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While there may be a lot of children’s books about bullying, Desmond and the Very Mean Word ($15.99, Candlewick, ages 6 and up) by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams with illustrations by A. G. Ford, stands out for several reasons.
First and foremost is that this story is based on a true account from the childhood of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Second is the book’s overriding theme of forgiveness as a way to free one’s soul of hate, hurt and bitterness. Readers learn that “getting back” at someone who causes the hurt only breeds a vicious cycle of more hostility.
Not every child bullied will be able to embrace this philosophy. Not every parent will agree with this approach, but it certainly warrants consideration and may serve as a good starting point for a conversation on racism in the 21st century.
In apartheid era South Africa, young Desmond, a black youth, is pedaling his shiny new bike (the only one in his township) and is harassed by several white boys who call him something cruel and hurtful. Desmond, quite shaken by the experience, arrives at Father Trevor’s office. Once in this caring man’s presence, the boy forgets his main purpose for the visit – to show the man who played such an important role in Desmond’s life the thing that was bringing him newfound joy – the bicycle. Instead Desmond shares his pain with Father Trevor who asks the youngster if he can forgive the mean boys for using such a mean, hurtful word. “No! Never!” replies an angry Desmond.
Readers learn at the book’s end that Father Trevor (Huddleston), in addition to being a mentor to so many, was also a prominent and influential voice in the anti-apartheid movement. His dreams of peace and equality in South Africa, where he rose to the position of Archbishop, were eventually realized, but not without years of struggle. There were thousands of Desmonds being hurt daily, and this one particular Desmond could not erase the very mean word from his mind. It seemed to rear its ugly head everywhere. When Father Trevor shares the secret of forgiveness as a powerful way to heal hearts, Desmond realizes he is finally ready to forgive, and once doing so becomes free of all the hurt he’s been feeling.
Desmond and the Very Mean Word is ideal for a circle time discussion in elementary school during Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and for Social Science classes to use to explore apartheid and segregation. The book’s message is a positive one especially when you consider the peaceful paths both Archbishops followed. Ford’s vivid artwork adds just the right combination of mood and locale to the story and helps make this book a truly enjoyable read.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.