Nothing so perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of human interaction as the bouncing ellipsis ("...") you see while waiting for a reply to a text. Many a fledgling relationship has met its end on the rocky shores of those jaunty three dots, which have become a symbol for the space between people in an age of alienation. We all want to feel connected, and author and illustrator Ani Castillo's new children's book, Ping, presents a beautiful, simple idea of how to understand our interactions with other people — from the embarrassing to the ecstatic, from the disappointing to the profoundly moving.
Ping (Little, Brown, Books For Young Readers) is a guide to making friends, and a book about the human condition. Its hero is a red pouf named Ping who clutches a table-tennis paddle in their right hand. "Ping is pure intention and courage and action," explains Castillo to Romper of the decision to make Ping red. Ping shows heart.
"My friend, in this life... we can only PING," begins the book, which goes on to explain that while we can control the Pings we send out — feelings, gestures, words — we cannot control the Pongs we get back ("You Ping. They Pong.").
Castillo understands the hurdles of communication better than many: a cartoonist, teacher, and mother of two young daughters who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, she moved to Canada as an adult. "I went from being 'the artist' who was an important part of her community, to being 'the immigrant' who was quiet and uncomfortable everywhere she went and didn’t seem to have much to offer," recalls Castillo in an email conversation with Romper. Communication in a foreign language was difficult — the vernacular her father used, having grown up on a Rancho, did not translate; nor did the literature her intellectual mother shared with her from a young age — and she felt as though her personality had been knee-capped.
You feel like reaching out, but you feel like people will reject you.
"It took me many years to make friends, and it wasn’t until six years after I landed in Canada that I started going to therapy for social anxiety," Castillo says. "It was therapy that made it possible for me to find the tools and the courage to start building a community (and a life!) around me."
Her experience as an expatriate is at once specific and universal. "You feel like speaking, but you worry everyone will think you’re stupid. You feel like reaching out, but you feel like people will reject you. You feel like loving people, but you worry that no one will love you back."
In overcoming her alienation, Castillo learned to make an effort to reach out to people, and to externalize other people's behaviors: "Realizing that a lot of what happens in our interactions with other people depends completely on their own inner worlds, and has nothing to do with ours, is very liberating."
These concepts are rendered in toddler-friendly language in Ping. Your sensitive 3-year-old and blustery 7-year-old alike will take something from Ping's fledgling acts of friendship through the book.
The more Pongs you want back, the narrator explains, the more Pings you have to send out. And when a Pong comes back...
... before you are ready to receive the message. Because, remember, you cannot control a Pong.
"Even in those instances where my Pings aren’t reciprocated, I can look back and recognize that I acted lovingly, or courageously, or just that I went and put my intention into the world!" says Castillo. "This can be a healing realization, to recognize that I was honest about my hopes and that I did the very best I could."
Realizing that a lot of what happens in our interactions with other people, depends completely on their own inner worlds, and has nothing to do with ours, is very liberating.
It's a discussion she has had with her elder daughter. "On the first day of school, my daughter brought an apple for her teacher. The teacher responded saying something like: 'So, where am I supposed to put this?' with a cold expression.
"My daughter was very embarrassed and hurt by this reaction. So, on our walk back home, I asked her: 'Well, what was your Ping there?'
"And she said: 'I gave my teacher an apple'
"Then I asked her: 'Was that Ping a loving one? Or a mean one?'
"And she said, 'A loving one!'
"So I said: 'Whatever your teacher's reaction was, your Ping was fully of good intentions. And that’s all that counts!'
"Afterwards, my daughter felt much better."
Her appreciation for the giant steps children take every day as little, social creatures is obvious. In one spread, a smiling baby Ping is held out, radiating its ping-ness. "To LIVE is to Ping," reads the text. It's gentle and optimistic: our original instinct is to connect.
Conversely, Castillo takes a philosophical view of negative emotional experiences. "Rejection will always hurt. Failure will always hurt. Not being loved back by someone I love will always always hurt. And I don’t think we should try to skip the negative emotions that come after a setback. We gotta feel the feelings!" Her watercolor paintings, awash in moods, are proof of conviction.
Castillo speaks in children's book. When Romper asks if she receives Pongs differently now than in the past, her response is punctuated with reflection:
"Or I try to, anyways.
"But, I am only human.
"And a lot of things never change."
This approach also helps her appreciate the moment she gets a wonderful Pong. "It’s helpful to see the beauty in other people’s actions. To recognize their love and their kindness and their good intentions," Castillo says. "It makes the world feel better and more safe and magical."
She's not wrong... to live is to Ping.
Ping is out September 3 from Little, Brown, Books For Young Readers.