Guest Post: In the Neighborhood and Other 2022 Children’s Lit About Being a Good Neighbor by Elsa Buehler
Hey hey, folks! Recently Elsa Buehler wrote me about something she’d observed in recent children’s books and her points were so salient that I asked if she might expand them and be today’s guest poster. She agreed and here we are! Be so good as to appreciate what she has to say:
“The act of being a good neighbor must always begin with us” – Kelly Barnhill, The Ogress and the Orphans
Following the 2023 Youth Media Awards, I’ve been catching up on my to-be-read list by checking out some 2022 titles that I’ve been meaning to read. Whether they were recommended by my peers or my students, discovered on Goodreads or Betsy Bird’s 31 Days, 31 Lists, or had otherwise caught my eye, they all landed on the list. The list itself is a primitive Google Doc overflowing with titles in all manner of fonts and marked by various underlines, colors, and highlights that correlate to no defined key. It would not be fruitful or interesting to share this list in its unadulterated form, but in working my way through it, I discovered what I believe to be an interesting pattern.
Several of the books I read dealt with the (good, bad, and strange) relationships that people have with those in physical proximity to where they live. In each book where I identified a neighbor dilemma, I noticed that the resolution always depends on the neighbors coming together by breaching some sort of previously undisturbed barrier. In every case, neighborliness triumphed. Having defined this theme, I’d like to explore it a bit more. Allow me to unpack my thoughts on 4 gems of 2022 children’s literature.
For my “lunch break book,” I recently read Kelly Barnhill’s The Ogress and the Orphans, a delightful novel about a small town that’s fallen on hard times, and the friendship between a kindly ogress and a local family of orphaned children. The Ogress and the Orphans is what you might call a Snicket-esque fairy tale. It’s touching. It’s cozy. Infrequently, it unsettles the reader. The neighbors of the story’s town, Stone-in-the-Glen, do not live in perfect accord. Due to a number of tragedies that have struck the little town, its inhabitants have grown closed off and suspicious of one another. People whisper vaguely that it used to be such a nice town. They adore their beloved Mayor, who promises, from the comfort of his gleaming mansion, “I can fix it…I, alone, can fix it.” The mayor successfully pacifies the townspeople with nonspecific platitudes and signs with divisive messages, such as “A functional town relies on a generous citizenry! But are your neighbors giving enough? (They probably aren’t.)” Smitten by his dazzling smile, the townspeople forget: he hasn’t yet followed through on any of his grand promises. When a child goes missing, the town ogress (who lives a nocturnal life on the outskirts of town, secretly delivering meals and sweets to the townspeople while they sleep) is accused of abducting her. Even though the child returns safely home and admits to running away, the fearful neighbors are already intent on destroying the ogress once and for all. (As one child asks, “What is the use of truth when people refuse to believe verifiable facts?”) By the end of the story, the reader understands that the townspeople’s mistreatment of each other was part of a larger design by the nefarious Mayor, who isn’t at all who he claims to be. (Note: It isn’t my intention to unpack Barnhill’s social commentary on civility during times of crisis in this post, but it’s worth examining if you choose to read this book.) After experiencing several tragedies, the people of Stone-in-the-Glen learned to be fearful of everything and everyone. They grew apart, they grew bitter, and they grew cold. It takes a lot for them to come back together, but when they do, it’s an instant improvement from the years spent hiding. It’s a beautiful, sad little story that emphasizes that every person you’ll ever meet is utterly unknowable…unless you simply ask. Neighborliness: it saves the day!
Midway through reading The Ogress and the Orphans, I was discussing The Wolf Suit with my coworker. She wasn’t sure how to classify the odd little thing. Fiction? Intermediate fiction? Graphic novel? I needed a closer look. The Wolf Suit is a darkly humorous story (we landed on graphic novel) about Bellwether Riggwelter, a sheep who lives in fear of the wolves in the forest where he resides. The main problem here is that berries, too, are found in the forest, and he has grown quite hungry. Bellwether devises a plan to sew himself a wolf suit, a disguise that will grant him the courage to enter the forest. The suit disappoints on several counts. First, it invites conversation from predators who believe him to be one of them, landing him in rather stressful situations. Second, it’s unexpectedly delicate and begins to falter when exposed to the elements. Despite this elementary librarian’s fear that Bellwether would be found out and eaten , he survives the book. We soon learn that the other “wolves” he’s met aren’t wolves at all. They’re other animals, traditionally prey, who have sewn their own wolf suits. Their survival strategy had, up to now, preserved their lives. However, if things hadn’t gone wrong with Bellwether’s costume, they would have all carried on living in fear and isolation. This ending seems to say that things that come to pass are rarely as horrible as we imagine they will be. Not only do other people share our same fears, they also share the same ways of coping with those fears. We really are quite alike, after all. Neighborliness: it makes life worth living!
Next, I picked up In the Neighborhood by Rocio Bonilla. The neighbors of In the Neighborhood keep to themselves. We meet them individually, from one house the next, learning their opinions and assumptions about one another. Although they’re aware of, and at times, interested in one another, they never speak. (That’s right – it’s the exact situation we see for most of The Ogress and the Orphans.) Camila’s house is always very noisy. Her neighbors think she must turn her TV up loud because she’s hard of hearing, but in reality she’s a single mother of 10 baby chicks. Regardless of how Camila felt about her lack of neighborly friendships, she would never dream of introducing herself to her next-door neighbor. Mr. Martinez, a businessman, seems so serious and “straight-laced.” What Camila doesn’t know is that Mr. Martinez has a secret hobby: juggling! But what use is it to juggle with no audience to entertain? By choosing not to interact with their neighbors based on various assumptions about them, it turns out that they’ve been missing out on some really wonderful friendships (hello again, The Wolf Suit)! When a catastrophe occurs, affecting everyone on the block, the neighbors do what they never thought they would: call in on one another. Predictably, as they begin to talk, the neighbors realize that they’re quite compatible. Their little street becomes a community. Neighborliness: it’s contagious!
The fourth book in which I identified this theme of harmony between neighbors is Big Truck, Little Island by Chris Van Dusen. Based on true events that occurred on a little island off the coast of Maine, this book tells the story of a town’s solution to one very large problem. While driving through a twisty, mountainside road, a big rig truck skids and becomes stuck, trapping cars in the traffic lanes going both directions. We meet the inhabitants of the cars: all families with precocious children, each on their way to some activity or appointment. As their (frankly unhelpful) parents sit in their cars, the kids come together and use their small-town connections to brainstorm a plan. They realize that by walking, they can reach the area their cars cannot pass through. In a solution that almost seems too good to be true, it is decided that a car swap will take place. Since all of the families are stuck on the “wrong” side of the truck, an even exchange of cars solves the problem. This ingenious plan is met with no resistance by the parental parties, and all depart on their ways, leaving the narrator to make a final reveal. It would be almost impossible to guess the direction of this book by the title or cover alone. Its message sneaks up on readers, who may be expecting a lesson on patience or the value of slowing down and living in the moment. Although I wish we could have seen a little more consideration for the poor truck driver, I acknowledge that lingering further on any plot point would not have allowed for such exceptionally neat storytelling. Thinking about our other neighbor stories, Big Truck, Little Island is another perfect fit. The island neighbors in the story had no control over the situation that befell them, but their response required the cooperation and trust of everyone involved. By relying on another, their problem was solved quickly, precisely, and at no cost to anyone. Neighborliness? It just makes good sense.
Now, having found these 4 lovely little books about being a good neighbor, I am tempted to get to the root of this pattern. I wonder: what can we learn from thinking about these stories in a larger conversation? One thing to ponder is the emotional distance many children and adults have felt from spending extended periods of time working and learning in physical isolation from other humans. I can’t help but wonder if these books could be asking readers to think about how the precautions we took to stay safe during the heights of the pandemic may have impacted our social skills and friendships. That kind of distance was tough on our brains, our hearts, and our bodies. I believe we are still recovering from it. We experience another kind of emotional distance through rifts caused by political and social differences. When we think of ourselves and others in terms of groups and allegiances, we can get out of the habit of seeing people as individuals with unique ideas and feelings and hope. This little collection of stories may also be seen as gentle encouragement, in times of division, to try to see the humanity in each individual.
As we see in the stories I laid out for you today, it can do a whole lot of good to start looking for the individual in the people we meet. And, when we’re ready, maybe there’s no better place to start than right next door.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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