Yesterday I watched a roomful of young children watch and listen with rapt attention to a story set in a country none of them had ever heard of, in a time before any of them were born, and in a circumstance none of them have ever experienced and hopefully never will. Not only were the children gathered here visibly moved, they also came away with a feeling of hope and empowerment that they, themselves, even at their tender ages, can do concrete things to make the world a better place. Such is the power of story.
The story we were gathered to hear was Flowers for Sarajevo by folksinger and author John McCutcheon. It’s a fictional story inspired by the true events of a terrible moment in the Bosnian War in 1992 and a generous act of beauty and compassion that helped many to heal.
In McCutcheon’s picture book, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree, 2017), a boy named Drasko helps his father sell flowers in Sarajevo. When war threatens and his father is called away, Drasko takes over the flower stall. One morning his familiar routine is shattered when a mortar shell hits the nearby bakery, killing 22 people. The next day, a cellist from the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra goes to the crater and plays the most beautiful music that Drasko can imagine. Inspired, Drasko looks for ways to ease the sorrow of those around him. Before reading the book, John told us the story of the real events of that day and the musician who came back to the bombing site for 22 days to play—one day for every life lost in the blast. He also told us about meeting that musician, Vedrun Smailovic, who accompanies McCutcheon on the CD that’s included with the book.
After reading the book, John talked with the kids about what we could all take from the story. I could tell it made a big impression on both the kids and their parents. Even the smallest kindness, he reminded us, can make a big difference in someone’s life.
As you can probably tell, the story and the feeling of experiencing it with these kids has stayed with me. It’s gotten me thinking about other books that introduce or reinforce a similar message.
One that comes to mind immediately is Miss Rumphius, beloved for generations and also based on a true story. There are flowers that bloom along the coast of Maine today that are the legacy of the real Miss Rumphius, the Lupine Lady, who scattered lupine seeds everywhere she went. If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson continues the planting theme both literally and figuratively. I also love Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen and Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, and Rafael Lopez for examples of kids spreading beauty.
Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty by Anne Herbert, M. Paloma Pavel, and Mayumi Oda is a gorgeous picture book that’s a bit longer and probably best suited to ages 6 and up. Its tone is that of a fable or parable that implore readers to create a better world through simple acts of kindness.
A newer book that’s great for very young kids is Pass It On by Sophy Henn (Philomel, April 2017), a bright and sweet reminder to find joy in the small things and share that joy with others.
“Should you spot a thing of wonder, jump for joy and pass it on!”
What are some of your favorites on this theme?