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Yule book a jumping-off point for real-life dialogue

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R. William Bennett never set out to write a Christmas book. Rather the Alpine resident came up with a story for his youngest daughter that turned into one.

"The Christmas Gift" was born out of presidential politics and junior high bullying.

Over the past several years, Bennett and his family started becoming uncomfortable with how much rancor there was in public dialogues.

"People were labeling each other and name calling," Bennett told the Deseret News. "It's so hard to hear what anything is really about because people are so busy categorizing each other."

At the same time Bennett's family was noticing this behavior, his daughter was about to begin junior high. Bennett and his wife were looking for a way to help her decide pro-actively what kind of person she was going to be in school, what her values would be and how she was going to treat other people.

"Those two things came together because junior high is, in my opinion, just a brutal time for young people," Bennett said. "It is the place where I think they (teens) really start to embrace the values that shape them."

While this may have been important to her parents, Bennett's daughter didn't come to them for any "sage advice." So Bennett thought of a story that would perhaps prompt a dialogue.

The story, about two young men brought together in difficult circumstances, may not have been about a girl, but it resonated with his daughter. She read it and then the Bennett family read it together and began talking about what they would do and how they would feel in a similar situation.

The book is largely a composite of a lot of different experiences — some of them were Bennett's directly, others seen from his periphery. "I don't think I know anybody that doesn't remember being bullied at least once when they were in school, with the exception of maybe the ones who did all the bullying," he said. "But I think most people have had that experience."

Bennett drew on indirect experiences from his own childhood. He remembers a classmate who was both the bully and the bullied. Nobody understood the boy. And in eighth grade, the teen took his own life.

"I remember thinking who was he?" Bennet said. "I mean nobody really knows this guy. For most people, that became a school joke, but it really just struck me that there was this guy who had enough pain to commit suicide, and we were all around him everyday, but no one knew anything about him."

Those sad events were jumping off points for "The Christmas Gift," but so were positive memories. Bennett weaved in elements of Christmas because "that's a time of year when hearts tend to be a little bit more tender and people tend to be more open to discussing those kinds of things. It facilitates the conversation by shaping it around the time frame."

Bennett describes himself as a "hopeless sap for Christmas." His family loves to read Christmas stories together during the season and he claims to own every single version of the Christmas Carol on DVD.

"It's a wonderful time. One of the reasons for setting the book at this time is because we do more things together, at least our family. It's a great time of tenderness and reflection."

Bennett hopes that the feeling of the book would fill people all year long. "I think what we are prompted to do at Christmas is nothing we shouldn't be doing all year long. One of the reasons why it's such an emotional time is because it's a time when we sort of self-correct. … The hope is always that you take something from all that high emotion in the season and then you take it away from the season. It's a reminder of the things that we should always be doing, to make it tender."

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com