What Kindness Can Do by Courtney Sheinmel
The other day I told my best friend that I’m a lot like a squirrel.
That may seem like a strange comparison, but stay with me: Squirrels collect and store nuts so they’ll have enough food to last them through the winter. But they don’t remember where all their nuts are stored, so they only end up going back for some of them.
I don’t collect nuts. (I don’t even like nuts.) But I am a collector—of ideas. I think most writers are. Ideas are everywhere—I find them when I walk through Central Park, when I’m on the phone with my nieces, when I’m on the subway. I know I won’t use all of them, but you never know which ones I’ll need, and so I try to jot them all down. There are post-its all over my apartment with random things listed on them; sometimes I remember why I wrote something down, and sometimes I don’t. I’m also an avid user of the “notes” feature on my iPhone.
The best thing about the iPhone notes is that I can break ideas up by category: things about sisters, character names, picture book ideas. For some time now, I’ve kept a file called “School Kindness.” As an author, I visit a lot of schools, and I’ve been fascinated by the different kindnesses I’ve seen. There was the school with a designated “Kindness Corner,” and another with a program called “Caught Being Kind.” There were third graders on Long Island who cut their hair for Locks of Love, and a boy in Pennsylvania who spent an afternoon securing tennis balls to the chair legs in his classroom, buffering sounds so that his hearing-impaired best friend wouldn’t miss a word their teacher said.
Like the squirrels, I didn’t know if I’d ever go back from any of these things. But I kept the ideas stored just in case. And then, on a bitterly cold day in December, three and a half years ago, that changed, and I knew just why I’d kept the kindness file.
It started out as a very bad day. I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and stay there. But I couldn’t, because I’d asked someone for a favor.
Every Tuesday for the past five years, I’ve taught an afterschool writing class to a group of teenagers whose favorite author is Libba Bray. I’d asked Libba if she could surprise my students at their end-of-semester reading. Libba and I didn’t know each other well. There wasn’t money or book sales in it for her. But she said yes. So I had to leave my house, because Libba was leaving hers. Such a generous thing; yet I walked into the library full of resentment. My students greeted me, and I forced myself to smile, not meaning it. Five minutes later, Libba arrived.
Perhaps you’ve seen the old video footage of the teens going insane with excitement when the Beatles stepped off a plane onto US soil in 1964. When Libba walked in, it was a bit like that: there were shrieks and tears. (Kai and Altana, if you’re reading this: I’m writing about YOU!) I watched as Libba took time to speak to the kids, making each of them feel seen and heard and special. Then she sat in the front row, and cheered for every single reader—even as it got much later than I’d promised.
I went home that night smiling a wide, genuine smile, and I realized something: the things that had caused my bad mood were still true. But Libba’s kindness had essentially flipped a switch. Later on, I googled why: when someone is kind to us, when we are kind to someone, or even if we simply witness an act of kindness, there’s a serotonin boost in our brains, which in turn makes us happier.
I tell my students to write about what interests them, and I find that bit of biology fascinating. As a writer for children, I’m intensely aware that unspeakably sad things happen to kids. Things that alter their lives and make them grow up faster than they should. But kind things are always happening too, and those moments improve the quality of all our lives.
The day after Libba came to the reading, I went back to the “School Kindness” file on my iPhone to reread the notes that this squirrel would be using. I wrote what would become the first lines of The Kindness Club, a series about three fifth graders who look for ways to change lives for the better.
Ever since I started writing about kindness, I’ve noticed more of it. At the same time, I’ve been looking for ways to be kinder in my own life. We all need help crawling out from under the covers sometimes. My dearest wish for this book is that that’s what it does for the kids who read it.
Courtney Sheinmel is a recovering attorney, chocolate-lover, mac & cheese expert, and the author of over a dozen books for kids and teens. Born in California, she always loved reading and writing; but after graduating with honors from Barnard College (part of Columbia University), she attended Fordham School of Law, and spent several years as a law firm associate. On the weekends, Courtney worked on what became her first middle grade novel, My So-Called Family (2008), which was praised for its heartfelt and insightful portrayal of what makes a family. Upon its publication, Courtney left the practice of law and began writing full time. The protagonist of her second novel,Positively (2009), was a teenager living with HIV, inspired by Courtney’s own longtime involvement with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Courtney continued to delve into unique and sometimes difficult family situations in books like All the Things You Are (2011) and Edgewater (2015). She is also the author of the young readers series Stella Batts, the middle grade series The Kindness Club, and co-author of the emerging reader series Agnes & Clarabelle. In addition to writing, Courtney served as a judge on the national level for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and she received a National Scholastic Outstanding Educator Award for her work as a writing instructor at Writopia Lab, a non-profit organization serving kids ages 8-18. Courtney lives in New York City.