Thursday, June 20, 2013

Books (and Authors) We Love: “Clementine and the Spring Trip” by Sara Pennypacker

Guest Post by Sara Pennypacker
One of the problems with/great things about blogs is that you get drawn into conversations. The past couple of weeks I’ve been visiting lots of them to get ready for my blog tour, and one post I can’t stop thinking about was titled “Can You teach Empathy?” This seems like the right place to have a say about that, and a Clementine post seems the right occasion, since Clementine herself is known for her empathy, so...

No, I don’t think empathy can be taught. But - a HUGE but - empathy can be learned...through experience and practice. And there is nothing on the planet better for practicing empathy than a novel. All media forms connect us to other humans: photos, news articles, paintings, music, TV shows, films – these can be tremendously moving, and are responsible for untold good in the world. But a long piece of fiction, which asks a reader to feel what someone else feels, for substantial stretches of time, is the ultimate empathy practice.

I try to remember this about the power of books: A book connects a reader to the rest of his tribe, through time and space. The first time this happens for a child can be a transformative experience: You are not the only one! a book says. And there are other paths possible.

Author Sara Pennypacker
A book is a safe place for a young reader to try on other personas, and this safety allows them to risk real feelings and connections. The most powerful example of what this can empathetic connection accomplish that I know is Patty McCormick’s SOLD. For those who don’t know it: Patty wanted to write something about the issue of child sex trafficking. It’s an enormous problem – 250,000 little girls are in the sex trade in Calcutta alone, I once heard. I think our hearts are so overwhelmed by numbers this big we close down...what can we do about a problem so overwhelming? So Patty reduced the situation to one girl – she told Lakshmi’s story, and made readers see that they’re connected, that they could easily have been this young girl. And the result? Millions of teens in America have read the book, empathized with Lakshmi and said, in effect, What can we do? Because this isn’t going to happen on our watch.

And now, segue to Clementine! Whenever anyone describes her, “empathetic” is the adjective I hear most right after funny and creative. Some backstory: Clementine is modeled after my son Caleb, who as a kid struggled with attention issues (which, okay fine, he got from me...) What I cherished about him, and came to learn is true about a lot of kids with attention issues, was that he was artistic, a creative thinker, and extremely empathetic, so these are the traits that shine in Clementine.

The books are funny – I find Clementine’s world-view hilarious, and the adults in her life navigate the challenges she brings with great humor. But at the heart of each is some serious issue children are likely to encounter - insecurity about their place in the family, or being accepted by friends; the loss of a pet; additions to the family; etc. – and Clementine makes plenty of mistakes. It’s been my experience that humor helps young readers connect with characters who are messing up – that when we’re laughing, it’s much easier to admit, Me too. I’m like that, too, the realization at the core of empathy.

In this newest book in the series, CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP, Clementine’s empathy expands to animals. In it, she has an encounter with a chicken which challenges her sense of justice – people eat animals! – and decides she must become a vegetarian. As with all the books, I had a blast writing the funny scenes, and at the same time, I’m just so proud of this little girl.

Sara Pennypacker was a painter before becoming a writer, and has two absolutely fabulous children who are now grown. She has written several books, including the Clementine series, all illustrated by Marla Frazee, The Amazing World of Stuart, Sparrow Girl, and Summer of the Gypsy Moths. She grew up in Massachusetts and splits her time between Cape Cod and Florida.

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