How One Mother Used a Little Free Library to Teach Her Daughter Empathy
Melissa Hart reached into a Little Free Library and found a story that would change her family.
FOR YEARS, I ENVIED the Little Free Library the size of a dormitory refrigerator at the local playground, its shelves stuffed with novels and nonfiction, picture books and back issues of the New Yorker. It was one of more than 90,000 worldwide, part of a project that began in 2010 as one man’s labor of love to ensure all people had access to literature.
As an author and reader, I desperately wanted a Little Free Library of my own. I loved the generosity of neighbors sharing books with one another on home-built shelves labeled with the motto “Take a book, return a book.” I wanted people walking by my house with their kids and their dogs to pause for a moment and peruse the shelves, hoping to discover something wonderful.
One Mother’s Day, my husband and I finally built our LFL—as they’re fondly nicknamed—from plywood and cast-off shingles and recycled casement windows. As soon as we mounted our library on a post under our giant cedar, our neighbor began stocking the lowest shelf with carefully curated chapter books for kids. She worked as a grade school teacher’s assistant and also knew about the foster care system from which I’d adopted my daughter. I trusted her taste in children’s literature, but I never suspected she’d add a book that would change my daughter’s life.
A CHILD ADOPTED FROM the state, even if she’s just an infant, has already experienced more loss than most kids. In the womb, she might be exposed to drugs and alcohol and suffer a dearth of prenatal care. If her birth mother relinquishes her, she’s taken from the only body she’s known for nine months and placed in a crib instead of on a warm breast. She’s transferred to a foster parent, where she may stay for a year or so while the state determines a permanent placement. Lacking relatives to adopt her, and without interest from anyone else, she may find herself bounced among foster homes until she ages out of the system, usually at 18.
My daughter spent the first 19 months of her life in foster homes, the second one run by a caregiver who managed the lives of four toddlers at once. The kids had regular pediatric and therapy appointments but didn’t receive much eye contact and physical affection, which are crucial to a child’s development of trust and security. Researchers have found that many foster kids’ brains contain a low volume of calming chemicals and higher levels of stress chemicals.
My daughter, in the early years of grade school, distrusted her teachers. She’d cry and hide under the desk, so traumatized by the daily six-hour loss of my husband and me that she couldn’t learn. She’d come home depressed and full of self-loathing, biting giant holes in her T-shirts and twisting her hair into knots. At last, when she entered third grade, I shifted my work schedule to evenings and weekends and began to homeschool her with a curriculum designed around kids’ novels.
Initially, my neighbor slipped classics like Charlotte’s Web ($6; amazon.com) and Black Beauty ($7; amazon.com) and Ramona the Pest ($7; amazon.com) into our Little Free Library. When I told her about my homeschooling plans, she added contemporary fiction she’d come across in the classroom, stories that reflected themes from my daughter’s early life experiences. We read Bud, Not Buddy ($8; amazon.com)—Christopher Paul Curtis’s story of a Depression-era boy moving in and out of foster homes and searching for the musician he believes to be his father. We read The Tale of Despereaux ($8; amazon.com), Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal–winning tale of a noble mouse abandoned by his family.
One day, we discovered Katherine Paterson’s novel The Great Gilly Hopkins ($5; amazon.com). My daughter and I stood in the street, both of us raincoated against the misty March morning, and studied the book cover. A tough, ponytailed tween scowled up at us, one eyebrow arrogantly cocked.
“She looks angry,” my daughter said, putting the book back on the shelf.
I pulled it out again and read the back cover. “It’s about an 11-year-old who’s on her fourth foster home,” I said. “She’s on a mission to find her birth mother.”
These days, when I read the jacket copy of a kids’ book and feel simultaneously intrigued and uncomfortable, I know it’s a novel I should read with my child. Back then, I had no such instinct. Metaphorically, I’d throw books at my daughter and hope one would stick.
I gazed up into the cedar. On one branch, a squirrel nibbled a cone, and the detritus floated down and landed in my daughter’s curls. “I think we should read this book,” I said and carried it into the house.
PATERSON IS THE AUTHOR of Bridge to Terabithia ($8; amazon.com), the book responsible for making fifth and sixth graders everywhere weep. A year later, she published The Great Gilly Hopkins. My daughter and I curled up on the couch with our scruffy white terrier between us, and I began to read.
Gilly Hopkins is mean, angry, and manipulative. She’s prejudiced against fat people, people with disabilities, and African Americans. She calls her beautiful teacher the N-word, which has landed Paterson’s novel on numerous banned-book lists.
I choked over that word myself, reading it to my mixed-race daughter. I winced at the scenes in which Gilly’s birth mother doesn’t seem interested in parenting.
Most of us don’t consider the lives of the more than 400,000 foster children in the United States. We don’t have to. They’re a mostly hidden demographic, yet they exist in plain sight at school, in the library, on playgrounds. Decades ago, my mother gave me a paperback copy of The Pinballs ($7; amazon.com). Written by Betsy Byars, it’s the story of three kids stuck in a home with career foster parents who get them to trust again. I knew, after I’d read the book until the cover fell off, that I wanted to grow up and adopt a child.
My husband and I took the required parenting classes, pored over the Department of Human Services’ enormous binder of children available for adoption, and found ourselves the parents of a round-faced toddler with merry brown eyes and a wide, mischievous smile.
But by first grade, that smile had faded, and her eyes had grown watchful and wary. Weekly meetings with her therapist turned into sullen, taciturn hours that exhausted everyone.
Did I honestly think story time could help?
I did. Over the past decade, numerous studies have shown a correlation between reading literary fiction and developing an increased capacity for empathy. Researchers have used R.J. Palacio’s Wonder ($10; amazon.com) and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series ($7; amazon.com) to show that reading about diverse protagonists expands our compassion for their real-life counterparts.
The Great Gilly Hopkins is a wonderfully comedic novel despite its grim subject matter. The characters are funny and idiosyncratic. I developed a voice for each, and my daughter sat wide-eyed on the couch, soaking up my attempts at theater. But Gilly I played straight. Paterson shows that below the girl’s bullying, racist exterior, she’s raw with pain.
“She’s sad,” my daughter told me one morning. “She doesn’t understand why her mother doesn’t want her.”
Again, I cringed. My husband and I had always been candid with our daughter about her adoption story. Still, I wondered if Gilly’s struggles brought back memories of my child’s experiences in foster care.
I needn’t have worried. The book continued to captivate, giving her the language to own her story without embarrassment or shame. “My birth mother couldn’t keep me, so I went to a foster home,” she told kids at dance and art classes. “My parents found me there. They gave me a brownie and a cat named Eeyore.” She stopped chewing her T-shirts and knotting her hair. She demanded I read the last third of the book in one sitting.
PATERSON’S ENDING ISN’T happy—not at all ideal for readers like my daughter and me, who grew to care intensely about the anguished little girl. Gilly ends up with her genteel maternal grandmother—a stranger to her—and has to leave the foster mother with whom she’s formed a deep bond. When I read the final sentence, my child sat stone-faced with our terrier clutched in her arms. She picked up a volume of Garfield comics and began reading.
“You might write to Katherine Paterson,” I suggested. “Tell her what you think of her book.”
“I don’t want to,” she muttered.
But later, she sat at her desk with her head bent over a piece of paper and her fingers curled around a pen. She wrote for an hour, laboriously, and folded the paper and put it in an envelope.
“Please, Mumsie,” she said. “Will you send this to the author?”
“I will,” I said, and went for a stamp.
Later, in the post office, I unfolded the letter. In curlicue letters, she’d written:
Dear Katherine P.,
I read your book the Great Gilly Hopkins. I love it. It had so many details.
I am 9, I also was a foster girl!
I was moved two times.
I was adopted at the age 19 months.
P.S. PLEASE write book 2 of Gilly Hopkins.
This novel began a transformation, a way for my daughter to understand and feel empathy for her own story. A year later, she returned to a colorful and nurturing classroom. Now she runs happily up the steps to her middle school each morning.
My neighbor has moved. It’s my role now to study the kids on our street and stock our Little Free Library.
“This one, Mom,” my daughter says. She hands me one of her beloved picture books for the toddler who stays with her grandmother down the street. This one for the second grader with a speech impairment. “And this one, and this one,” she says.
Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens ($12; amazon.com) and the preteen novel Avenging the Owl ($6; amazon.com). She lives with her husband and daughter in Oregon.