If you picked up a copy of Welcome to My Neighborhood with the illustration of a joyful mouse, bunny and kitten holding hands and dancing on the cover, you might think you'd found the perfect picture book for your little one. But upon closer inspection, you'd see a broken whiskey bottle in one corner, an empty tin can in another and a worn-looking mattress in the background. It's a picture book all right, but it's definitely not intended for kids.
VML created the book, described as a bedtime story to wake people up, pro bono for Youth Ambassadors, an organization that works with young people in troubled communities facing anything from domestic violence to hunger. Making something that looks like your average picture book but that isn't for children was intentional on the part of VML, and a key to making the campaign work.
"It's a children's book not for children," said Tiffany Lynch, co-founder of Young Ambassadors. "Why would we allow these stories to happen to children in our city when we can't even allow our own children to look at what's inside? It's the juxtaposition of those two ideas that VML so brilliantly came up with that really shocks you."
One of YA's biggest youth empowerment programs designed to help struggling kids overcome some of the terrible things they face every day is journal writing.
"By getting the urban, poor teens to open up and write down on paper what their reality is, it really does help them to talk about it and start the healing process," Lynch said. After looking over a thousand or so entries from Youth Ambassadors, the team decided to pick three stories and feature versions of them in the book.
The three central issues are violence in the home ("The Good Man"), hunger ("Dinner Time"), and gun violence and murder outside the home ("My Big Brothers"). In "My Big Brothers," the author, Angie, tells the story of how her three older brothers ended up in jail. Here's the full text from that story:
"I have three big brothers. I love them very much, but they don't always do the right thing. The first one is in prison because he tried to rob a bank. My second brother is in prison because he shot a man eleven times in broad daylight. The man owed my brother money, but didn't pay it back. And then there's my third brother. Some man tried to rape him in a bathroom so he choked the man to death. I love my big brothers, but they don't always do the right thing."
The illustrations for each story by artist Davey Gant are done in classic storybook style, but the work perfectly depicts much darker and harsher realities.
"The struggle that these kids go through on a daily basis is almost incomprehensible by the rest of us that don't live in these neighborhoods," said Aaron Evanson, executive creative director at VML. "It's so hard to relate to anything they go through. You think you may have a bad day. It's not even close to what some of these kids are going through."
VML and Youth Ambassadors hope to distribute the books to all kinds of community leaders including foundations, government agencies, policy makers and educators.
"We see this on the news all the time but we are numb to it," Lynch said. "When you open up this book, because of the medium, it shocks you. The idea is that people pay attention in a different way, and it strikes a chord in a different way."
Outside of handing physical copies to decision-makers in communities like Kansas City, VML is also working with RW2 Productions to created an animated version of the book narrated by children reading the three stories.
The team is also creating a stuffed bunny like the one in the book to send to community leaders.
"We have an almost Build-A-Bear bunny that looks like the little girl bunny in 'My Big Brothers,' and we have one of those voice chips in it," Evanson said. When pressed, the bunny starts reading the story to its owner.
"Just to hear these stories come out of a cute little bunny or even a childlike thing really gets the point across more than anything," Evanson added.
To get a full sense of what it feels like to read the book, take a look at some of the excerpts below: