Owen & the Busybody Neighbor

Guaranteed, in more than one school across America, librarians will be introducing a new group of students to Owen, the endearing main character in a Caldecott Honor book by the same name, authored and illustrated by the popular and prolific Kevin Henkes.

Students easily identify with Owen, who finds it rough to leave home, as he starts kindergarten, without his favorite security blanket (literally) to hold onto.

In the end, a compromise between Owen and his parents leads to an ingenious solution that delights students, rooting, of course, that Owen gets to keep and take his blanket with him.

As a former kindergartner, and now an adult reader and mother, the character who most catches my attention every time I read this book to students is the busybody neighbor.

“Mind your own business,” I want to tell her. “He’s not your child. Don’t voice any judgments.”

It is in part succumbing to the neighbor’s insinuations into their business that Owen’s parents take action. Every story, I know, needs an antagonist, an archenemy, a villain, and I guess it is better to cast a neighbor, rather than the parents, into that role.

Still, it bothers me. Makes me think, too, in these days when school is about to begin (or has already begun) that often parents push their children because of “family pride” social standing concerns or social pressure from other adults.

Even if Owen’s parents intended to take action apart from the neighbor’s criticism, I wish they would have stood up for their boy.

I remember once, when I was Owen’s age, being outdoors in the neighborhood with my mother when, by chance, we encountered an acquaintance of hers–a woman, her age, that I had never seen before.

Talking to my mother as if I weren’t there (maybe that was the start of my often feeling invisible), the acquaintance said, “How’s your Nervous Nellie daughter?”

An only child, I knew there was no one else the acquaintance could have been referring to—not unless my mother had another child she had kept secret.

Although I never heard of “Nervous Nellie,” I knew what nervous meant. I knew that description fit me—and now I had a name to describe me: Nervous Nellie.

Yes. I was a very anxious child—and still am a very anxious adult. (Unlike Owen, I never carried around a security blanket; maybe that’s part of my problem.)

I don’t ever remember seeing that acquaintance of my mother’s again. No matter, I didn’t need to. Even now, decades later, I see her face. I hear her voice. “How’s your Nervous Nellie daughter?”

Stand up to the neighbors. Tell them nicely, but definitively, what you tell your children, “If you don’t have anything nice to say (charitable, constructive intervention, excluded), don’t say anything at all”—especially not in the children’s earshot.

The teacher, mother, and child in me thank you!  …Go, Owen!

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