Today is World Kindness Day, founded to focus on the positive power and bonds of kindness, as a fundamental need bridging race, religion, politics, gender and geography. Organised fund-raising for charity and random acts of kindness (often involving distribution of sweet treats) are popular in schools in this and many other countries.
Rebecca Stead’s latest book, The List of Things that will not Change, is shot through with kindness. The author is a multi-award winner: among others, the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me; the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for Liar and Spy.
In this latest offering, Bea is a 12-year old looking back at her parents’ divorce when she was eight, and at the marriage of her father to his boyfriend, Jesse, when she was ten. There are flashbacks in time, and Bea can seem quite innocent for a 12-year old, but this helps reflect how her younger self reacted to events, as well as building a picture of Bea as an open book, an honest and engaging heroine.
There are hints, though, even early on, that Bea’s frankness masks some shadows. As an unreliable narrator, she is a triumph. She takes the reader into her confidence, and we become invested in her account. For the UK reader there is also a cultural uncertainty. Bea sees a therapist regularly. She lives in New York. Perhaps it’s not uncommon for a young New Yorker prone to worry and anxiety to receive therapy after a divorce, no matter how amicable. But gradually there are clues that Bea’s anxiety is not entirely internalised.
As for kindness, it abounds. The grown ups in Bea’s life are caring, understanding, patient and wise. Mom and Dad remain close, despite their separation. Dad’s boyfriend, Jesse, and Jesse’s sister, Sheila, who babysits Bea often while parents are working, are fully drawn characters, each bringing their own strengths to support Bea and the family. The therapist, Miriam, is skilled and reliable. Even the dead Grandfather reads stories (via tape recorder) and brings solace. Bea herself is full of good intentions. When Jesse’a own daughter, Sonia, comes to visit from her home far away in California, Bea is so excited to have the sister she has craved. They have so much in common: their age; their experience with divorce and fathers coming out as gay; their two dads’ impending marriage. Key to the story is Bea’s gradual realisation that this shared experience may not bring shared a response, and Sonia’s initial reserve may spring from her own insecurity and homesickness.
This is a beautiful book, beautifully written. The story deals with some big themes, including diversity, acceptance and fallibility, yet is told with a lightness of touch, rooted in day-to-day routines and details, humour, and believable dialogue. In a complicated world, Bea is herself developing, growing in maturity and self-awareness, while maintaining her essential integrity. Some things do not change.