The Empty Fridge

Gaetan Doremus
Wilkins Farago, 2013

It seems everyone in Andrew’s block has been so busy during the day, they’ve forgotten to buy anything for dinner. Their fridges are empty…but not quite. With only three carrots to eat, Andrew decides to go upstairs to ask his neighbours if they have anything.  As the growing group of neighbours ascend each floor of their apartment, they gather more ingredients from more neighbours until they reach the top floor and everyone finally has enough for a meal. But what to cook? The Empty Fridge tells us what they decide and then ends with a fun twist. It’s also really fun because the book, itself is oddly well-shaped like a refrigerator!

This story is a very well-told, fun to read aloud story that is a welcomed update to Stone Soup. As with all good stories, there are so many different directions one can go and meanings one can take from this story. After reading aloud, I’ve had delightful conversation with children about what it means to be community. The fact that no food in the fridge doesn’t have to spell disaster for one person, or for that matter, for any of the apartment dwellers to have to suffer their empty fridges alone. They can come together to contribute what they have in order to be healthy together (physically and socially). And in fact, the whole apartment block participated in the cooking making time and opportunity for real friendship. Communities should be able to do this for us: to decrease our isolation and to make it more possible for more people to thrive.

The willingness and ability to share is another easy theme to explore within the book. There’s the opportunity to learn the wisdom that holding one’s possessions (even their groceries) too tightly can lead to a loneliness that openness and sharing can remedy. None of the neighbours thought that their little ingredient should be kept to themselves. In sharing, they all ended up with something better.

A word about the twist at the end (spoiler alert): Once the meal is cooked and all are enjoying it on the rooftop, we look out to see that all the other apartments in the city are doing the same thing and eating with one another. Soon after, we learn that this was all a dream. Andrew wakes up, but rather than it being the end of the story, he decides to act out the vision he had in his dream, taking his three carrots to the neighbours. Rather than inciting a groan to this well-worn story-telling technique, I find it actually brings a sense of reality and authenticity to the fancifulness of the neighbourhood scene. It hasn’t happened in this idyllic way…yet. But it could if Andrew (and us readers) follow through on such a beautiful vision of community.

I love this book and hope you will too.

Verdi

Janell Cannon
Toronto: Harcourt, Inc. 1997

When Verdi’s mother tells him to grow up big and green, Verdi can’t imagine why. All the big green snakes seem lazy, boring and rude. So he decides he simply won’t turn green, which is why he finds himself in a whole heap of trouble.

Verdi is a children’s book. But like so many good children’s books, this one focuses on a theme appropriate for all of us. When we grow older, we worry about remaining who we’ve always been, losing pieces of our identity, and losing what has made us feel like ourselves. When changes happen around us (and to us), this book helps reassure us that we can remain true to who we are. Our aging, our graduating to a new grade, a new school, a new job, or a new reality doesn’t mean that we can’t be true to the essence of who we are on the inside.

This book can also lead into a conversation about knowing our limitations. There are certain things that we can learn about ourselves – what we’re good at, what we’re not so good at, what our strengths are and what we’d like to work at. Verdi believes he’ll be young forever, but he forgets that as he gets older he will appreciate different things about life. We might really miss something we used to do, but can focus also on the things we can still discover about ourselves when we try new things, or do things differently.

If You Want to See a Whale

Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead
New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2013

If you want to see a whale, you will need to know what NOT to look at. Pink roses, pelicans, possible pirates . . . If you want to see a whale, you have to keep your eyes on the sea, and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.

This is an excellent read-aloud book. The text is charming and demonstrates the difficulty in waiting for things. There are so many things to distract. What makes this story such a great introduction to a conversation about patience is that the things that distract us are, in their own right, very worthwhile and beautiful things. What’s not to like about roses, pelicans and clouds?

In my conversations with children around this topic, we’ve talked about the difficulty in waiting for exciting things like parties, birthdays and special days, but we’ve also talked about the challenge of waiting for difficult things too. Kids know a lot about waiting…it can seem like an eternity of waiting for parents to end their chit-chat, to be done at the grocery store, to arrive at destinations, to name only a few! We can practice compassion and empathy when we can imagine what it’s like waiting for results from a doctor when we’re sick, a surgery date, or waiting for a family move to a new neighbourhood/city/school. These situations all require waiting and we all can learn ways to make the waiting easier – for ourselves and for our friends and family.

I’ve often wondered out loud to the children if the author of this story might be telling us a little bit of a joke: Although she writes that we can’t be distracted if we really want to see a whale, aren’t there times when being distracted by these ordinary, but wonderful sights might just be a positive? Might noticing these everyday wonders help us be patient, help us in our waiting?

This book opens up all these ideas and I imagine sharing this book again and again.

One

Kathryn Otoshi. Publishers Group West, 2008.

Blue is a quiet colour. Red’s a hothead who likes to pick on Blue. The other colours don’t like what they see, but what can they do? When no one speaks up, things get out of hand — until One comes along and shows all the colours how to stand up, stand together, and count.

This is an amazing story, told in an accessible way for almost any child 4+. The fact that the characters of this story are colours and numbers means that this story of bullying and possible responses is appropriate for anyone – children, teens, adults, seniors. I use this story to enter conversations about how we can respond to a bully, and that there are many possibilities. Most students get taught in school to tell a trusted adult. This is good and important information, but what else? There is a need to say stop to a bully. Of course, this can’t always be done safely, or individually. When a group is inspired to stand up for others, the norm of acceptability can change, the culture of bullying can be transformed, positive results can happen. The message of this story? It often only takes one to inspire a group to do the right thing. Bystander research shows this: inaction might be the default, but as soon as one stranger helps another, it gives permission to other bystanders to get involved alongside.

There’s a sense of realism to this story when the bullying red grows bigger as his anger increases. Likewise, when he is stopped by the others, he returns to normal size. This is an excellent conversation starter around how bullies like to increase their own size/power at the expense of others.

The book ends with an invitation for red to join the other colours. Sometimes this is possible with a bully, and sometimes it isn’t. But this is a fantastic glimpse into offering inclusion as a way of resolution, as long as (and this is important to discuss with children) that it’s safe and the offender understands the boundaries of behaviour and that the group won’t tolerate other instances of bullying.

All in all, this book easily leads to conversations about possible action to take when confronted with a bully, safety issues in standing up and saying ‘stop’, the importance of our responses when we see others being bullied, and even how we might think about inclusion and reconciliation.

We’ve used this book at our annual “Pink Shirt Day” when we pledge to do our best to create an anti-bullying atmosphere. Kathryn Otoshi has created a fantastic story and a wonderful entry into a difficult topic for all ages.

Ish

Peter H. Reynolds
Candlewick, 2004

Ramon likes to draw but after his brother criticizes his art, Ramon gets frustrated and loses interest in his art. Then his sister shows that art does not have to be perfect and introduces him to the concept of “ish”. This is a beautiful and funny story about learning that self expression is personal, unique and subjective. Our thoughts, ideas, writing, drawing, and by extension our whole living, doesn’t need to be perfect to be valuable. In fact, it’s the uniqueness and creativity of each person’s interpretations and expressions that make art and life so beautiful.

This book leads so well into a conversation about the willingness to try, the boldness of expressing one’s self, and the courage it requires to draw/play/speak/express what one sees and how one sees it. The conversation can also go in the direction of valuing ourselves. We may not be perfect at something, but it matters more that we enjoy it, that we be true to who we are than what others might think of it.

I like to follow up a conversation of this story with a video from Sesame Street that has singer Wil.I.Am singing with the Sesame Street gang a song called “What I Am”. Not only is the song catchy, but its message reinforces that we are all unique and important people….all valuable and affirmed.

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