melodye and kenneth whitesell with kissing hand book, daughter in navy uniform holding phone

Whitesell family connects with The Kissing Hand

May 24, 2023

When Melodye Whitesell’s family was facing their first deployment with children in the 1990s, Melodye worried about her young children and possible separation anxiety from their dad, now Vice Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, who would be far away aboard a Navy ship with limited communication. She knew bedtime would be especially difficult for the kids since their dad was the go-to story reader.

Fortunately, Melodye’s cousin, a teacher and reading specialist, told her about The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. The Kissing Hand is the story of a mother raccoon placing their scent (and kisses) in their child Chester’s hand so Chester could lift their hand to their face whenever they were apart, and the kisses would remind Chester how much their mother loved them.

The story in The Kissing Hand quickly resonated with the Whitesell family, who used the book to start their own rituals. Before deployment, Admiral Whitesell did the same thing as the mother raccoon did for Chester, loading up his kids’ hands with infinite Dad kisses before he left and leaving behind a video recording of him reading the book.

“The awesome thing about (The Kissing Hand) was before he deployed, he would load Hannah’s hand with kisses,” Melodye shared. “During deployment when Hannah would be having a moment, I would gently remind her of The Kissing Hand from Dad. She would put her hand to her cheek and for the most part, things would be better.”

The book and video became a tool the Whitesells would use throughout deployments for years to come. One year, when video communications went down right before they could talk to Dad, Melodye and the children came home and were able to watch their recording instead.

Melodye and Kenneth continue those rituals to this day, even now that their children are adults. The Whitesells still reference The Kissing Hand while apart.

“Twenty-eight years later and we will send a text with the little raccoon and the kiss face and the hand emojis on our phones. So it’s never died in our family. The Kissing Hand still is for us, a phrase, and it’s a way of life.”

Melodye’s daughter Hannah is now in the US Navy herself. LT JG Whitesell deployed last year and received a special gift from Admiral Whitesell, just in time for her birthday.

“I knew my husband was going to record two books that day for United Through Reading, and so I ran to get a copy and I slipped it in with the other two books,” Melodye said. “So, my husband sits down and he reads the first two books and then he sees The Kissing Hand and he accuses me of not playing fair because I think he might have gotten a tad emotional. But he went ahead and recorded The Kissing Hand on the United Through Reading App and we sent it to our daughter. And it was very well received and actually happened to fall on her birthday, which was a nice touch. I think she listened to it several times while she was over there and kind of got a feel-good from it,” she said.

Melodye also shared that she always gifts The Kissing Hand to friends and family, especially within their Navy community.

“There aren’t a lot of stories that speak more clearly to military families than The Kissing Hand,” Melodye added.

United Through Reading chose The Kissing Hand as our inaugural Book for the Military Child. We’ve begun distributing 13,000 copies to military familes around the world. We are grateful to the Whitesells and other families for sharing with us how this one book has stood the test of time, and how a shared story facilitated ways for them to stay connected no matter the distance.

Hear Melodye tell the Whitsesell family story in a bonus episode of our Ready for Reading podcast.