Bestselling author launches book on compassion in Waterford schools

Waterford — In between a breathing exercise and a yoga sequence of mountain, tree and warrior poses, Susan Verde had the elementary school students repeat after her: "I am a good person. I am a kind person. I am a beautiful person. I love myself."

It was a fitting mantra for an author who has a series of children's picture books with the titles, "I am Yoga," "I am Peace" and "I am Human," the last of which debuted last year at No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list for children's picture books.

On Tuesday morning, the Great Neck Elementary School students in kindergarten through fifth grade were the first group to hear Verde read aloud her new book, "I am Love," which was published Tuesday and is described as "a book of compassion." In the afternoon, she went to Oswegatchie Elementary School.

Verde grew up in Greenwich Village and now lives in East Hampton, N.Y., with her three teenage children, as well as a dog, cat, bearded dragon and tarantula.

"I wanted to write books that made people feel good," she told the Great Neck students, explaining the first three books in the "I Am" series. All are illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, who also illustrated books by Judy Blume and books in the "Judy Moody" series.

"I am Peace" is about mindfulness while "I am Human" is about empathy.

"Do we all look alike? Do we all do things the same way? Do we all agree on everything?" Verde asked, and the students shouted back "no" after each question. But she told them that "even when we disagree, we can be kind to one another."

After doing a listening exercise with a crystal singing bowl, Verde read "I am Love," which she said is about the ways that we can show love, that there's not just one way.

"I can listen and not say a word. I can be there. Love is being present," the book reads. It also says that love is comfort, gentle, gratitude, taking care of me, creative, understanding, tiny gestures and connection.

After the assembly in Great Neck's gymnasium, fifth-grader Liam Fador said his favorite part was the yoga, and that it was his first time doing it. Mali Stelik, also in fifth grade, commented, "I learned a new way to breathe, and it helped me."

After Waterford, Verde's book tour is taking her to Wallingford, Rhode Island, Boston, Manhattan and New Jersey, she said.

Asked about the importance of the message of "I am Love" today, Verde told The Day, "I feel like people are forgetting how to communicate with each other in a kind manner." She thinks the examples kids are seeing from adults are not as effective as they could be, and that the nervous energy from adults is trickling down to kids.

Her message is that kindness must start with the self, and that self-love is especially important when considering the prevalence of mental health issues.

Waterford literacy coaches Kim Podeszwa and Deryn Winthrop said Verde's books align with the social-emotional curriculum stressed in Waterford schools, and efforts to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to bullying.

Podeszwa said Verde came to Great Neck two years ago, and the kids loved her. Verde ended up here for the launch through R.J. Julia Booksellers, a Madison store through which Waterford has worked closely.

Principal Billie Shea said the timing was good, considering Verde wrote "I am Peace" and the school will be celebrating World Peace Day on Friday.

e.moser@theday.com

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