Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness doesn’t have a happy ending—it doesn’t even have a resolution.


The children’s book begins on a snowy day, when Maya, a new student, joins Chloe’s elementary school class. Chloe notices the ragged state of Maya’s clothing, and when Maya tries to befriend her, Chloe turns away. Over the course of the school year, Maya attempts friendship with Chloe and her other classmates again and again: Maya smiles at them in class, she asks to play, and she brings games, toys, and dolls to the playground. Every time, the classmates tease or ignore her.


The classroom and playground exclusion escalate until one spring day, their teacher has a lesson about kindness. The students circle around Ms. Albert’s desk to watch her drop a small stone into a bowl of water. Maya is not at school that day. “‘This is what kindness does,’ Ms. Albert said. ‘Each little thing we do goes out like a ripple into the world.’”


She asks each student to share something kind they have done and to drop the stone themself into the bowl. Chloe cannot think of anything.


As Each Kindness comes to a close, Chloe decides to be kind to Maya. But when Chloe returns to school, determined to be friends, Maya is not there. Maya does not come back the next day, or the next—in fact, Maya never comes back. Eventually, the teacher tells the class that Maya has moved. We do not find out anything else about the fate of the two girls. The book just ends, leaving a terrible, dropping feeling of loss, disappointment, and regret.


Each Kindness has stayed with me over the years as no other book has. A decade after putting it down, I suggested to my mother that we reread Each Kindness together. I wanted to understand why, of all the books I encountered in childhood, Each Kindness had this lasting effect. I felt stung, confused, then angry. What was it about this children’s book that hurt so much? And why even read a children’s book that is so painful?


Before we read out loud, trading off pages, my mom and I try to remember the plot. We were surprised by how fresh the emotions from the book were, even though we didn’t remember the names of the characters, the setting, or what, exactly, had even happened. One of the girls left before the other could apologize, we agree. And neither girl could do anything about it.


When we see the title page, we both groan. “There it is,” my mom says. “There’s the empty desk.” The watercolor illustration, devastating foreshadowing, is alone on the page. As we read, we start to remember the loneliness and isolation of the book beyond the pain of the ending.


One of the last times Chloe and the classmates interact with Maya on the playground, Maya holds out her hands to show them the “shiny jacks and a tiny red ball” that she got for her birthday: “‘It’s a high bouncer,’ she said. But none of us wanted to play. So Maya played a game against herself.”


My mom has the same reaction she had a decade ago: “I just feel bad all the time,” my mom said. “I also wonder what’s going on with the narrator. Why is she being so mean? That’s so sad. She’s probably got her own issues.”


Throughout the book, the reader is compelled to feel for Maya. In the face of absolute dismissal, Maya tries, again and again, to make friends. But then Chloe holds the stone and realizes she has never been kind. And this complicates the story.


“There’s the empathy that you felt, for, in a way, the character who couldn’t do anything, the one that moved away. It was a double bad feeling, right? For the child who got taunted, and then the one who then couldn’t make things right,” my mom says.


Growing up, my brother and I were frustrated by our mom’s empathy. When a classmate or a friend was being mean, maybe, or hurtful, she would say, thoughtfully, “I wonder what’s going on with them…I hope they’re okay.” I remember my brother snapping once: “Why aren’t you on my side? Why can’t they just be annoying?”


“How do you teach empathy?” my childhood librarian Heather McCue asks. “How do you teach people to care about other people? I mean, you can model it for sure. And you can talk about it. But literature allows us to see life through other people’s eyes.”


These complex emotions are routine in Jacqueline Woodson’s work. Woodson’s books are widely acclaimed for gracefully and powerfully tackling challenging life questions—about childhood, race, and class—through poetry and prose. She has won dozens of awards for her books for children and young adults: to name just a few, Each Kindness won the Coretta Scott King Book Award in 2013, an award she won on two other occasions. Woodson has also been named a MacArthurFellow, and she won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014 for Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson’s childhood was split between Brooklyn and South Carolina, where I grew up, both of which filter into her work.


But emotionally taxing books are not always the ones people want to read to their children. William Gleason, professor of English literature at Princeton, teaches a course on children’s literature, much of which considers the genre’s development and relationship with readers. He explains that from the mid-1700s onward, children in England and America “shift from being primarily economic units of value to a family, for what they can provide and for how they can assist with the family’s well-being, to primarily emotional units.”


This predominantly white and upper middle class conception corresponds with the birth, in mid-18th century England, of what we now call “modern, Western children’s literature”—a genre defined, in part, by its optimistic endings. By the end of the 19th century, Gleason continues, there is a “powerful concept of the innocent child, the precious child, whose childhood needs to be protected and sheltered.”


If childhood should be protective and sheltering, the logic follows that the books we read should reinforce these ideals. Indeed, Gleason says, “Our views of childhood typically tell us to protect the child. And to not hurt the child for the purpose of a bigger lesson.”


But that raises the question again: how do we teach empathy? Maybe these lessons should not have to hurt, like in Each Kindness, but do they have to be comfortable? From early childhood board books, children begin to recognize emotions and express themselves: this is happy, this is sad, this is angry. As a child’s emotional intelligence develops, so can that of the literature they consume.


“There’s a real place for those [sweet books],” McCue says. “I think they’re good gateways into the rest of children’s literature. If you can’t get enough of that pigeon [Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus], let’s get you into some other things.”


Now, those other books are available. In what Gleason terms the “most important movement in children’s literature for the past 15 to 20 years,” the call for diverse voices in Western children’s literature is making inroads on the historically white genre. New children’s literature is focusing on bullying, belonging, difference, and empathy. At the same time, the alarming trend of book bans across the United States threatens this widening and diversification (“So maybe we haven’t entirely gone away from that model,” Gleason says). PEN America included Each Kindness in its 2022 index of challenged and banned books.


Back in South Carolina, McCue has worked at our local public library—Richland Library—for nearly 20 years. She often reads Each Kindness to incoming school groups. When she reads it, she does not offer any commentary. Unlike reading it with a parent, like I did, there is no filter on the story.


“I always wanted to have a book, when I shared stories with classes, that packed some kind of emotional punch, that left them with something more,” McCue says. “It’s one of those where you would close the cover, and it would be silent.”


When I ask her what leads to this silence, she points to the ending.


On the final spread, Chloe stares into a pond at her reflection: “I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples. And the chance of a kindness with Maya became more and more forever gone.”


When she reads this line out loud, my mom shakes her head. “It’s so good.” She shakes her head again. “It’s so good that you don’t have that expected ‘everything is all right in the end.’ Because this is what happens. You have regrets, and you feel bad, and that’s the range of emotions.”


“The brilliance of this book is that it’s not neat at the end. It’s messy. It’s complicated. We have interacted as two human beings, and perhaps damage is done, perhaps not. You just don’t know,” McCue says. “You know that they’re both changed by the interaction. You hope that the main character will carry on and be kinder moving forward, having had this experience, but you don’t know.”


Each Kindness does not offer any solution. Maya is gone, and Chloe is too late.


“Where most children’s books differ from a book like Each Kindness,” Gleason says, “is that they tend to offer a kind of optimistic ending—an ending that suggests that whatever difficulties the book has explored, they either are overcome or you can see how they might be overcome.”


When I sat down with my mom to reread Each Kindness, I did not recall Ms. Albert’s lesson with the rock and the bowl of water. Each Kindness did not stay with me as a book about kindness. Instead, all these years later, I still feel that pang of disappointment and regret.


What I appreciate now is how Woodson gave me a space to feel that pain for the first time. Each Kindness hurt then so that later in life, as those difficult emotions came and continue to come, as I make mistakes or am hit with that awful surge of regret, it is not unfamiliar. Things get difficult, Woodson taught me, and, terribly sometimes, that’s normal.


“It’s so easy to go to the loving, the funny, but these books, we need these desperately,” McCue says. “We need to know that life isn’t always easy.”