Category Archives: Books

Here’s One for the Books

Readers, writers, charity… doesn’t the connection jump to mind immediately? I belong to a few writers’ groups, and recently one of them posted a notice that the community of Slave Lake, Alberta, devastated this summer by fire, needs current books. Apparently the newly minted town library, along with every one of its books, was destroyed in the flames.

Writers work in isolation, often with nothing to keep us company but a mega-mug of coffee and the crankiness associated with impending deadlines. Maybe that’s why most of the writers I know will latch onto any excuse to come out of hiding and help out their comrades. In my experience, they’re a generous and compassionate sort whenever it’s called for.

Soon after the destruction of the Rotary Club of Slave Lake Public Library, the Writers’ Union of Canada voted to hold a book drive through its membership. Between this and other initiatives organized by bookstores, libraries, schools, publishers and other readers and writers, the library has received more than 26,000 books – surpassing the number of volumes they had to begin with. So many duplicates have come in that they’re already planning to sell off the extras and use the funds for any books not yet replaced.

Because the library is still in need of a few more bucks to beef up their collection, they’ll gratefully accept any and all cash donations. Just don’t send more books. (Unless, on the other hand, you happen to be an author: A library staffer reports that they’d be thrilled to receive any personally autographed copies you can spare for their shelves.)

It’s Friday, so I’m feeling the fun: Let’s talk literature. If you could only pick one, what single book would you select for this town library’s collection?

Sophia Makes a Difference, Too

When Sophia Kofoed was six, she wrote a story about a fictional girl named Isabella who finds a successful way to make the world a better place – after her first two ideas sort of bomb. It’s called Isabella Makes a Difference, and it’s a wonderful tale about creativity, perserverance and collaboration. Mighty big ideas for a small first-grader, but this is a pretty special little student.

Now that she’s the ripe old age of nine, Sophia, who lives with her family in California, has had her story self-published as a hardcover picture book. Little sis Kiara did the colourful drawings.

Not only is the story well written (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – mom’s a writer too), but she packs the book with lots of bonuses. She includes lists of charity websites that might interest kids, blank note pages for goal planning, and a backstory to inspire other children to make positive changes.

And here’s the part that makes you want to just hug her: With every book she sells, Sophia plans to donate part of the proceeds to elementary schools. Naturally. By telling others how they can make a difference, this budding author is, well, making a difference.

Sophia, California is a little too far away for a hug. But here’s a sideways heart for you… ❤ I hope you like it. It’s the best I can do from 2,000 miles away.

Book Cover of Isabella Makes a Difference

My copy of the beautiful book is personally autographed by the author and the illustrator – no charge for the happy face and the pencil-crayoned heart.

Froth and Bubble: We’re Not Talking Beer

A former colleague recently shared a few lines from her favourite poem. It’s by a 19-century Australian (and sometime champion horse jockey) by the name of Adam Lindsay Gordon. The lines are from long ballad he wrote called “Ye Warie Wayfarer,” and they go like this:

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

I asked my friend why she finds these lines meaningful. “The poem just immediately resonated with me, and the older I get, the more it does,” she says. “It’s just beautiful in its simplicity, and I think it is a lesson we would all do well to learn.” She told me she first heard these lines from the lips of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was certainly no slouch when it came to acts of charity.

In fact, it reminds me of a speech Diana made in 1993 on the value of community supports. According to reports, she concluded her presentation with these rousing words: “Perhaps we’re too embarrassed to change, too frightened of the consequences of showing that we care. But why not risk it anyway?” She added, “Begin today! Carry out a random act of seemingly senseless kindness – with no expectation of reward or punishment. Safe in the knowledge that one day, someone, somewhere, might do the same for you.”

Lovely, lovely. Since Diana of Wales and Adam of Down Under lived in separate centuries – and the time machine, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t yet invented – I can say with some degree of confidence that Diana and Adam never met. But they had something tragic in common: Both died before reaching their 40s. They also shared something magical. Both left lasting legacies by inspiring kindness and fortitude in those of us who continue to read their words.

Postscript: This week I was invited to be a guest blogger on fellow writer Lisa Tabachnick Hotta’s Kids and Mental Health blog. Of course, I wrote about good deeds. Think there’s a connection? Naturally! Check it out here.

Aren’t these amazing? They’re my favourite tulips out of all those blooming in my garden right now. By the way, this photo has nothing whatsoever to do with today’s post. I just thought I’d add a little extra lift today.

The Newest Care Bear

My teacher friend Nadia put me on to a pretty picture book about making the world a better place through good deeds. “It’s so simply written, and the message is huge!” she wrote to me. So of course I had to see a copy for myself, and looked forward to the arrival of Jack the Bear in the mail. It was a sweet read. Vancouver author and illustrator Christina Leist uses her animal characters, with some beautiful drawings made on recycled paper shopping bags, to convey to kids the power of a small act of kindness.

What made her an ambassador for the cause? “When I first came to Vancouver – I am originally from Germany – I was impressed by how nice people were to me,” Christina says. “Cars were stopping for me when I wanted to cross the street, people were apologizing.” (Yep, sounds to me like she found her way to Canada.) How did that motivate her? “I felt respected and cared for as a fellow human being. I wanted to belong to this group of people that made me feel so good, and I started to do the same for other people.”

That’s that chain of kindness we keep obsessing about.

And she decided to write a book for tiny tots. “I want to let the little ones know how simple manifesting positive change can be, that they have an important and powerful tool and never need to feel powerless.”

Christina adds that upcycling used shopping bags for her artwork is another way she sets an example: It doesn’t take much to change the world. Jack the Bear has been shortlisted for the Ontario Blue Spruce Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year award.

So if you’re looking for reading material for the small people in your life, you may make a mighty impression with this little book.

Jack the Bear book cover

29 Gifts that Keep On Giving

I don’t always enjoy stories about triumph over adversity. Not that I have anything against giving adversity a swift kick in the butt when it’s called for. But when the story’s main character has a disability, the adversity is all too often portrayed as a life of sheer hell suffused with suffering. And the triumph is interpreted by the fact of this person’s simply getting on with his or her life. Real life isn’t so monochromatic.

Having said that, here’s a triumph story I can get on board with. American newlywed Cami Walker was diagnosed with rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis. She was in pain and depressed and her marriage was strained, so she use her phone-a-friend lifeline. She was looking for sympathy but her friend, an African medicine woman who’d often counselled Cami, turned the tables on her. “You’re feeding the disease,” she told her bluntly. And then she gave her a sort of prescription: Cami was to give away 29 gifts in 29 days.

Cami was doubtful but did it, and she says it changed her perspective. The gifts weren’t Swarovski crystals or Louie Vuitton bags – one day it was just a tissue as she consoled a weeping friend. But each of these gifts pulled her out of herself. She says it gave her a sense of purpose. And she started to feel good. Now comes the moment any media outlet has gotta love: On day 16, Cami suddenly realized she’d been walking around without her cane for two days.

It may sound like a miracle, but science backs up her story. Good deeds and giving can help our health and extend our lives. Cami’s MS hasn’t disappeared. But these days, she’s feeling better and more energized. Turns out she was given the perfect prescription.

Want to learn more? Her book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, was a New York Times bestseller. And she’s taken the challenge online: Anyone, anywhere, can sign up to give 29 gifts in 29 days. Already, more than 13,000 people around the world have signed up to be givers.

Whether it’s 50 good deeds or 29 gifts, these acts can help each of us walk away from our own metaphorical canes. Plus it’s good for the whole wide world.

Let’s All Be the Sort of Beauty Lovers that Count

I’m reading a book of short stories by Noël Coward and I’m stunned. I can’t understand how I’ve gotten this far in life without fully getting the brilliance of this man. His stories are witty and engaging, and they display an astounding insight into human nature that rings as solidly true today as it did seventy years ago.

This morning I finished a short story called “Nature Study.” One particular gem of a passage must be shared here. Jennifer, trapped in a socially prestigious but miserable and sexless marriage, is pouring her heart out to our narrator. Jennifer’s husband is no drunken wife beater, don’t get her wrong, but rather a cultured and refined “beauty lover.” But then Jennifer adds with fervour:

“There are several sorts of beauty lovers. There are those who like kindness and good manners and wide seas and dignity, and others who like Bellini Madonnas and Giottos and mysticism and incense and being able to recognize, as publicly as possible, a genuine old this or that…

“I don’t believe it’s enough, all that preoccupation with the dead and done with, when there’s living life all round you and sudden, lovely unexpected moments to be aware of. Sudden loving gestures from other people, without motives, nothing to do with being rich or poor or talented or cultured, just our old friend human nature at its best! That’s the sort of beauty worth searching for; it may sound pompous, but I know what I mean. That’s the sort of beauty lover that counts. I am right, aren’t I?”

Jennifer, if you were real, you’d be well into your nineties now. I’m truly sorry for the hardship you endured as a young woman (though I cheered inwardly to learn you eventually found true passion with your husband’s Canadian chauffeur). I imagine you’ve seen and heard a lot by now. From the sounds of it, though, you picked up some of the most important lessons pretty early in life. You go, girl. I want to be the sort of beauty lover that counts, too.

Toronto Tales of Kindness

There’s an online spot I like to drop in on from time to time. Hosted by the Toronto Star, the Acts of Kindness feature offers a forum where ordinary citizens can describe how strangers have helped them in a time of need.

I live in Toronto, a community of two and a half million people (five and a half if you count the ‘burbs). In such a crowded city, you’re constantly interacting with total strangers as a matter of course. It’s heartening to know that so many of these strangers would willingly go out of their way to lend a hand. Just read a few of the online stories and you’ll know what I’m talking about. These are acts of kindness with no expectation of reward or reciprocity.

So many stories have been posted over the past five years that the Toronto Star recently compiled the best ones into a book (Acts of Kindness: Inspirational Stories for Everyday Life, Dundurn Press, 2010). It gives our historical nickname “Toronto the Good” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?