Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I love this elegant story of kindness and cruelty.  In just 32 pages, it distills the essence of human conflict–a persistent refusal to see the humanity in others and extend simple warmth and care.

Set among school children, “Each Kindness” is told from the perspective of Chloe, a young girl who refuses to accept small gestures of friendship from Maya, the new girl.  Maya wears spring shoes in the snow and plays alone, snubbed by classmates who laugh and name her “Never New” for her hand-me-down wardrobe. Despite her absolute rejection in the schoolyard, Maya continually reaches out, extending a glance, a smile, some jacks, a ball–ever optimistic that one day her affection will be returned.  Alas, it is not, and we last see her jumping rope around the whole school yard alone, never stopping, never looking up.  Heartbreaking.

On the next page, Maya is absent from school and the girls’ teacher Ms. Albert gives a lesson in kindness. Chloe is moved when the teacher drops a small stone into a bowl of water, observes the ripples and says: “This is what kindness does. Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.”  But Chloe can’t think of a single kindness to share when it is her turn to drop a pebble into the bowl.

Later, she resolves to be kind and make the world better by simply returning Maya’s smile. But her realization comes too late.  Maya’s absences from school pile up and Ms. Albert announces that her family had to move away. Chloe sits by a pond and considers each kindness she had never shown.

I threw small stones into it, over and over.
Watching the way the water rippled out and away.
Out and away.

Like each kindness — done and not done.
Like every girl somewhere —
holding a small gift out to someone
and that someone turning away from it.

The economy of Woodson’s prose and the solemnity of E.B. Lewis’s illustration combine to powerful effect. Together, they remind us that sometimes we learn valuable lessons too late, with real consequences for the people we spurn.  

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