How I Found Finding Kindness by Deborah Underwood
In March of 2017, I was out of town caring for my dad, who’d been seriously ill. I had been too stressed and busy with the demands of caregiving to even think about writing, so when I received an email from one of my editors, it felt like a reminder of a former life.
The editor said she’d been thinking about kindness, and that she’d like to do a book about it. Was I interested?
Absolutely! But I told her my current situation, fearful that once she learned I was temporarily out of commission, she’d ask someone else instead. She responded that whenever I had something to share, she’d love to see it—a kindness in itself.
After I got home, I started playing with the idea. Important as kindness is to me, it seemed like a tricky topic for a picture book because I worried that a manuscript could easily drift towards the saccharine.
I started making lists of kindnesses, then tried to shoehorn them into a manuscript. Months later, I sent my editor a draft of a text which contained phrases like this:
Kindness is stirring and sprinkling and soup. Kindness is planning and paint
and a home. Kindness is seeds and a feeder and full tummies. Kindness is tiptoes and whispers and dreams.
She responded that she thought this direction could work, and made some suggestions. I revised it a time or two. But there was a problem.
This didn’t feel like my writing.
It’s important to me—as it probably is to most writers—that my work feel authentic. That it feel like me, even if the original idea comes from someone else.
This didn’t. Except for one line: “Kindness is a cup and a card and freedom.”
During the early stage of the manuscript, I’d noticed a clear plastic cup and an index card on my coffee table. I’d used them to capture a spider and set it free outside, something I always do. The phrase cup and card kindness had popped into my head, and I’d immediately scribbled it down. I loved it: the rhythm, the meaning, and the fact that without an illustration, it was incomprehensible.
So I started again, this time with telegraphic verse: Cup and card kindness. Rake and yard kindness. This felt like me! But the rhythm meant each kindness needed three and only three syllables: not impossible, but quite limiting.
But then I hit on the missing piece of the puzzle: the book could be essentially a slow camera pan around a town, starting with a girl freeing a bug, moving through her neighborhood, going downtown, then to an animal shelter, to a park, back to the neighborhood, and finally ending up with the same girl freeing a bug again.
That felt like me, and it felt like a picture book! The continuity of the illustrations would help the book feel cohesive. And when I ran the concept past my editor, almost exactly eleven months after she’d approached me about the idea, she immediately responded, “YESSSSSSSSSSS! YES. This is it. This is the one!”
I wrote the manuscript in verse—not a terse verse, but one that’s cheery and bouncy (one more bit of anti-saccharine insurance). Before long, the manuscript was polished and off to the wonderful illustrator, Irene Chan. And now, finally, it’s on bookstore shelves!
I see kindness as the ultimate connector in an increasingly divided society. I’ve filled Finding Kindness with small acts of kindness. Little things that kids can see in their own lives. Things they can do for each other. Things parents and teachers can point out and share.
Focusing on the kindness around me, like my editor giving me the time I needed to write this manuscript, helps me to see the good in the world. I hope Finding Kindness will help kids to see it, too—and to be part of it themselves.
Deborah Underwood grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. She is the author of many books for children, including the New York Times–bestselling The Quiet Book. When she’s not writing, you might find her singing in a chamber choir, playing a ukulele, walking around in Golden Gate Park, baking vegan cookies, or petting any dogs, cats, pigs, or turkeys that happen to be nearby.