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Lessons That Begin at Home

Maria Shriver draws on parental experience for her kids' books.

November 14, 2001|CHARLES CASILLO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People often talk of the innocence of a child's view of the world even in troubled times, but for Maria Shriver, the current crisis should be seen as a teaching opportunity. "It's interesting that so much of how we view things is a result of how we're brought up," she says. "We can talk to our children at a very young age about different countries and cultures, about stereotypes, misconceptions, about people being brought up in a different way. And it would be wonderful if those countries could talk about American children and how they're brought up."

Shriver's latest book for children--published a month after the Sept. 11 attacks--has taken on a relevance no one could have anticipated. With a focus on people who are different, specifically those with disabilities, "What's Wrong With Timmy?" (Warner Books) tackles themes of tolerance and understanding. In it, a mother talks to her daughter about looking past the differences and seeing instead the ways we are all the same.

"Children worldwide want the same thing," Shriver says. "They want to be part of a family. They want to be fed. They want to be loved. Whether you're mentally disabled, whether you're a foster child, whether you're in a different culture."

The book also strikes a chord with those who have felt unattractive, uncool or lonely because of being the outcast on the school playground. "I'm trying to reach that feeling in all of us," Shriver says, her polish and confidence almost undermining her words. As a member of one of America's foremost families and after years of being in front of the cameras as a television news anchor, what does she know about being a misfit?

"It's funny you should ask that," she says. "After the book came out, I started to think about it, and I realized that I always felt different. Let's face it, I came from a family that was extremely different. I grew up in a very clan-oriented way. It was 'us' against the world. In my formative years, the '60s, my family was a huge focus of attention. People would ask, 'Which one are you?' No matter which way you cut it, you're a Kennedy and that's your identity. That in and of itself makes you unusual.

"That's why I wrote 'What's Wrong With Timmy?' so much broader than just being about a disabled kid," she says, sitting in a sunny Santa Monica cafe. "I think that we all--if we acknowledge it--have felt isolated in some way. Certainly, I identify with that feeling of not fitting in. I was never the cheerleader. I wasn't in Girl Scouts. My parents weren't friends with all the other parents in school; they weren't part of the group. So I identify with Timmy ... in feeling out of the ordinary. Many of us have felt like we're pointed at, or whispered about, or out of the circle."

She learned about tolerance and compassion early on. Her father, Sargent Shriver, was the first director of the Peace Corps. Her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics. "There were a hundred retarded kids paired off [for competitions] in a camp my mother originally started in my backyard," recalls Shriver, who, with her sky-blue eyes and shoulder-length mane, is quite striking on this eve of her 46th birthday.

"I watched those children who started out in life with everyone thinking they'd never be able to do anything, written off from birth. Watching them struggle, watching their parents struggle. I think in a very strange way, that's why I wrote the book. To continue my family's work in that field."

But she was also motivated as a parent. "There aren't a lot of books out there for parents and kids to talk about together," she says. "The big challenge as a parent is to connect with my child's inner thoughts. Usually, our discussions are, 'How'd you do in school today?' It's really hard to find out if your child feels different.

"I talk to my girls when I'm sitting on their beds--it's easier. But with the boys, I do it in the middle of playing handball or basketball with them--that's when I get my info." It's from these informal talks that Shriver got the idea for her first children's book: "What's Heaven?" her 1999 release that discusses what happens to people after they die. It was inspired by the questions her oldest daughter asked after Rose Kennedy, Shriver's grandmother, passed away. "When I read 'What's Heaven' to my 8-year-old, he would always stop to talk about the part where the dog dies," Shriver says. "It was a huge event [for him] ... and it was a way for me to find out that this was a formidable feeling for him. ... I didn't have those kinds of discussions with my parents."

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