When I wrote Peers, Cheers, and Volunteers – I had no idea I was creating such a timeless story. I didn’t notice the effect it would have on children; the way they’d find themselves relating to it in multiple ways. Malik is the main character. He’s approximately 8 years old and in the third grade. Malik is quiet and standoffish, and is often considered rude. He doesn’t like school, doesn’t like his classmates and doesn’t like people. We all know a “Malik”. He feels he can’t trust anyone since his mother abandoned him, and his father. The result of a missing mother has caused Malik to have trust issues. He can’t fathom the fact that the one human who was supposed to love, protect and guide him most, is the same one who seemed to have left without guilt, or even hesitation. Maybe she hesitated, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. Then, you have Ms. August, Malik’s teacher. She’s concerned about him, and that subjects her to be clever in her approach of encouraging him to loosen up, open up and try new things. Her goal is to prove to him that there are people in his life who want to care for him. Her message is that a family is not only the people who brought you into the world, or live in your home. She wants him to know that in her class, they are family; they’re a community, and in their community – everyone shows compassion for one another. Although two of his classmates – Angelica and Ani don’t know the best way to show that they care about him, and find it easier to tease him for his differences – they too, evolve in the story. Ms. August introduces Michael and Val; two volunteers who ended up working in a group with Malik, Angelica and Ani. Once Michael got a chance to observe Malik’s disinterest in school, it made him think of his own childhood – and automatically felt connected to Malik’s persona. Michael then decided it was his duty to act as a “big brother” and give Malik some advice – all the while teaching Angelica and Ani how to be compassionate. Overall, Malik is dealing with trust issues – similar to many of us.
When I find myself reading this realistic fiction to groups of students – I notice even more, the gap that exists in children’s literature. Peers, Cheers, and Volunteers creates a platform for people to identify with life-like characters, and dive into discussions exploring: trust; compassion; the value of volunteering; the value of male mentors; the golden rule; community; misunderstood children, the iceberg effect and more. It amazes me every time! Especially when I ask, “How many of you think you are similar to Malik?” and they actually admit by raising their hands. Then you have the teachers who thank me for reading the story, because they have students who can relate. So many children are angry, confused and resentful toward the adults who try to shield them from the truth. How can we blame them for their outlandish behavior? The truth is, we can’t. We have to acknowledge them, their feelings and their wisdom – because they’ve been through situations that have forced them to grow up quickly. Don’t be frustrated with the children who don’t behave like “children” – it’s not their fault. They’re being raised in environments where situations are brushed under the rug, yet when they go to school, their teachers challenge them to use their brain – find answers, conduct research, ask questions, aim for intelligence, learn, think, grow. When they are home, their parents/guardians shield them from life’s truths. It doesn’t make sense! The only thing children want from adults, is guidance. They yearn for information to help make sense of why things are the way they are. It’s natural to be curious. Why did Malik’s mom leave, and why is his father choosing not to discuss the situation? Maybe if Malik had an explanation, his behavior in school would be different.
All of this to say, I’m finally working on Peers, Cheers, and Volunteers II. We all have more than deeply-rooted trust issues, just take a look at your habits – yes, they stem from childhood.