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Author Tackles Tough Topics in Children’s Book Series

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Aris Awful Day Crop
Thom Van Dycke and Jermaine Loewen, authors of Ari's Awful Day. Thom Van Dycke

Local author Thom Van Dycke recently wrote, illustrated, and published the first in a series of children’s books dedicated to tackling subjects that are often difficult for children to grasp. Ari’s Awful Day provides a childlike perspective on racism—and provides solutions to overcome it.

The book features a lion named Ari who feels threatened by the new kid, Mainer, a bear whose talent for hockey seems to outshine his own. Ari responds to his own feelings of inadequacy by causing others to question Mainer’s character.

“I’m a firm believer that silly stories are some of the best ways to teach challenging truths,” Van Dycke says. “Animals give us a way to talk to kids in a less threatening way. Talking about animal species is much softer than talking about white kids and black kids, for example.”

But to truly understand racism, Van Dycke believes it’s important to also hear the story from the perspective of those who’ve experienced it firsthand. For that reason, Ari’s telling of the story ends in the middle of the book.

When the reader flips the book over and begins at the back, they get a fresh take on the same story from Mainer’s point of view.

“In the book, the new kid, Mainer, moves to a new town, finds out that he is the only bear, and feels those differences deeply,” says Van Dycke. “The other character, Ari, has some deep assumptions about bears and it leads to a common childhood tension. On the other hand, Mainer has some assumptions about lions as well.”

It’s literally a meeting-in-the-middle kind of story where the two characters eventually learn to see past their differences and build a lasting friendship. But it takes work.

Van Dycke was approached to write the book by Steinbach hockey agent Ray Petkau. With racial tensions running high across North America this past summer, Van Dycke and Petkau agreed that racism was still as insidious today as it’s ever been.

To assist in writing the book, Petkau introduced Van Dycke to one of his clients, Jermaine Loewen.

Abandoned by his birth parents at the age of one, the Jamaican-born Loewen was adopted by a Manitoba couple when he turned five. For most of his growing up years, he found himself the only child of colour among his peers.

At six years of age, Loewen received his very first pair of skates and was soon enrolled in the local hockey circuit. By the time he turned 16, it was determined that the lad had a rare talent for the game, and in 2018 Loewen was drafted by the Dallas Stars.

His professional career continues to unfold, and he currently plays for the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League.

For most of his life, Loewen has gone by the nickname Mainer, and he’s the real-life embodiment of the bear in Van Dycke’s story.

“Jermaine understands the pressure of racial tension,” says Van Dycke. “His voice was the vital piece we needed to tell an authentic story.”

Author Thom Van Dycke

Van Dycke has long tried to understand the nature of racism and is baffled that it still has a place to exist in our world of cultural exposure and psychological advancement.

“You know, for all the astonishing human accomplishments of the last 200 years, humans still appear to be self-centred at their core,” says Van Dycke. “I sometimes wonder if that isn’t at the root of racism. On a macro level, power, elitism, historical conflicts, etc. all may have something to do with the racism we see today. But on a micro level, the personhood level, I think we may just fear what is different than us. Or perhaps we are so desperate to feel adequate and worthy that the degradation of other people is our last resort.”

Putting others ahead of our own interests, he says, isn’t easy—but it’s certainly a better and richer way to live life.

In terms of Van Dycke’s writing credentials, he admits he has few, apart from a previous foray into self-publishing a book of short stories for middle schoolers. But he has long been a storyteller, inspired by his many years of work as a pastor dealing primarily with kids. He’s also a father of eight, as well as foster parent to countless children over the past nine years.

To compliment his pastoral role, Van Dycke is trained as a practitioner in Trust-Based Relational Intervention, providing resources and training to hundreds of parents, educators, and social workers across the province.

On a current six-month furlough from his ministry work, Van Dycke is dedicating his time to the children’s book series, the second of which is already in the works. This one will address another critical subject that kids need to be equipped for: mental health.

“The storyline is still being worked out, but I can tell you that it will be co-authored again and I will be writing with an NHL player,” says Van Dycke. “You’ll have to wait to have his identity revealed.”

To complement the storybook series, Van Dycke encourages kids to become members of Ari’s Kindness Club, a website where they’ll find fun activities, stickers, and colouring pages.

“It’s simple: to truly learn a lesson, you need to put it into practice,” the author says. “And if I want a kid to put something into practice, then I need to sweeten the deal. I didn’t want to just write a book. I sincerely want to start a kindness movement among young kids!”

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