen sibling character appears as an aside.

Teachers know that picture books are excellent ways of jumping in to topics – so why can’t we use them with a slightly older crowd?

Maddie isn’t clearly identified as a teenager, but there are indications she is one. She eats takeout from containers and goes shopping for supplies alone. She’s got a full-sized desk in her bedroom and a lab coat in her closet. (She likes science after all. Science AND clothing.) At one point in the story she works so much that she falls asleep in a mess of scraps, paint, and glue. It’s real. She’s a young teen.

Why don’t we have representations of teenagers in picture books? Moreso, why don’t we show characters who have “unskilled”, “stepping-stone” jobs, while going to school – you know, like the ones real teens have? Cashiers, servers, retail store workers, babysitters, facepainters, the list is endless.

Where are the picture book characters who show what being a teen is like, emotionally, socially, psychologically? We model adulthood for children without even blinking- careers, parenthood, etc. But the teenage years are like a silent, shameful era we’d rather kids not be exposed to. Despite the fact that they will one day be teenagers with changing bodies, growing hearts, and questioning minds, we only show them children, adults, and the occasional teenage savant.

If we ever hope to ease the teenage transition, and limit dangerous rebellion, isolation, and attitude, we should probably demonstrate to kids in positive ways what will be expected of them. And embrace teens for what they are, not deny they’re growing up until they’ve already grown.

It Isn’t Just One Book

Maddie was meant to be a relatable girl, a real girl, with hobbies, interests, skills and struggles, a range of emotion and experience. I hoped to use it as an anchor to talk about socializing, texting, learning a new hobby, setting a goal with a defined deadline, and working hard to the finish. The posters in Maddie’s room tell us to “Tri, Trryy, Try Again,” to take “Caution: Mind at Work”. She may say she’s okay but her face tells us otherwise. She may say it was easy, but we can see the challenge. Just like reality.

I hoped it was something that could be read again and again, where illustrative Easter eggs might catch the eye on the second or third read, where the rhythm of the text and the notebook illustration might inspire future repetitions.

It occurred to me much later that its a book that exists within an entire world of possibility – a world where reality is represented and celebrated for being perfectly imperfect, awkward and emotional, exhausting and energizing.

I have big dreams for this book, and several stories of a similar, yet different ilk, demanding illustration, waiting to come to life. I’ve been learning the art form myself, counting down my hours of illustration practice, slowly but surely, because I believe all things are possible, and because I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on another artist ever again.

Maddie shopping and shocked at the inventory.

So Who and What is it for?

It’s a book about a teenager, written for a preteen, hoping to be included in the canon of younger readers who are looking for the next, best thing. It exists at face value as a simple story about a girl and her quest to make a dress, and then as a model for actual, awkward, uncomfortable, amazing adolescence.

It’s a book that shows how to set a goal, and see it through, despite the odds and imperfections. It can also suit nicely as an anchor for many other conversations and subjects, many of which I have since created worksheets and activities for which are available for free and for sale on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers Store site.

The Wrap-Up

It’s a book I’m intensely proud of, despite the odd reactions it evokes. I stand by it and I hope that my vision for it, for our future work, and for the Kid Lit Motivates mission, is clear.

To purchase MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER and support Kid Lit Motivates – please click here.

To receive free downloadable resources to use with MADDIE or without, or to purchase workbook packs, please click here.

If you’re interested in connecting about this or anything Kid Lit Motivates has to offer, please contact us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com, or head to our contact page and fill out the form.

Thank you for your interest in Kid Lit Motivates.

The Wolf of the Workplace

On Expecting the Expected when Dealing with a Wolf

As a former teacher and therapist, I often found myself in need of a relatable allegory to teach complex aspects of humanity, and the complicated ways we interact, to children. Fables are a natural starting place, but the imagery and animalistic parallels are not as easily understood as they once were. The Modern Retellings series is attempting to change that.

Adapted from Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation to explain that wolves will be wolves, despite what they may say. After the story, read the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, use the discussion questions to lead a conversation about the symbolic parallels, make connections to daily life, and get a glimpse of the inspiration behind the Modern Retellings series.

Modern Retellings for Everyday Life

[4] Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb

For a hardworking and caring person, the hardest lesson is learning that others may not be.

The Wolf of the Workplace

(in 2 minutes or less)

T was hired to work as a graphic designer for a big company and was excited to do whatever was necessary to succeed. T worked long hours in the office cubicle, submitting work files by email to M, the floor supervisor. T had never spoken to M, and that was okay because M was quick to anger and known to fire new employees for no reason at all.

After 4 weeks of handing in designs and following client briefs, M stormed into T’s cubicle. M was angry because T hadn’t asked for help completing any project and deemed T too new at graphic design to be working alone. M cautioned T that the job was at-will, meaning anyone could be fired anytime for any reason. T heard the message loud and clear.

T was fearful about losing the job, and nervous about being yelled at again, so they changed their approach to suit M. Every time a new client project was assigned, T immediately asked an experienced coworker how to complete the project. Each project took twice as long to complete, but T doing what M asked.

Two weeks after the first visit, M returned to T’s desk. Now, M was angry about T being away from the cubicle too often, bothering coworkers, and relying too heavily on the assistance of others. M said the completed work looked like the copied work of other designers, and that if T did not change tactics, they would be fired.

T was determined to get it right and to please M. In the next week, T balanced artistic vision with help from others. T took each client project, created a first draft, and then emailed coworkers to ask for feedback if they had time and were willing. This way, T couldn’t be accused of stealing work from others or accused of being too new to work alone. T felt the clients and M would be happy with the new strategy.

On the following Monday, T was summoned to M’s office. M angrily explained that no designer should be as flexible as T, that the company didn’t want a designer who was easy to push around. It made no sense to T, because they had done exactly what was asked and they were a skilled graphic designer. T was told to clean out their cubicle and go home. They were fired. M was a terrible supervisor with a mean streak and a bad attitude, and T was glad to be leaving.

A hungry, trickster wolf may appear to be trying to save the lamb from being eaten, but expect that wolf to eat that lamb, no matter what they say or do.

Photo by Steve on Pexels.com

Family Discussion Questions

Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.

  1. In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
  2. What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
  3. What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
  4. Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
  5. If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
Suggested Answers:
  1. T is the lamb. M is the wolf. M is in control and threatening T’s job, and T is trying to please their boss M.
  2. “The Wolf” is known to get angry and fire employees for no reason. M creates a fearful office environment. M wants employees to be afraid and doesn’t seem to care about the design work at all.
  3. “Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
  4. T could not have done anything to change M’s actions, and likely no change to T’s work would have been acceptable to M. But, in the modern workplace, there are other ways to deal with a difficult boss, and depending on the level of comprehension, the conversation can lead in this direction.
  5. There are no wrong answers. Examples might be: Sad or happy to be fired. Scared or nervous of the boss’ anger. Angry at being yelled at for no good reason or for not having hard work recognized.

Wolves in Our Daily Lives

It has taken me nearly three decades to learn that my choices are my own, and I cannot choose for another what they will not choose for themselves. As a child, I was eager to please every person with whom I connected, and that led to a lot of difficult situations surrounding the expectations of others and the expectations I had for myself. Not everyone would be a friend. Not everyone would be acting rationally, morally, or in a justifiable way. No amount of helping, teaching, explaining, or placating could mollify the wolfish way.

Sometimes people will ask the impossible to test boundaries or cause damage. Sometimes people will ask others to bend over backwards just to watch them break in half. Sometimes people sense a person’s weakness and immediately wish to exploit it, rather than adapt to it. Sometimes people choose cruelty over kindness.

For some, this went without saying. For do-gooder, people-pleaser, rationalizing logicians like me, the question of why people act badly towards others was constantly on my mind. I, and others like me, have trouble accepting that we cannot always understand the actions of others, and that people may act irrationally, cruelly, aggressively, and immorally for no reason at all, or for reasons we simply can’t know. If we have done our best, striven to be good, and are still faced with difficulty, we must move forward as best we can, ask for help if we need it, and leave the search for answers behind.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Wolf and The Lamb? 

Do you know any lambs or wolves in your life? What qualities do they have? How would you describe them?

Comment below, and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.

This is the 4th part in the Modern Retellings series. Catch up with the series:

Part 1 The Fox and the Briefcase
Part 2 The Snapchat Gnat
Part 3 Friendly, Feathered Competition

Friendly Feathered Competition

[This is the 3rd part in the Modern Retellings series. Want to check out Part 1 The Fox and the Briefcase or Part 2 The Snapchat Gnat?]

Adapted from Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about value and competition. After the story, see the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, read on to learn more about the intention of the Modern Retelling series, and share with me your thoughts or fable ideas.

Friendly, Feathered Competition

(in 2-min or less)

J & R had a friendly competition over everything — who could hit the most homeruns, who would get higher grades, who had the better phone . They both wanted to learn how to drive and to have a sporty, fast car, and boasted about who would be driving first. They passed their driving tests on the same day. When J got home with the new license, there was a brand new Crisio Peacock waiting in the driveway! J texted a picture to R right away — victory! No car could beat this! R had also received a car when arriving home from the test — a 2010 Clumper Crane, which would need some work. At school the next day, J bragged to R that the Peacock was so much nicer than the Crane. “It’s brand new, fast and sporty, not like yours!” R replied easily, “A fancy new car is great and all, but your insurance premiums must be super high and you’ll need to pay for high-octane gas. The Peacock also has the worst safety and crash test ratings on the market. My Crane will survive any accident, last me for years, the insurance will cost me almost nothing, and with the money I’m saving, I can customize it, paint it, and really make it my own.” A few weeks later, J drove into the lot with a crumpled bumper and a bruised ego, and was shocked to find that R’s Crane was detailed and gleaming with the best speaker system he’d ever seen. 

The Peacock’s feathers may be more brilliant and colorful, but the Crane knows that his dull gray feathers help him soar through the sky while the Peacock must remain on the ground, suffer the mud, and see those beautiful feathers grow dirty.

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Family Dialog

I suppose I am quite fortunate to have had parents who made dinner table conversation a priority. While a television played in the background, we’d discuss pieces of our days and catch up on topics of interest. I typically found myself in a way to criticize classmates or express exasperation at teachers- I was a bright, attentive kid, but difficult to challenge. How disappointing the world can be when you’re brilliant and bored — I was Sherlock without a case. I’d raise my hands at the table and expound, “Why do they have to do x like this? Wouldn’t it be better to do y instead?” There was no end to the frustration.

At this point, my father, utilizing the Socratic method, would begin asking me to think through decision trees and the potential motivations of others. While I could never be sure why someone had chosen a particular route, I could work out reasonings for deliberate choices that were made. (It wasn’t until much later I realized that not everyone makes deliberate choices. This was a facet of life that I learned from my mother — some of us swim with the current, some against, and some just allow the water to move us along.) This discussion method, Socratic questioning in particular, raised my empathetic awareness and has made me the person I am today.

I encourage you to open a dialog with loved ones. Use the fables as a starting place. Can you create another analogous, more modern adaptation of the Peacock and the Crane? Are there things that you covet that are not necessarily worth what they seem? Is there another fable or moral that stays with you, one that might be worth sharing with others? 

What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane? 

Is there something you once coveted, but have since realized is not worth the price?

Is there any fable or story that made an impact on your empathy and the way you engage with the world? 

Comment below and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.