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Be Gentle

What Is the Reason for Kindness?

ISSUE:  Fall 2019

There have been rumors of brick-oven pizza. And so, with a certain degree of optimism uncommon to us on most days, my wife, Erin, and I drive west until the potholed streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, turn to rutted dirt out past the edge of town. We are on our way to a goat farm—open to the public on Saturdays and said to be run by Buddhists. As we bounce cheerily along in the family car, our daughter, not quite two, looks out the backseat window, practicing new phrases and feeling proud at being understood.

“Nice…day…out, Mama! Nice…blue sky!” 

Her odd cadences are like melodies to me and I can’t help but repeat them back. “Nice…day…out, Mama! Nice…blue sky!” 

 “Tree…is nice!” she calls out happily as we turn into the grass parking lot. 

Every night this week, she and I have read A Tree Is Nice, Janice May Udry’s 1956 ode to simple joy.

Trees are very nice. They fill up the sky…. Even if you have just one tree, it is nice too. A tree is nice because it has leaves. The leaves whisper in the breeze all summer long.

Much to my delight, Udry’s insistent sense of unironic gratitude seems to have lodged itself inside my daughter’s psyche for the time being. To me, A Tree Is Nice is an antidote to twenty-first-century children’s picture books that often undermine sincerity with cleverness or, worse, cloying language better suited to grown-up greeting cards. If vulnerability is the one consistent state of all children everywhere, then literature for children ought to reflect that. It was female authors in the 1940s and ’50s who seemed to understand this first and best. Margaret Wise Brown, Virginia Lee Burton, Ruth Krauss, Udry, Charlotte Zolotow—these women laid the groundwork for the child-centric masterpieces of the 1960s. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day could not have been made unless someone first had the courage to be uncool enough to say: “Trees are very nice. They fill up the sky.”

“Nice day out!” says my daughter.

And it is. It is seventy degrees out and sunny. There are handsome, whitewashed, wooden market booths offering cheeses and breads, fresh microgreens, natural soaps, lavender lemonade, and even cold-brew coffee. Beside the booths is an expansive flower garden where barefooted hippies (these, I assume, are the Buddhists) arrive and depart with wheelbarrows full of mulch for the peonies. Having worked on farms in the past, Erin questions the practicality of barefooted-ness in proximity to rusted farm tools. “Nothingness,” I suggest, “applies to footwear here as well.” We overhear some good news: the much-rumored brick-oven pizza will be ready in another forty-five minutes. It will emerge, somewhat mysteriously, Willy Wonka–like, from a barn nearby. 

“Let’s go see the goats,” Erin says.

“Nice…goats…out,” says my daughter.

“Even if you have just one goat, it is nice too,” I say, not bothering to cite my reference.

There is a lot more than one goat though. There are goats by the dozens. They are tame, good-natured, and full of personality. And who wouldn’t be, given the circumstances? Goat-wise, this may be nirvana. The goats are, at turns, sunning themselves atop large logs rubbed smooth by a thousand hooves, or nibbling at the tall grasses and wild carrot shoots that have popped up in their ample, fenced-in yard. Goats are always so much smaller than I expect them to be. And here, maybe because I’m reminded of my dog, I can’t help but fall instantly in love with them. Nearby, a woman is lifting baby goats one by one out of a pen. She cradles them as they suck down enormous bottles of milk. I hear a kid holler, Veruca Salt–like, “I want a baby goat!” And in that instant I experience my first real sense of foreboding of the day.

“I-ya-pet…goat?” my daughter says.

“Yes,” says Erin. “That is a good idea.”

How to pet an animal is the first and only thing I ever taught my daughter in earnest. It is unpopular to say so among my peer group of mostly white, upper-middle-class parents for whom preschool admissions has become the latest outlet for schadenfreude, but it doesn’t matter to me one bit if my daughter can read or write before kindergarten. She’ll have had several thousand books read to her by then, and if somehow she’s able to scratch out her name by the age of five, that’s great. But there are more important lessons to get to first. 

Our dog, Wednesday, was a month shy of fifteen years old when our daughter was born. Erin and I had long shared an irritation for new parents who dote on their young child while abandoning the emotional and physical well-being of the four-legged creature who had been their faithful companion for many years up until that point. You’ve seen it before, I’m sure: a poor, sweet Labrador, arthritic in the back hips, being pulled along the sidewalk too quickly and poked at mercilessly by a toddler who, more likely than not, can read and write and count to ten like a champ. There are many ways to be illiterate.

Determined not to become that which I despised, at four months I set out to teach our daughter how to pet the dog. Erin was sympathetic to the task, but also dubious that it would result in the desired outcome. Still, I persisted. 

First lesson: Always greet the dog when she enters the room.

“Hello, Wednesday!” I would say. “Thank you for joining us!” My daughter would turn her wobbly head and offer a smile. Of course, what my daughter did not know was that Wednesday was almost completely deaf by the age of fifteen. She couldn’t hear anything but a whistle. It was earlier that year when I realized for the first time that she could not hear me when I said “Good dog.” There are other ways to speak to an animal, though, and after several months of unheard greetings, I began to understand our ritual as something more meaningful: We would show her our eyes and she would show us hers, and in that moment none of us were lonely. Bookmaking, I believe, can be understood in much the same way.

Second lesson: With an open hand, pet the dog from the top of the head, just behind the ears, backward toward her shoulders. Be gentle.

“Be gentle” was the first command my daughter ever understood. Its use became so ubiquitous in our home that by the time she was six months old she would begin to pet softly whatever object she had just recently been too rough with. Be gentle—and she’d pet the ceramic coffee mug. Be gentle—and she’d pet the glasses I’d left carelessly on the couch.

The relentless schooling paid off. At ten months, our daughter spoke her first word—not “mama” or “daddy” but “doggie.” She announced it one warm night in May, then spoke it over and over again, like an incantation, while Erin rocked her to sleep on the porch swing, Wednesday peacefully asleep at our feet. From then on, our daughter was never once impatient or unkind to her dog. She always greeted her when she entered the room, and she always petted her with an open hand, from the top of the head, just behind the ears, backward toward her shoulders. Gently. Wednesday learned to tolerate (and even sometimes welcome) the presence of a small child. And my small child, in turn, learned that caring for an animal is its own exciting, secret language. This lesson in kindness was my first (and possibly only) real victory as a father. 

Much to my surprise, kindness has been the preoccupation of my work as a children’s bookmaker since the beginning of my career. I say “surprise” because in my late teens and early twenties, when I was scouring the used bookstores of southeast Michigan, looking for inspiration and imagining myself as a writer and illustrator for children, it was not kindness that interested me, it was absurdity and anarchy. 

I was twenty years old when Colin Powell delivered his bogus case for war in front of the United Nations. Meanwhile in the bedroom of my squalid college house, sitting at the drafting table I’d had since my ninth birthday and contemplating the hyperbolic nature of the term “weapons of mass destruction,” I prepared my meaningless rebuttal: a thirty-two-page children’s book, later to be printed on the sly in an edition of fifty at the local deli where I worked as a sign maker. The book was called Wednesday. In it, a collection of toys declare war on one another on a Wednesday morning. The tale is cyclical, with the hostilities evolving and devolving over the course of a week until war is declared anew on the following Wednesday. I wrote it in an abab rhyme scheme with a strict ten syllables per line. If asked, I would’ve said the formality added gravitas, but really, the math of it made me feel clever. Right from the start, there were some questionable (but not entirely unsatisfying) rhymes: Wednesday appeared imminent and the toys / Were growing restless. “Locate my sabre!” / Roared the General into the Viceroy’s / Weaker ear. Looking on with a macabre / Stare, he continued, “The time’s nigh for war!”

Almost twenty years later, the book’s amateurism still makes my skin crawl. Yet it remains interesting to me as a relic. I wasn’t subtle in showing off my influences. I was especially enamored at that time with the writing of Edward Gorey, in particular his 1958 book The Object-Lesson, which begins with this glorious head-scratcher of a line: “It was already Thursday, but his lordship’s artificial limb could not be found.” My art style could best be described as an uncomfortable marriage between Eric Carle (his collage illustrations for The Mountain That Loved a Bird had recently been a revelation) and the Dada artists of the early twentieth century—Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and others—who had made their work in response to the violence of World War I. The literal cut-and-paste approach of these artists appealed to my punk-rock sense of rebellion. And children’s books seemed to me (still seem to me) the perfect platform from which to start a rebellion.

Four years later I was asked by a real publisher to write a story for Erin to illustrate. It was to be our first book together, and we assumed—given the difficulty of getting a book published at all—probably also our last. 

With that looming sense of finality, I wrote a story called A Sick Day for Amos McGee. The story goes like this: Every day, an elderly zookeeper named Amos McGee wakes up early and rides the No. 5 bus to work. He spends his day caring for animals—an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhinoceros, and an owl. One day, Amos doesn’t show up for work. The animals, worried about their friend, ride the No. 5 to Amos’s house, where they find him sick in bed. They spend the day caring for Amos, who by the end of the book is feeling much better. They share a pot of tea and go to bed. The end. We know only a little about each character, mostly from interspersed parentheticals—“He would play chess with the elephant (who thought and thought before making a move)…sit quietly with the penguin (who was very shy).” There is no violence in the story, no absurdity, no questionable rhymes. It is simple, gentle, and kind. And it is made even more so by Erin’s delicate pencilwork. It was, without a doubt, unlike anything I’d written before. 

We expected very little of the book. Our publisher, in fact, warned us that it would not likely sell out of its first print run of a mere three thousand copies. Its flaws were apparent. The main character is not a child, but an old man. The text is careful and bland (I remember being inordinately worried about the rudiments of grammar and syntax, hoping not to appear a hack). The color palette is muted to the point of being almost invisible on a bookshelf. But ten years later, A Sick Day for Amos McGee is still hanging around. It has been published in more than twenty languages, from Farsi to Braille. It has been produced as a musical in Vermont and puppet show in Israel. It can be found as a bootleg paperback on the streets of Beijing—I know because we’ve seen them and signed them. Its popularity is astonishing to me, but most astonishing of all is the way in which its popularity has affected how I interact with the world. Strangers expect me to be Amos McGee—simple, gentle, and kind. It feels good to oblige them, so I try as best I can. 

But kindness—particularly toward humans—doesn’t always come naturally to me. Every time I watch a grown man cut the line to be first on board the plane, every time I read “notes of blueberry and bergamot” on a bag of coffee, every time I find myself at a concert where everyone is standing up when they ought to be sitting down, I am reminded: I am a misanthrope. This is what makes the existence of Amos McGee so surprising to me. Where did he come from? 

Standing at the fence, Erin pulls up a tuft of grass and feeds a nearby goat with an open palm. Our daughter watches, then reaches her own hand through the fence and pets the animal, gently, starting just behind the ears and moving backward toward the shoulders. The moment is perfect—except for the older child nearby, who reaches his own filthy hand through the fence to poke the animal with a stick. A second child arrives, and together they crowd out my family entirely. One of them stands up and throws a rock at a goat, who is pregnant and slow to move out of the way. I consider the many ways in which Mr. Wonka might see a child like this dispatched, but none seem practical here. So instead I retreat. I take a short walk along the fence and sit down cross-legged in the shade. 

I am smiling serenely at a goat, who is smiling serenely back, when a loud and lightly supervised child yells directly into my ear: “I want the goat to die!” This vulgar nonsequitur, not worthy of a Gorey text, permanently ends my reverie. Behind me, the child’s mother has her face buried in her phone. She is curating the sweet and phony moments that punctuate the general disrespect of goat-kind happening all around the farmyard. In that moment, I am reminded of my favorite passage in all of children’s literature. It can be found in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, published shortly after my seventh birthday:

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration that they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.

No grown-up did more to shape my worldview as a child than Dahl. I read and reread his books, and each time I felt the thrill of being spoken to with respect. His books have been both criticized and marketed as “nasty” and “wicked.” But these words fail to describe the subtlety of what Dahl so deftly pulled off throughout his career. Despite its nastiness (and because of it), all of Dahl’s work is, in fact, an invitation to kindness. Dahl lays bare the grotesquerie of human nature, and in doing so he asks children: How would you, in your life, like to proceed? Has any child ever read The Twits and said, “I would like to be a twit as well!” I suspect not. There is a cathartic notion in much of Dahl’s work that bad things will necessarily happen to bad people. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are squished flat by a giant peach. Headmistress Trunchbull is hurled headlong over the wall. I have come to understand A Sick Day for Amos McGee as an exercise in catharsis as well. When the animals arrive at Amos McGee’s house, he calls out (in the only instance of oversized type in the book): “Hooray, my good friends are here!” The catharsis in that moment comes from knowing that good things will necessarily happen to good people. Dahl and I are both telling lies, but a lie can be its own act of rebellion.

Wednesday is, admittedly, an unusual name for a dog. She arrived on a sunny day in late February, midway through Erin’s third year of art school in Baltimore. We visited the animal shelter that day, not to adopt a dog but just to be near them. Erin’s childhood dog had passed away the night before back in Michigan, too far away for Erin to say goodbye. 

There was something peculiar about Wednesday from the start. She sat in perfect stillness, monk-like, alone in her cage. She was strange looking, a black-and-white wirehaired mutt with a prominent underbite and permanent off-kilter mohawk. Her nose and bottom teeth protruded comically through the chain-link fence that separated us. We went to say hello. 

The right names for things are always found, and we found Wednesday’s name inside an old children’s rhyme:

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go…

Wednesday’s soul, it seemed, occupied some hard-to-reach space between animal and human creatures. We understood her immediately to be an artist. And like every artist I have known, she was both apart from and uncomfortable around her peers. The internal strength of her otherness was delivered, sometimes with alarming directness, through the eyes. If your own soul was not on good footing, she could easily tip it off its balance. This is also like the artists I’ve known. 

Wednesday was a year and a half, give or take, when she came home with us. She was underfed and her hair was thin. She had cigarette burns on her belly. She gained—at first slowly, then with remarkable speed—a capacity for joy. But throughout her life, she remained skeptical of human nature, rightly cautious of our species’s capacity for random, arbitrary violence. For Wednesday, joy, sadness, kindness, and cruelty were all equal and likely possibilities. 

The rhythms of dog care are uninteresting at the microlevel but profound when multiplied by time and space. Wake up together. Take a walk together. Eat a meal together. Work (or nap) together. Take a walk together. Eat a meal together. Read a book and chew a bone together. Go to bed together. Kindness is a careful routine.

Over time, I learned there is no difference between a dog’s rhythms and your own. The chtk-chtk-chtk-chtk of her paws on the sidewalk became the sound of my feet as well. I estimate that Wednesday and I walked more than twelve thousand miles together—nearly halfway around the globe. At first we covered ground quickly. Eventually our geographies began to shrink—just around the block, just down to the corner, just to the front yard and back. To walk a dog, even for just a short time, is to experience a thinning of your skin. The details of life begin to pass through you with greater and greater ease. This thinning is a symptom of curiosity, which exists naturally and continuously in dogs (even the woeful ones), but is a dwindling resource in unaccompanied grown-up humans.

I was at dinner once with a magazine editor whose publication is devoted to the reviewing of children’s books. Someone at the table brought up a particularly harsh review that his magazine had recently published.

“Artists ought to have thicker skins,” he suggested.

Who in their right mind would want a thick-skinned artist? I thought. Thin skin is a prerequisite to the making of art. The details of life—good and bad—must pass through you in order to be sifted and reconfigured into something useful on the other side. This is especially true of art intended for children, who are counting on grown-ups to provide context for a reality that is, to them, both bewildering and unpredictable. It is not wise to argue with someone who makes his living deciding the merits of your ideas, though. So I changed the subject. “I hear you have a new dog?” 

“Yes,” he said. “But I’m not sure what to make of him. I’ve never had a dog. He is nervous all the time. He hides a lot in the closet.”

“Take him on lots of walks,” Erin said. “You’ll get to know each other.”

Sitting under a peach tree in the shade, waiting for pizza, Erin and I watch as some disgusting little blister steals a toy from our daughter and throws sand in her face. Having summoned some kind of never-before-seen social bravery, she had attempted to introduce herself to a group of kids two to three years her senior who were playing in a sandbox nearby. I recognize this kind of sudden courage from my dog. I have rarely seen it end well.

My child tries to negotiate the interaction using the tools that her parents, in their naïveté, have provided her.

“I-ya-helping-you?” she says. “Thank-you-much-please!”

I catch Erin’s eye and realize we are thinking the same thought: We have, in no way, prepared our daughter for the barbaric and capricious whims of mankind.

“No!” yells the boy. “Mine!” He gathers all the toys close enough for her to reach and tosses them clear of the sandbox. His is a shock-and-awe approach to sharing. I look now to the boy’s mother, who is sitting just a few feet away. She looks up, uninterested, says nothing, and returns to her phone. Given my own inadequacies as a parent, I can only hope one of the many thousands of books we will have read to our child before kindergarten will address this kind of situation. 

“I hate you,” says the boy now, well in earshot of his mother, who fails to even flinch.

I decide, heroically, to step in. “Hey there, maybe everyone should have a turn?”

“Go away!” says the boy.

“No thank you,” I say.

The boy stands up a little taller. “My dad is older than you,” he says, pointing at my chest. “He’s forty-two.”

“That’s nice,” I say. “I’m forty-three.” (I’m thirty-seven.)

The boy pauses to consider his next move. He reaches for his trump card. “My grandpa is seventy-two.”

I am now in a battle of wits with a five-year-old. But I am prepared. “That’s nice,” I say. “I’m seventy-three.” The boy is clearly vexed. He is not used to being lied to by adults. I, however, lie to children with regularity and with glee. I have made a profession of it.

I believe as parents we have, really, only two very important jobs to perform. The first is to keep our children safe and fed. In this, the parents of my demographic are beyond reproach. And sure enough, this boy in the sandbox is rosy and plump with nary a skinned knee. The second and more difficult job, though, is this: to teach our children the reason for kindness. This is different than teaching the mechanisms of kindness—the pleases and the thank-yous. 

Right now, though, as I imagine hurling this kid, Trunchbull-like, out of the sandbox and over the goat fence, I can’t help but wonder: What is the reason for kindness?

But that’s not really what’s bothering me. If I’m going to be honest, it’s just that I miss my dog.

It has been pointed out to me by friends and strangers over the years that both the story and character of Amos McGee are tinged with a certain, unspecific melancholy. Melancholy was never my intent, but I see it now, too. It is evident mostly in the face of Amos himself, which Erin imagined and constructed with great care. Before setting pencil to paper Erin sculpted Amos’s face in clay—something I have rarely seen her do since. The melancholy of Amos McGee is born, I think, from a knowledge that the world is never quite as gentle as it ought to be. It is a melancholy easily seen in the faces of great men or women who have spent a lifetime imploring others to be kind. Consider the face of Mister Rogers, or Jane Goodall, or Martin Luther King Jr.—all of whom have borrowed, by the way, from the rudiments of children’s-book writing in their own work: direct and honest speech, musicality, the strategic positing of a hopeful question. 

Unlike my daughter, I was not always patient and kind to my dog. I have accumulated many regrets in my life, but sitting right on top of the heap, easy to find, are the silly, stupid moments when I pulled her along the sidewalk too quickly, frustrated with the slowness of her walk, or made a show of my exasperation when she’d wake me up in the middle of night, needing help to go outside. Believe me, nothing will make you feel more like a disgusting little blister than scolding an old and achy four-legged creature who has been your faithful companion for many years up until that point. And so, determined not to become that which I despised, I set out midway through Wednesday’s seventeenth year of life to teach myself how to be kind to a dog. 

For many reasons, but especially because she had walked with me for sixteen years along a sidewalk that would stretch halfway around the world, lesson number one was: Thank the dog every night. After Erin and my daughter had gone to bed, I would sit down quietly next to Wednesday, who was too arthritic now to jump up onto the couch. I would pet her with an open hand, from the top of the head, just behind the ears, backward toward her shoulders. Gently. “Thank you, Wednesday,” I would say. “You have been a good dog for a very long time.” 

Lesson number two: Draw the dog. In fifteen years, I was never able to draw my dog in a way that captured her peculiarity of spirit. In her final months, though, as it became clear to me that our sidewalk was nearing its end, I began trying again in earnest, scribbling her image obsessively on any surface and with any tool nearest at hand. I would draw her in ballpoint pen on the cover of the newspaper. I would draw her with my daughter’s crayons on a napkin at dinner. I always drew her from memory. I am not someone who can draw well without a reference, so the work was always sloppy and inaccurate. 

There are many paradoxical truths inherent to the making of stories and art for children by grown-ups. My favorite, though, is this: In order for a picture drawn for children to be drawn well, it need not be drawn well at all. All that matters is the sincerity of the mark making. The shabbiness of the pictures made by artists like John Burningham, James Marshall, or Roald Dahl’s most frequent collaborator, Quentin Blake, is so impressive at times that it causes one to wonder what’s the point of learning to draw in the first place. But these artists have mastered something else—that is, how to draw a line with vulnerability. I tried many hundreds of times to do the same with my drawings of Wednesday. I tried right up until the very last one, made two weeks before our visit to the goat farm, and one week after I discovered, to my surprise, that my footsteps, when alone, actually make no sound at all. It was drawn quickly in permanent black marker on cheap paper. It was colored in and scribbled over later by my daughter. It is the only drawing from Wednesday’s last year that I have kept. I cut it out, folded it up, and put it in the back of a book I started to read but am not likely to finish. I do not know what to do with a picture so poorly drawn but impossible to throw away. So, as an ode to simple joy, I will include it here. Because, after all, dogs are very nice.

In the week after Wednesday died, our daughter woke up each morning, asked to greet the dog, and in the dog’s absence instead chose to carry a picture of her around, petting it gently, gently, gently in the hour before breakfast.

Why do we ask for kindness from our children? My best bet so far is this: We know it will increase their capacity for joy. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we also know that kindness will increase their capacity for sorrow as well. We gamble with one in order to win the other. We do this with the hope that it will all work out, like it does in storybooks.

Willy Wonka, barefooted, emerges now from the barn. Erin opens up our box and inside is a pizza as inviting as any I’ve ever seen.

“Pizza…is…nice!” says my daughter, who may or may not be a child of woe—it’s still too early to tell.

“Yes,” I say. “And even if you have just one pizza, it is nice too.” I have told more lies to children than I can count, but this, I can happily say, is the truth. 


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