I spend a lot of time in the world of picture books, and more and more these days I hear from parents who want to find well-crafted books for very young readers about the complicated notions of war and peace. I’m looking for books, one of my blog readers said recently, that see “peace” as something more than just an absence of conflict.
To be sure, it’s challenging to find those picture books that aren’t insufferably heavy-handed and that do this well.
Read our recent interview with J. Torres about his new title, 'Into the Woods.'
Cue Lauren Thompson’s The Forgiveness Garden, illustrated by Christy Hale, which will see publication in October from Feiwel and Friends. Inspired by Alexandra Asseily’s Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, this parable tells the story of conflict between the fictional villages of Vayam and Gamte. (All village and character names are based on Sanskrit words related to kindness and forgiveness.)
One day, a boy named Karune picks up a stone and hurls it across the stream separating the villages. The large stone hits Sama, a young girl in the village of Vayam, and she falls to the ground.
Hatred and anger, already firmly entrenched in the two communities, escalate until Sama makes a move toward forgiveness and peace. The book closes with Karune and Sama sitting together in a garden the villagers have all just built together, reluctantly at first: “[They] stepped into the garden together. They sat under the tree. And they began to talk. What do you think they said?”
It’s a book that asks more questions than it offers answers, which is refreshing, given the complicated topic. Forgiveness is not easy and peace can be attained in more than one way, the story seems to say. Thompson respectfully leaves space for the child reader to ponder these notions at the story’s close. These are compelling ideas, wrapped up in Christy Hale’s textured collage illustrations.
I chatted with Lauren a bit about this thoughtful story.
Tell me about first reading or hearing about The Garden of Forgiveness.
I have to credit publisher Jean Feiwel for first telling me about the Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, Lebanon.
The woman who first envisioned this garden, Alexandra Asseily, thought hard about how the cycle of violence and revenge could ever end in her conflict-ridden land. She realized that before there can be peace, there must be forgiveness—the choice not to add energy to that cycle of hatred and hurt.
Jean Feiwel learned of this project when she met Rev. Lyndon Harris, who was the priest in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel across the street from the World Trade Center and who oversaw the relief operation there in the aftermath of 9/11. After meeting Ms. Asseily, he started the Gardens of Forgiveness Foundation, which is committed to promoting forgiveness and Forgiveness Gardens around the world. Jean saw the potential for a children’s book on this subject, and she got in touch with me to see if I was interested.
Of course I said yes immediately. We both agreed that the story should offer an example of how forgiveness can succeed.
I love the open-ended nature of the book's close. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to end it by posing a question to readers, or were there many re-writes?
I didn’t know from the very beginning that the story would end that way, but by the time I got to the end of my first pencil-and-paper draft, that is the closing that came to me. It came from that voice inside that isn’t really rational; it’s more instinctual or feeling-based. My rational self wasn’t so sure this was the way to go. Would readers just grumble, “What? You call that an ending?!”
But the truth is: There are no easy answers when it comes to forgiveness. Each person has to find his or her own way to forgiveness, and the path will vary for each person and each situation. There is no pat answer to offer.
Also, a key element of forgiveness is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, feeling empathy for the other. By asking readers to think about what these characters might say to each other, I’m asking them to imagine that they are each of these characters. It’s a first step toward empathy, toward developing the capacity for forgiveness.
Ultimately, I decided to stick with that “question” ending in the first manuscript that I sent Jean Feiwel and Editorial Director Liz Szabla, just to see what they might say. I was relieved when they said they loved it. In my previous life as an editor, I’d worked with both Jean and Liz for many years, so I felt I could trust them to guide me well. And I guess they trusted me, too.
What was it like to see Christy's artwork for the first time?
It was wonderful. None of us knew exactly what the artwork was going to look like, because Christy told us she wanted to try something a little bit different—a different palette and combination of textures. What she delivered is really impressive.
There are so many nuances that support the story. For instance, the trees in the first spreads of the book are leafless. Toward the end, everything is blooming. And I just love the spread in which faces from the rival villages are reflected together in the stream that divides them. Graphically and emotionally, it’s very powerful. And even the scenes depicting conflict are poignantly beautiful.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Author Photo courtesy of JuAnne Ng.