Like most people living in New York City after 9/11, Bethany Hegedus was in need of some solace. On the day the Twin Towers fell, she was at work in the World Financial Center—a building located directly across the street from the World Trade Center. She heard and felt the rumble of the second plane’s impact, saw fuselage flying past the office windows, and watched in disbelief as people began to jump from the towers.
A few weeks after that deeply scarring day, she attended an event sponsored by the Unity Church of New York. Arun Gandhi—the fifth grandson of the late Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi—told stories about growing up under the prejudice of apartheid in South Africa, and how his grandfather urged nonviolence as an answer to profound injustice.
“When he got to the anger and electricity story,” says Hegedus, “I turned to my friend and whispered in her ear, ‘This would make a beautiful picture book.’ ”
The story she’s referring to is one where the elder Gandhi tells young Arun that anger is like electricity: It can be like lightning that splits a tree in two, or like flipping a switch on a lamp to illuminate a room. The idea of turning that concept into a picture book for children stayed with Hegedus, and a few months later she summoned the courage to email Arun and pitch the idea to him.
“I did have some concern,” says Arun, referring to his reaction when Hegedus’ email arrived out of the blue. “I said, ‘I don’t know who this person is.’ I was a little bit unsettled by it. But I was always very anxious to take these stories to younger children, so when Bethany came up with the idea I wanted to move forward with it.”
The end result of the duo’s unlikely collaboration is Grandfather Gandhi, the Kirkus-starred picture book that chronicles lessons that Mahatma Gandhi taught his then-12 year-old grandson while Arun and his family lived with him at the Sevagram Ashram. In addition to the electricity story, Arun’s grandfather gave him various tools to turn his pent-up anger into positive action.
“He asked me to write an anger journal with a pencil,” remembers Arun. “A lot of people do write an anger journal, but they simply pour their anger into the journal. And so every time they go back and read it, they’re just reminded of the incident and they get angry all over again. What grandfather said was that you’re to write the journal with the intent of finding a solution to the problem that created the anger. And then commit yourself to finding a solution. It changes the whole perspective.”
Hegedus found a measure of healing from the terrorist attacks in much the same way.
“With the huge catastrophe and devastation that 9/11 was,” she says, “I knew I had to start with myself. I wasn’t a politician; I was just a regular citizen. So I looked at what I cared about, which was children and children’s literature. And I decided to start there.”
When the two agreed to begin working on a children’s book together, Gandhi was working on his 2003 book for adults, Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence. He started sending Hegedus manuscript pages and she began adapting them for a younger audience. They sent drafts back and forth and even had several phone interviews, but it wasn’t until 2005 when Arun moved to Rochester, N.Y. that the two met in person.
Illustrator Evan Turk was 12 years old when Hegedus and Gandhi began their literary collaboration. But by the time the book was complete and acquired by Simon & Schuster (a process that took 10 years), Turk was graduating from the Parsons School of Design in New York City. The publisher invited him to submit samples that ultimately led to his participation in the project. Among other things, Turk’s mixed media collages incorporate watercolor, cut cloth and yarn to create a highly tactile viewing experience. Both Gandhi and Hegedus are pleased with the creative techniques Turk used to enhance their story. Arun’s anger over having been tripped by another boy on the soccer field, for example, is portrayed by a gnarled clump of black yarn and thread.
Teaching children how to constructively channel their anger can be tricky, says Hegedus, especially when the adults around them may not have mastered the concept themselves.
“Kids don’t learn from being told what to do, they learn from modeling,” she says. “If you want your kids to learn these principles, you have to learn these principles. I think it’s important that in the book Gandhi doesn’t judge Arun when he wants to lash out. He listens. And in listening he’s able to provide the information that Arun needs to make the choice for himself: lightning or lamp.”
The message of the book is one of positive resistance, which is not to be confused with passive resistance. Passivity connotes inactivity; Gandhi and Hegedus aim to inspire children to effect constructive change in the world around them—even when it appears to add just a drop to the seeming ocean of global injustice.
“The ocean is made up of drops," says Arun. “Every drop that goes in to the ocean enhances the ocean to that extent. Anger is natural, but unfortunately because we don’t know it and don’t recognize it, we end up doing the wrong things with anger. Instead we need to learn how to use it intelligently and constructively.”
“It’s not a quick fix,” adds Hegedus. “There’s no little pill you can swallow to take anger out of our culture. It’s learning to use your anger so it doesn’t turn in to violence. If you listen to it enough, you can find positive solutions rather than being reactive. To those who say that choosing to live your life in a nonviolent way is impossible, as some utopian ideal that we can’t reach, I’d say that it does start with you. It has to start there.”
Laura Jenkins is a writer living in Austin, Tex.