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Sister Anne's Hands
by Marybeth Lorbiecki, illustrated by K. Wendy Popp
Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, N.Y., l998
It's 3 a.m., and I can't sleep. Every time I close my eyes, haunting images from the evocative, just-published picture book Sister Anne's Hands flit through my mind. I see Sister Anne's hand, "puppy brown with white lacy moons for nails," reaching out to gently touch freckled, fair-skinned seven-year-old Anna Zabrocky's cheek. I see the classroom "plastered with pictures of black people, poor or dying, some hanging from trees, others shot and bleeding" as the chocolate-colored nun tries to teach her second-grade class about the colors of hatred, and, just as importantly, the colors of love, acceptance, and tolerance.
I read the book to six-year-old Mariel tonight. Entranced, she listened to the story of how Sister Anne, a new teacher in a small-town classroom in the early l960s, reacts to the paper airplane sailing past her head as she sits at her apple-strewn desk. A note, scrawled on the plane's wing, says, "Roses are red, violets are blue. Don't let Sister Anne get any black on you." Initially hurt, Sister Anne uses this episode to teach her students about racial prejudice, telling them about Phillis Wheatley, Matthew Henson, Sojourner Truth, and Dr. Martin Luther King, who was "trying to help people of all different colors get along." As protagonist Anna explains, "Some kids were pulled from her class by their parents, but we didn't miss them much." The rest remained, learning to love and respect the nun who had them "singing and clapping and stomping our feet while learning our two plus twelve and six minus three." When, at the end of the school year, Sister Anne is transferred to a school in Chicago, little Anna gives her a going-away present: a homemade card with two hands, one white with little orange polka dots, the other filled with browns, pinks, and whites.
When we finished the story, Mariel, gently patting the picture of the gap-toothed, kind-faced nun, said, "She looks like a very nice teacher. Why can't everybody in the whole world just be nice to each other?"
Why, indeed. Award-winning author Marybeth Lorbiecki, who based this story on a real-life incident that occurred when she was growing up in St. Cloud, says, "I wanted to write a book that would help children better understand the roots of bigotry and prejudice. These are topics that have been on my mind for a very long time." Lorbiecki remembers that when the real Sister Anne, "an absolutely lovely woman who was the first black person I ever met," came to teach in her parochial school, she heard rumors that people didn't want their kids to be taught by a black person. "But the biases and comments were subtle and quiet, covered up by Minnesota nice," Lorbiecki, now herself the mother of two young girls, explains. "In Sister Anne's Hands, I wanted to create a situation where the bigotry was more overt, and show how it could have been handled and, perhaps, resolved."
K. Wendy Popp, whose now-eight-year-old daughter, Zoe, and grown-up friend, Ester, served as her models for Anna and Sister Anne, initially had some reservations when she was offered the assignment to provide the illustrations for the book. "Although I found the book to be a rare and insightful story full of emotion, I wasn't sure that it was something my daughter, whose two best friends are Japanese and Black American, needed to read. I wondered about introducing a picture book that brings up the details of a past . . . to children who have no conception of racism's venom."
A few weeks later, Popp's quiet, suburban New York town was rocked by several incidents of allegedly racially motivated bomb threats. Suddenly, she knew she had to illustrate the book. She spent many hours in her daughter's multicultural classroom, sketching and taking photographs of the children--and also scoured antique stores to 1960s period toys and clothing--which she vividly used as inspiration for the stunningly beautiful pictures that grace the pages of Sister Anne's Hands.
Lorbiecki, a former children's book editor, emphasizes that her book is meant to promote healing, tolerance, and empathy, and hopes that parents and teachers will use it as a springboard for discussion and as a tool for educating children in a positive, nurturing way. Popp agrees, saying, "It's important for children to know where prejudice springs from, to learn about racial rioting and how these led to a civil rights movement."
"Any book which is at all important should be reread immediately," wrote German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Sister Anne's Handsis one of those books. It is a beautifully written and illustrated tribute to the possibility of loving and accepting all of God's children, without regard to skin color, religion, or ethnic background.
This is Barbra Williams Cosentino's first contribution toMinnesota Parent. She is a freelance writer, living in New York, whose work has been published in many periodicals throughout the United States.
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