Worth the Candle

That's What Friends Are for Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780763626464
Published: Candlewick Press (MA) - February 13th, 2007

From the very beginning, children get a whole lot of socializing about who their friends are: Essentially, everyone. After all, the world loves babies, and the world can be a very friendly place to them. Big people fuss over them. Small people are curious about them. Real animals fascinate them, and stuffed animals are pleasingly furry and provide comfort when all the big people, small people and real animals go to another room. When babies get bigger, they go to places with other children the same age and, invariably, they are introduced with "Here are your new friends." And it pretty much works out that way. Throw in some lessons about sharing, and kids pretty much understand the friendship concept.

Except that eventually everybody grows up and begins to have different experiences and manifest different needs and desires. Pretty soon, all your friends don't have only baby experiences in common, so that making friends--and being a friend--involves the gigantically difficult concept of empathy. And, among the many great books about teaching that, That's What Friends Are For can be especially useful.

Theo the elephant has an injured foot. (In the children's book universe, there's no affliction like lameness to signal that a lesson won't be far behind.) Theo despairs that he cannot visit his cousin on the other side of the jungle. His friends, the jungle animals, all offer advice, each according to his or her own experience. Bird suggests Theo fly there. Monkey suggests Theo just swing through the trees, and so on. Only Opossum groks that Theo doesn't need such advice, he needs real help. Think-outside-the-box help. The friends should travel through the jungle and escort the cousin elephant to Theo's side.

This book, written in 1968 and reissued with watercolor and cut-paper-collage illustrations, is a baldly didactic book. Theo, it states plainly, doesn't need advice, he needs help. Often such didacticism is a woeful trait in children's picture books, but this one gets points because its playful artwork, refrains and cumulative storytelling make it seem less like a sermon and more like an effort to be genuinely clear on the concept. Advice can seem like help, until actual help reveals how deficient advice can be.

Sometimes subtlety is best, but sometimes--if a real explanation is needed--subtle can be lame. That's what books like this are for.