Listen Up! Kid Lit With a Quiet Message That Needs Heard

September 16, 2019 Blathering interrupters are exhausting. We’ve all been cornered by them, whether it’s an over-talking, sentence-finishing workplace colleague, an opinionated family member at a holiday gathering, or a social acquaintance lobbing rhetorical questions into the mix with zero intention of awaiting an answer.

More often than not, they appear as if they can’t help themselves, blissfully unaware of the energy they suck out of a room like a verbal vacuum cleaner depleting all those within earshot.

But what if they just never learned how to walk through the world early on? What if they just needed a shoulder shake way back in the elementary school days to learn to listen to the world around them and take note of their sense of space and place?

In this witty and worldly children’s book, just in time for “Back to School” reading, Quiet Please, Owen McPhee! author Trudy Ludwig and illustrator Patrice Barton seize the opportunity to turn obliviousness into self-awareness, framing listening as a learnable life skill.

Hmn…Imagine all the boorish adults and clueless colleagues that could be redirected at the “kid lit” phase of storytelling…wow, what a public service that would be!

In Quiet Please, Owen McPhee! Owen’s overzealous chatter annoys and upends many potential friends and school projects, as his banter overrides instructions, social cues and even kids’ feelings…until the day he gets laryngitis.

The subtle art of listening to both the verbal and nonverbal cues shift his presence and personality from “nuisance” to a nuanced, insightful friend who learns when to hush and just enjoy the hang time.

Thankfully, the author/illustrator duo of Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton resist steamrolling and preachiness to seed their own social emotional learning cues, and choose playful, realistic obnoxiousness that’s relatable…

Everyone knows an Owen. I sure did. In fact, I still do.

As one who changed schools about every two years as a child, I used to gauge my challenge of new environs by the number of Owens…or as I called them, “spring butts” who would bounce out of their seats ready with an answer, a comment, a wisecrack, or disruption to derail the day.

Every single class had at least one (often several) that could either deplete well-meaning teachers into a frazzle of frustration or elevate the classroom climate with humor, openness, and informal dialogue that put forth a message of caring over control…tamping down chaos while teaching life skills far beyond the textbook.

The teachers flailing unproductively were actually not “listening” themselves, because more often than not, it was the “Owen” style students often struggling to ‘be heard’ in multiple arenas, requiring MORE empathy, not less.

Truth is, LISTENING is an increasingly formidable challenge in a culture of reduced attention spans, device-driven distractions and people clamoring to ‘see and be seen.’

It’s particularly timely for this generation of young kids, as it’s increasingly hard to be heard over a cacophony of noise. I can report firsthand I’ve run ‘listening’ nature activities for young kids to try to stay still for a mere 60 seconds to observe the world around them and each time I had to reset the clock multiple times because no one HEARD anything due to self-interrupting the planned silence.

“Listen harder,” I’d challenge, as they strained and winced trying to get their peers to settle and hush enough to finally detect the sounds of wind blowing through grass, or a bee or fly buzzing by…Good listening has become a feat and a rarity.

Aside from the theme itself, this author/illustrator duo has a magical way of taking really simple storylines and “going deeper,” whether it’s poignant visual imagery that speaks without many words, or adding a double entendre or two.

For example, they use “Building Bridges” as both a classroom structural task and a handy narrative tool conveying we can create stronger solutions when ALL voices can be heard, not just the dominant ones.

Taking the bridge “foundation” theme a step further, one could suggest that listening to one another enables the kids to lay a bedrock for ALL long term relationships, instilling a core value of building intimacy that spans across all ages…just ask any couple in counseling, as often the number one gripes is “not feeling heard.”

The evocative style of nudging at universal issues central to the human condition is a bit of a hallmark for this writer/illustrator team.

It’s also echoed in my all-time favorite prior project of theirs,  The Invisible Boy, where the two teamed up in a kid lit classic that’s become my beginning of the school year must as a “positive pick” to instill a healthy climate of collaboration…

Being invisible, not being seen or recognized as a value and an asset in a group setting… all of these familiar feelings pile into the “you matter” life theme that adults so desperately need to hear and heed too.

Also notable for most of our positive picks…The purposeful illustrative creations in both books celebrate diversity so kids “see themselves” while squashing some stereotypes in the process (the girl building bridges with math and engineering know-how is a nice nod to the massive STEM gender gaps and depiction deficits). I’d hashtag ’em #MoreLikeThisPlease to encourage other kid lit authors to do the same…

I volunteer weekly in early literacy at “Reading Partners” each year and both of these books will be plopped in my ‘read aloud’ pile, as I slate my annual “Read Across America” calendar to help even the youngest early readers grow their sense of self identity.

In sum, kudos for recognizing that life literacies are as important as reading literacy…whether it’s listening habits or teaching about social shunning, it’s refreshing to see that these two books accomplish both.

Every Monday I’m hoping to tweet out more “positive picks” in media messaging to balance out all the negative news cycles happening as of late, so lob your own suggestions into the comment section or tweet to me directly with what appeals and why. Stay tuned to see what makes the cut…

Meanwhile, welcome back to the fall season, can’t wait to hear some fresh fun finds…


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