I’d been volunteering at my children’s elementary school for years, since my oldest started kindergarten. I knew every nook and cranny of that old brick building and came to know many of my son’s and daughter’s classmates just as well. And so, when our district went on lockdown during one of my volunteer shifts (because of a threatening message written on a bathroom wall at the high school), I took it personally. Everyone was affected–my kids, their classmates, their teachers, our community.
Picture book ideas come to me from many sources, and I might think about an idea for months, or years, before even attempting to write a draft. This time was different. “Something Good” was drafted quickly, late at night, just after another incident occurred, this time in my son’s 3rd grade class, where some girls were in trouble after (allegedly) writing something in the bathroom. I didn’t know what was written. My son didn’t know. In fact, none of the students seemed to have any reliable information, especially not the girls who all proclaimed their innocence to me as we worked on multiplication flash cards.
There was a heaviness in the classroom that day. I could feel it. There’s a spread in “Something Good” where illustrator Corinna Luyken captures so beautifully how the children have different reactions to their stressful situation, which in turn affects how they treat each other. In my book, and in that real classroom, the kids weren’t themselves.
I took that heaviness home with me and found myself up late at night, looking at web sites, such as Learning for Justice, to get advice on how to talk to my kids about these multiple incidents. The whole situation made me angry, and worried, and sad, my emotions too fresh yet to focus on solutions. The only thing I could do in that moment was write it all down.
Now I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise person. My best writing is almost always done before noon. If I’m writing late at night, you know something is up. I knew that night the only way to get some peace was to draft out this story. No matter how sloppy a draft it turned out to be, at least I’d have something I could work with later, should I choose to. I wasn’t sure yet if this was picture book material, or if it would be best left in a journal.
I was surprised, though, how quickly the stanzas took shape, how easily I took the emotion I felt and observed from the real-life events and added fictionalized details and characters to make it my own. I was surprised, too, by where I found myself starting the book, with a group of girls in a principal’s office, in trouble, and staring down at the carpet. I was there once, in junior high, when my friends and I were caught passing around a tattered copy of Judy Blume’s “Forever.”
Though I’ve written a number of picture books now, it’s still somewhat of a mystery how old memories and current events, fact and fiction, get woven together in a manuscript. I’m always grateful when it happens and results in, well, something good. One of the joys of writing fiction is the freedom to shape a story to achieve my end goals, irrespective of any real-life inspiration.
In the case of “Something Good,” I wanted to show the connectedness of this school community, how they could come together and start to heal after a traumatic event. Throughout the book, Corinna has drawn lines and shapes that morph and grow, fading during the times in the book where there’s distrust and growing stronger as the kids work together. Eventually, the lines connect to form a beautiful, colorful mural, over the place where the bad-something once was.
There’s an inclination among adults to smooth over (with paint or words), bad things, thinking that if kids don’t know, they’ll be protected from having to deal with it. But the kids are always one step ahead, aren’t they? Whether we like it or not, we grown-ups have to have some serious conversations, with our children and with each other.
After the book sold and was going through final edits, I decided to add an author’s note to that effect. The world’s problems can’t be solved with a piece of art, though it’s a good start. We all need to work to create a world that values and respects everyone. I started writing “Something Good” from a place of despair, but wrote myself to a place of hope and determination. That’s the power of writing, and, I hope, of reading this book.
A sensitive, timely and ultimately uplifting portrayal of how an elementary school struggles, copes, and heals together after "something bad" is discovered written on the wall, illustrated by bestselling artist Corinna Luyken
This kind of thing won't be tolerated at our school, the principal declares the day the "bad-something" is discovered written on a wall. The incident makes the kids nervous, giggly, and curious at first, but then they're worried, confused, sad and angry. Everyone is suspicious. Who did it, and why? They miss the days before the bad-something appeared, because everything—and everyone—feels different now. It takes a lot of talking, listening, looking, and creating something good together to find a way to heal. The story acknowledges that while the scars of such incidents remain, it is possible to teach tolerance and feel true community once again.
Written and illustrated by the acclaimed creators of Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse!, here is a brave book about the power of words that tackles one of the most difficult topics for elementary school-aged children—hate speech—in a direct, realistic, and empathetic manner.