For weeks, the students at Sunrise Elementary School have been on the lookout for ways to spread kindness.
Since January, the school-wide campaign titled "Choose To Be Kind" has encouraged students of all ages and backgrounds to seek out and spread positive energy. From everyday acts of sympathy and tolerance to concerted class projects rooted in good will, the entire Sunrise community has worked to make the school a more welcoming and understanding place.
School Librarian Susie Isaacs wanted to contribute to that wider effort through the power of literature. Isaacs worked with the rest of the library and school staff to secure appearances by two authors and an illustrator, artists who'd committed their own messages of love, understanding and self-confidence to the page.
Marley Dias, the 13-year-old activist and author of the inspirational book for young readers titled "Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You," visited the school on Feb. 9, while Newbery Award-winning author Matt de la Peña and bestselling author and illustrator Loren Long dropped by on Feb. 13 to discuss their recent collaboration, a picture book titled "Love" that was published earlier this year.
According to Isaacs, both appearances aligned with the themes of selflessness, generosity and community that are integral to the school's kindness campaign.
"These authors are focusing on the positive aspects of themselves, looking for those things that we can do to spread love in our community," Isaacs said. "Marley Dias is all about encouraging people, students and kids to be agents of positive change … Of course, the book 'Love' is the perfect adaptation of that same message for younger students."
Dias' book follows her successful #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, which she launched as an effort to encourage more diversity and perspectives in school reading lists across the country. The effort stemmed from her own experiences in her English classes in New Jersey, where the books that her teachers assigned included very little in the way of representation of minorities. Dias wanted curricula to include books that featured characters that she could relate to; she wanted the same for her peers, no matter their ethnicity or background.
"School is where we're supposed to learn about the world around us and the people around us. I think book should reflect that," Dias told the rapt crowd gathered in the Sunrise gym on Feb. 9, adding that her own book seeks to encourage activism and routes to making positive change. "I am passionate about reading and equity and equality … We need to celebrate our differences and rejoice in the fact that we are not all the same."
Books are the ideal vehicle to spread those lessons, Dias added.
"I also think that books are the answer to a lot of the anger we have in the world," she said, specifically citing the award-winning titles like "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson that figured so prominently in her #1000blackgirlbooks campaign. "Books, these books, help reduce, if not eliminate, bullying, racism, sexism … I want all of us to be open to each other."
That message of openness also undergirds "Love," a picture book with text by Matt de la Peña and illustrations by Loren Long. The book highlights the importance of love in a child's life, from the support of family to the care of friends to the self-confidence that makes life worth living.
De la Peña read the full text of the book as Long created an original piece of artwork dedicated to Sunrise. After the reading, Peña spoke of his own childhood, stressing the importance of his parents' sacrifices and the seminal role that reading and literacy played after he went on to college. Long, whose credits include illustrating the children's book penned by former U.S. President Barack Obama, spoke of his own upbringing and recalled the key support he received from his parents and from art teachers at his school. Specifically, he recalled the support of Mr. Pennington, the football coach and art teacher at his junior high school in Missouri.
"He was the coolest man in the building," Long said. "To hear Mr. Pennington say my name in class and show my artwork, that was powerful. That was love."
Both Long and De la Peña wanted to pay tribute to those influences in the book.
"We wanted to tell the story of a collective American childhood and make it inclusive," De la Peña said. "The story arc is the progression of love," he explained before stressing the importance of self-confidence, "We want you to turn the focus to yourself. Look and mirror and find love in yourself."