Wall Street Journal: Isn’t it Time Flat Stanley Found Friends His Own Age?

I sent Flat Stanley packing. He left, back to the American Midwest in a puffy envelope filled with photos from his travels plus a few souvenirs. He’s had a great time abroad—while in Ethiopia he saw the ancient capital of Aksum and hung out with some shepherd boys in the Simien Mountains. In Poland he took a train from Warsaw to Poznan and sat in on an interview with the country’s most renowned modern art collector. He even did a bit of sightseeing in London, where I live—getting to sit in the right-side driver’s seat of my car and riding in a black London taxi. And his clingy presence filled me with low-level animosity during his entire stay.

As an expat, I am prime material to be a Flat Stanley chaperone. This is my third Flat Stanley and, to be honest, hopefully my last because I am over the responsibility of schlepping him around with me to all corners of the globe (I am a freelance arts journalist, which means I travel frequently for interviews, performances, art fairs and biennales).

The first Flat Stanley came to me from the daughter of a college friend in suburban Detroit. I had never heard of Flat Stanley before so I did a little research upon his arrival and read that Flat Stanley was originally a book written by Jeff Brown in 1964. It was a schoolteacher in Ontario in 1994 who started the Flat Stanley Project, with the conceit being that students would send Flat Stanleys (each child decorates and personalizes their own) to other schools, creating a pen-pal situation for kids. That is something I am all on board for; as a child growing up in Michigan I had a number of pen pals through the years. I exchanged letters for over a decade with one British girl, Caroline, whom I had met when my family and I were on vacation in Barbados (we are still in contact over Facebook).

Somehow, however, Flat Stanley has seemingly morphed from serving as an exchange between kids in different parts of the U.S. or the world. Now he seems to be an assignment given to children (actually to their parents and their parents’ friends), where they send it to a person who lives far away—and preferably someone like an expat who travels a lot. A number of my expat American friends have done Flat Stanley projects all over the world for their friends’ children—and some now outright refuse to do them anymore, so strong and deep is their annoyance of that paper boy.

My second Flat Stanley came to me from first grader Luciano in suburban Chicago, who hand wrote a nice explanatory note to me of when Stanley Jr. needed to be sent back and where ideally I would take him. But this most recent one came with only a copied form letter from the teacher (with no deadline date). And I felt what a lost opportunity that is for learning; not only to work on handwriting (which seems to be a dying art these days) but also for the kids to have thought out in the classroom what adventures they hoped for their Flat Stanley and to learn how to articulate and express those things in a letter.

Also, as I understand it, kids present a report to their class—which as more often than not has been compiled by the person who took Flat Stanley around—about where their Flat Stanley has gone on his travels. So in most cases, that doesn’t translate to kids doing individual research to find out more about the places he went, unless it is something their parents (like Luciano’s mother) insist upon at home. Flat Stanley could be a good way in to presenting country (or state or city) reports, serving as a conduit for further learning in the classroom, which, by the way, is pretty impossible to do in early elementary when they are just learning to read and write. But somehow Flat Stanley seems like a rather vague learning tool used by many teachers, with a focus more about the physical distance he traveled and less about exchange and discovery.

My Detroit Flat Stanley traveled with me to Kosovo (I have a photo of him I took with a customs’ officer at Pristina’s airport) and I think he also came with me to Estonia. Chicago Flat Stanley trooped around London with me, and two friends visiting from Israel, who were intrigued and never miss an opportunity for kitsch, ended up making a photographic artistic intervention with him—dining on eggs benedict in an upmarket Chelsea eatery, riding the Tube, and even being run over by a London double-decker red bus. An Australian friend of mine even served him Champagne when we were at a bar mitzvah party at Claridge’s. I also took Chicago Flat Stanley to Paris, becoming very stressed out trying to get my hand out of the way when I took a picture of him in the Place Vendôme.

It’s not easy to take a photo of a paper boy when the wind is blowing up dust in Ethiopia, or having a hotel doorman in Warsaw hold up Flat Stanley for a photo on Nowy Świat, one of the city’s most famous streets, when it is raining heavily. It’s a responsibility getting the photos taken, having them printed off and writing up a report of where he was and what he did in the places he ventured. It takes a village to raise a child, for certain. And I adore my friends (and their kids), and am chuffed that they want me to be involved in playing a small role in helping teach their children about the world; I hope I inspire all the kids I have Flat Stanleyed for to travel, explore and fall in love with the world like I have.

But I really wonder if Flat Stanley does that. And I question why the project (at least for the friends’ kids I have done it for) has moved away from its original educational and bonding premise of exchange between children in different places and schools.

In 2011, more than 88 countries were participating in Flat Stanley projects, so there is certainly the interest out there from schools across the globe. I think Flat Stanley could be used better as an educational unit to create connections either in other classrooms or to have children find other children to share and connect with on the project. For adults to do it seems to miss the whole point. I think Flat Stanley needs to find friends his own age. Though, of course, if I am asked to do it again, I probably will.