Oh, the Things That Kids Can Do

During the Q&A sessions of more than a few school visits, I've been asked if I knew while I was writing my book The Lemonade War that it would become a catalyst for community service projects. (Often schools do an all-school reading event with the book and then host lemonade stands, donating their earnings to charity.) These Q&A kids ask me if I wrote the book with the intention of inspiring others to raise money for good causes. And make the world a better place.

Sigh. Oh, how I wish I could say 'yes.' Wish that I could claim a piece of all this goodness and love and generosity that flows from these school events. But no, that's now how it happened. I had no idea that my book would serve as the launching pad for the charitable efforts of hundreds of thousands of people—students, teachers, librarians, principals, parents—raising millions of dollars over the more than ten years since the book was first published.

The truth is, I don't write stories to try to make people do anything. Except maybe think, and even that's optional. But what a glorious, unintended consequence of The Lemonade War: that so many kids would work so hard to help others. And in so doing, make the world a better place.

Here's how it happened. I had these two characters, a brother and a sister, and they were mad at each other. Nothing out of the ordinary there. What siblings haven't at some point in their lives been angry with each other? And in fact, the idea of siblings fighting over a lemonade stand came from a real-life incident where my two sons argued about a lemonade stand.

In my story, the brother and sister have very clear (and different) ideas about what to do with the money they earn. Evan wants to spend it. Jessie wants to save it. But most importantly, they both want to win the war, and that means ending up with more money than the other. The money itself isn't as important to either one of them as winning the war. Remember, Evan and Jessie were mad at each other from the beginning of the story, and that's what the story is about: conflict and conflict resolution. How do we get into fights in the first place, how do those fights escalate, and how can we end the fighting in a meaningful, honest, and healing way?

No sign of charitable giving so far in this story.

But there's this other character: Megan. She's Jessie's friend and Evan's classmate, and Megan is...nice. She's just a naturally kind and giving person. Some kids are. They have that natural inclination to be generous, to think of others, to try to do the right thing. That's just who Megan is. 

So Evan is the kind of character who would spend his money as soon as he has it. And Jessie is the kind of character who would hoard her money away in her lock box, saving it forever. And Megan is the kind of character who would give it all to the local Animal Shelter to help the poor stray dogs and cats who need a home.

And as an author, I'm not passing judgment on any of them. I don't believe that Megan is morally superior to Evan or Jessie. They're just different. And as a writer, I'm interested in exploring those differences and what happens when different kinds of people come together.

But then I needed a plot twist. I needed to raise the stakes in the story. I needed Jessie to suddenly have a windfall and completely obliterate any chance of Evan winning the war. So I had Megan give all her earnings to Jessie, because Megan wants them to donate all their money to the Animal Shelter. Because that's just who Megan is.

At the time, it seemed like a small part of the story. I was so focused on the argument that Evan and Jessie were having that this plot twist added at the end of the story hardly seemed worth noticing.

But my readers noticed it. Caught up in the story as they are, living and breathing with my characters, experiencing the ups and downs of their emotions, how could they not notice this critical moment: that when Megan (who is really, really nice; she's the kind of friend we all wish we had) held a lot of money in her hands, her impulse was to give it away to someone who needed it more than she did. Animals in need of a home.

And that's what started a national movement. Every day, I get letters, emails, news articles, and social media posts about schools that have read the book as an all-school reading event and then raised money (often through selling lemonade, but sometimes in very different ways!) to give to charity. They give to their local library or senior center, to Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, to hurricane relief, to support services for distressed families, to First Book, to community centers, and yes, to animal shelters. Hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, and now, more than a decade in, millions of dollars. Incredible.

As I heard these stories, over and over, across the country, I thought to myself, "It's amazing what kids can do." Every single child can make a difference, the way Alex Scott did in starting Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. And when kids work together, they can move mountains. 

As authors, we write our books—we try to tell a good story, a true story, an important story—and then we send our stories out into the world, and the world makes of them what they will. We have no control over that. But that's really the wonder and miracle of being a writer. I never intended to write a story with the sole purpose of inspiring children to raise money for charity. I wrote the best story I could, and then the children took it and turned it into something entirely remarkable.

I've been so inspired by these stories that I've started to post about them on social media with the hashtag #KidsCan and gather them on my website on a page called #KidsCan. (If you ever find yourself having a low day and could use some inspiration, go to this page!) 

Do you know of any efforts by families, schools, or community organizations to raise money after reading The Lemonade War? If so, please send them to me. A newspaper clipping, a school Facebook post, or just an email telling me about the amazing things that your kids are doing, matching literacy with charitable giving. I'll post your story on my Facebook page, send it out on Twitter, Instagram it, and include it on my website. And during the year I'll give prizes and personal thank you's to entries chosen at random.

Because I think the more we talk about all the incredible things that kids are doing, the more this movement will spread. More kids will realize that they're not powerless. They're not insignificant. And they're not alone. Kids Can make a difference. Kids Can lead the way. Kids Can make the world a better place.