There is a truism that says that the quality that most clearly differentiates children's literature from other types of books is an inherent sense of hope and optimism. Does it have a happy ending? No? Not a children's book, then. I have used this rubric to defend improbably cheerful endings in any number of books, including, this year, Wonder, The One and Only Ivan, and Splendors and Glooms.
Child readers need happy endings, right?
It has been a long time since I've come across a book that challenges that rule as thoroughly and beautifully as Each Kindness does. It is a book about bullying, in a year full of bullies (both fictional and depressingly real), told from the viewpoint of the bully.
When new student Maya walks into the classroom one morning, narrator Chloe takes an instant dislike to her and her ragged clothes. Lonely Maya reaches out to Chloe with smiles and invitations to play, but her awkward overtures are met with silent disdain. Chloe and her friends give Maya the kind of subtle and effective shunning that tends to go undetected by adults, and eventually Maya gives up and plays alone. After a poignant classroom lesson on kindness, Chloe resolves to treat Maya differently, but it's too late. Maya has moved away.
Is there hope in the ending? Technically, yes. This has been a profound and painful experience for Chloe - one that will clearly change the way she approaches the world in the future. But it won't change her relationship with Maya. It's too late for that. The last line of the book is terribly, effectively sad: "I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya becoming more and more forever gone."
That kind of sentence-level writing, hard and clear as diamonds, characterizes the whole book. A commenter here recently said that it's easier for short books like this one to be flawless, but I couldn't disagree more. It's insanely hard to pack that kind of punch into a single sentence. The way the imagery of the sunset and the ripples parallels Chloe's feelings of regret while still staying true to her voice totally wows me. Woodson anchors her story with so many of these carefully chosen details - a broken shoe strap, a tiny rubber ball, a jump rope too long for one person to use. It's filled with the quiet poetry of the real world.
It's difficult to discuss this book without mentioning the gorgeous paintings, but I think the text clearly stands on its own. The good people at the Cooperative Children's Book Center agree - they just awarded it the Charlotte Zolotow award for outstanding writing in a picture book.
I feel a bit silly, raving about every book I discover at the eleventh hour, but golly this is a good one.