The Art of Being Good (Or Trying, at Least) by John David Anderson
“We read to know that we are not alone.” C.S. Lewis
I was not a very good kid.
I mean I was “good” in the all kids are wellsprings of purity and grace sense of the word, but not in the more practical, why-is-your-kid-vandalizing-my-bathroom-wall sense of the word. My parent’s friends would frisk me whenever we went to their house, patting me down for any markers or crayons I might have smuggled to redecorate their living room. I once tried to hold a handful of kids hostage on a playground with a butterknife for reasons I don’t remember (presumably the first stage in a much more elaborate plan to take over the world). I spent a solid chunk of my youth playing in and around dumpsters (read: I spent a good portion of my childhood unsupervised). My twos were, indeed terrible. As were my threes and fours and probably a healthy chunk of my fives and sixes. But then, much to my parent’s relief, a switch flipped, and I became an adult-pleaser, a quiet, reticent kid who did everything he could not to get into trouble. I’ve been stuck in that stage ever since.
Looking back, I’m fairly certain I was acting out as a way to get my parent’s attention. Either that or I was possessed by demonic spirits. I never did anything criminal—and I don’t recall having hurt anyone (at least not on purpose), though, in all honesty, I don’t remember most of the crimes I committed—only heard about them long after the fact by the grizzled veterans who had survived raising me. I do remember getting punished, though. I remember hoping that my mother would be in charge of the butt-busting, as her paddlings were half-hearted at best—a pat-pat, tut-tut, don’t-ever-do-that-again, the deterring effect of which lasted approximately five minutes
Still, I was taught at a young age that if you do bad things, you suffer negative consequences. But what about good things? That was trickier. Presumably God was involved (I was raised mostly Methodist), as was a sort of vaguely Kantian sense that “good will” was a thing. But for the most part the incentive to be a good kid was to avoid being punished for being the opposite. It took a handful of years for me to cease my reign of terror; it took much longer for me to grow into actively being a good person. Part of that was maturity. Part of it was the socialization that comes with assimilating to a wider world. A healthy chunk of it was having generous, compassionate parents who, for the most part, tried to model good behavior.
But I also think part of it was books. Or more accurately, stories. Or even more accurately, the heroes in those stories. And I don’t mean little mister or miss goody-two-shoes who can’t do anything wrong, but the ones who make mistakes and have to make up for them. The flawed and vulnerable heroes who find themselves turning when they should go straight, often getting themselves into even more trouble (relatable), but then, somehow (and often with the help of friends, magic swords, giant eagles, etc.) managing to suck it up, stand up straight, and do the right thing, even if it means making some kind of personal sacrifice, as it often does. In books I found characters who evolved to bring good to the world, developing the courage to right wrongs, save days, and discover the best in themselves. In turn, they encouraged me to try and find the best in myself. We all need footsteps to follow in.
That’s why I read them. Not to see myself, but to see who I could be if I tried.
Of course not every story is specifically designed to teach us how to be good, but I think most of them grapple with this question in one form or another, helping us to reflect on our own moral standing in the universe. The best stories aren’t explicitly didactic but still challenge us to think about what it means to be selfless, to contribute positively to the world, and to make meaning from this chaotic mess of life. These are certainly issues I wrestle with in my books because I know they are issues that my young readers are struggling with as well.
I don’t always have an answer, of course, but in place of definitives, stories can at least provide us with possibilities. And they can let readers know that, no, none of us is perfect, and yes, we all make mistakes, and most certainly we all have the capacity to learn from them, to evolve like every other storybook protagonist and win the day for the forces of light. To triumph. To be good. Great, even. Zeke Stahls, the young hero of The Greatest Kid in the World knows all about the struggle to learn from his mistakes in order to better both himself and the world around him. His journey of self-discovery is fraught with missteps and moments of doubt. And spoiler alert: he’s still so very far from perfect by the end of it.
It’s why I like him. Because we have that in common. I still grapple with what it means to do right, to live well, to give back, and to grow. I still wonder if I’m pulling it off or just stumbling along. But at least I know I’m not alone.
I’m reminded constantly. With every story I read.
John David Anderson is the author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Posted, Granted, One Last Shot, and Stowaway. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife, two frawesome kids, and clumsy cat, Smudge, in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org.
ABOUT THE GREATEST KID IN THE WORLD
From the beloved author of Posted comes the story of Zeke Stahls—a thoroughly average twelve-year-old who somehow finds himself in a competition to be named the World’s Greatest Kid.
Zeke Stahls is not the best kid in the world. Some days he struggles just to be good. He’d rather be pulling pranks than doing extra credit, and he’s too busy performing experiments on his little brother, Nate, or tormenting his older sister, Jackie, to volunteer for charity.
Which is why Zeke and his entire family are shocked when they receive word that he has been selected as a contestant in an online competition to find the World’s Greatest Kid.
Zeke has no idea how he was chosen for this, and he knows that measuring up to the other nominees–a saintly lineup of selfless, charming and talented do-gooders with photogenic smiles and hearts of gold–is hopeless. Still, with a $10,000 cash prize on the line, and Zeke’s mom struggling to hold the family together on her single-parent salary, he decides to give it his best shot.
As Zeke concocts various plots to show the world just how “great” he is, however, he finds himself wondering what that word even means, and who gets to decide. And what kind of kid he wants–and needs–to be.
Get a copy of the educator’s guide for The Greatest Kid in the World!
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