Kids' books have been long cherished as a way for kids to learn about their world. In fact, the more complex their lives become, the more stories take on a new significance.
This is perhaps why it's not hard to spot a book that seems to be a "little" book but is, in fact, a portal to something much more important. This is the story of a remarkable book, a powerful movement, and one very scared, young middle-school student.
The book, Cassandra's Angel, is a beautifully illustrated, modern-day fairy tale about Cassandra and her angel, who teaches her to understand that the stories she is told from the people in her life can get in the way of her becoming who she came here to be. It strives to instill in kids the ideas of self-reliance, self-worth, tolerance and self-acceptance early in life.
But the book is just the window into something much bigger. The author, Gina Otto, a veteran of film and TV, found that this message of self-worth is not told enough. "In your life," she says, "everyone is going to have an opinion of you, but no one's opinion is more true than the truth within your own heart. And when you find that truth, you light up the whole world."
So she created Cassandra's Angel, to combat the damage mainstream media was having on the hearts, minds, and self-perception of girls. "One day, I was working on a diet cola commercial, and I had a sudden awareness: this is an industry that uses anorexic models to sell diet cola to teenage girls. So I quit a 12-year career and woke up the next day a girls advocate," said Otto.
Then, courageously and in true Hollywood style, the book she created became the cornerstone of her multi-media Change My World Now Movement, complete with a bus tour featuring the musical interpretation of the book, and a socially conscious, content-driven, companion website for social networking.
Now with that backdrop, let's see how this "little" book happened to come into the life of this particular boy on this particular day.
The Change My World Now bus tour was doing a performance at a school during New Jersey's "Week of Respect" project, a program that's part of the state's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act designed to educate kids about harassment and bullying. It is heartbreaking to know that
roughly 28 percent of kids all kids have experienced bullying.
After this particular performance, a student approached Ms. Otto. "Thank you," he said. "I liked the performance." Then he added, almost casually, "You pretty much saved my life today." Concerned by the comment, Otto pulled him aside, began a conversation and learned that he was a gay teen, new to the school that year and had been bullied relentlessly. He had been seriously considering taking his life earlier that week because he "just couldn't take it anymore."
The teen explained, "Watching the performance today and seeing how Cassandra did not cave in to the pressure from the other kids gave me hope to know that I could do that, too. It just made me feel good to know that people get through things like this."
That's the power of Cassandra's Angel. It is part book, part entertainment platform, all designed to work together within the Change My World Now community, where kids can replace their real-world isolation with a safe, digital social community space that values diverse voices.
It is so heartening to see how collectively, there is an awakening to the fact that it is our diversity as human beings that brings out the full beauty of life. More and more, we are seeing needed attention on the issue from celebrities, like Lady Gaga, who are lending their fame to help kids cope. Just recently, Lady Gaga announced the Born this Way Foundation, whose goal is to "empower youth -- inspire bravery." Most wonderfully, she even created this video on the topic, where she urges that bullying be deemed a hate crime (and I totally agree).
Like Lady Gaga, Gina Otto understands the challenges kids face in finding their own voice in the midst of today's heavy-handed, digitized media world. "You can't really 'teach' self-respect -- it is something that kids have to find within themselves," Ms. Otto observes. "Cassandra's Angel and the Change My World Now movement help kids find true self-esteem by giving them a community in which they belong, and a place where they can become a person of consequence" (as seen in this video).
It indeed takes a digital village to be a counterweight to the complex media world our children are exposed to. Thank goodness there are angels here among us -- we just have to look.
Follow Judy Shapiro on Twitter: www.twitter.com/judyshapiro