What do you do when kids overhear stories of vile racism as they walk past their dad on the couch watching the evening news?
How do you talk to a child who comes home after “learning” a new slur from a friend?
And how do you help the child who was victimized by a racist in the community?
Will we teach them to courageously stand up for themselves?
Will we teach them the power of forgiveness and kindness in the face of such ugliness?
How will we help them deal with the internal voices that begin to question their beauty, intrinsic worth, and preciousness?
How I became an unexpected author
Last spring, I was approached by a man named Ray Petkau with an unexpected business proposal. Ray is a hockey agent to some of the biggest names in the NHL and he wanted to hire me to write and illustrate a children’s book.
Why? Simply to get a story with positive values into the hands of K-2 students. It was his way of giving back to the community.
I was intrigued but I was also working full-time and a dad of 7, soon to 8 kids; 2 children born to our home and 6 who were gifted to our home through foster care, adoption, and marriage. (Yes, I have a son-in-law. No, I’m not old enough.)
Writing and art have been long-time passions and so I decided the book would be a fun project for evenings and weekends. So we chose a theme and I got to work.
The storyline evolves to include racism
Although we thought we knew where the story was headed, our storyline began to evolve as Ray and I discussed the racial tensions that we were observing through spring and summer. We wondered if we should change course slightly to address racism.
We quickly realized however that as white men, who grew up in very homogenous rural Manitoba communities, we didn’t have the experience to create a voice that would connect with our desired audience. So we approached a young up-and-coming hockey player that Ray represents, Jermaine Loewen.
Jermaine was born in Jamaica and abandoned by his birth parents at the age of 1. His Canadian adoptive parents, Stan and Tara Loewen met Jermaine when he was three while volunteering in his children’s home. They fell in love and began to work at the adoption.
Two years later, when Jermaine was five the adoption was finally approved and he moved from the warm tropical island of Jamaica to the cold winters of Manitoba. From the people he knew, understood, and looked like to a new community where he was the only kid of colour for most of his life.
Jermaine’s voice was the vital piece we needed to tell an authentic story!
In the book, the “new kid,” Mainer, moves to a new town, finds out that he is the only bear, and feels those differences deeply. The other character, a lion named Ari, has some deep assumptions about bears and it leads to a common childhood tension. On the other hand, Mainer has some assumptions about lions as well. And we are left to wonder if they can overcome their differences and become friends.
A unique way to teach a lesson about racism
Ari’s Awful Day, is what I’ve dubbed a “meet-in-the-middle” book. The first half of the book tells the story from Ari’s point of view. But his story ends in the centre of the book, at which point the reader flips the book over and reads the same story from the perspective of Mainer, ending on the same centre page. It is a tactile and visual illustration of two different kids meeting in the middle.
But the book itself is only a small part of what grew into a vision to really help our young children internalize the message of love, friendship, and kindness. To help parents and teachers drive the message home, we have developed resources to help start conversations and practice kindness together. We also have activities based on the book for kids such as colouring pages, word searches, and mazes; classic fun.
The most important part of the plan, however, is Ari’s Kindness Club; a monthly email club that will see kid-members receiving a personalized email with extra stories, activities, and most important, kindness challenges! These resources and activities are available, free of charge, on the book’s website, www.arithelion.com.
There are many excellent books and resources for children to tackle the evil of racism, and there need to be; because the issue is huge! We need all the help possible to teach our children to love despite differences, or rather to love because of our shared humanity. We hope that Ari’s Awful Day will become another tool in realizing that dream.
If you would like to take a deeper look at the project, please go to www.arithelion.com. There are links to buy the book on Amazon, all our free resources and activities, and the registration form for Ari’s Kindness Club. The club is free and will always be free, and you can sign up a child even if you don’t wish to buy a book!
It is my, Jermaine’s and Ray’s way to give back and encourage kindness this season.
Thom Van Dycke
Speaker, Writer, Husband, Dad
Tara and I were married in 2001 and have a house full of kids (and a few that have outgrown the house!) We became foster parents in 2011 and since then have welcomed 30 children into our home. Currently, we have 8 kids ranging from newborn to 24-years old (we even have a son-in-law!). My heart beats for kids from hard places and I was trained as a TBRI Practitioner in 2017.