I am deeply honored to receive the Literacy and Special Recognition Award from the New England Reading Association. Thank you NERA! I selected the cross-cultural literacy organization, I’m Your Neighbor, to receive NERA’s donation in honor of this award.
At our 2016 conference NERA recognized Terry Farish for her inspiring work as an author and her continued dedication to promoting literacy for special populations of immigrants coming to our country in hopes of finding promise and possibility in their new home. Terry Farish has a passion for writing about immigrants and refugees who are our new neighbors in the U.S. Terry has been writing novels and nonfiction about refugees and immigrants for many years, informed by her early work for the Red Cross in Vietnam.
The Good Braider is her free verse novel about 17-year old Viola and her family’s journey from Sudan to Portland, Maine. The novel was selected as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association and School Library Journal. Terry also authored Either the Beginning or the End of the World, the story of a Cambodian-American girl who journeys into her family’s heritage when she falls in love with a soldier. She has written several picture books. NERA feels Terry’s work is an inspiring example of literacy’s power, promise, and possibility.
Tonight I told a story for a CLiF literacy event at the International Institute in Manchester, NH. The International Institute helps refugees to resettle and Amadou Hamady and his staff wrote a grant to support English language literacy. They won the grant and CLiF funded many things including my visit, a library collection, and additional books in every genre so that every child could have two new books to keep forever. Through translations in Arabic, Nepali, and French, I told the parents what literacy experts say – You are the center of your child’s world. If you share books together, the child will love them and thrive in school. Look at the pictures and imagine the story in your language.
I showed them illustrations from a book I wrote that will be published in the spring by Annick Press. Illustrator Ken Daley created luminous art for the book. It’s called JOSEPH’S BIG RIDE. Joseph lived in Kakuma refugee camp where all he wants is one thing: to ride a bicycle. When he comes as a refugee to America, he still wants that one thing – if he could just ride a bike. Joseph is 7, like a lot of the kids I see tonight.
Amadou said to me, These parents love their children but sometimes they are working at night and trying to solve their own problems in a new country and sometimes they don’t sit down with their children. This program is so good because the parents can be with their children and books. On my way out I passed a very large painting. A teacher told me “many hands created it.” It was a landscape and beneath it were lines of a poem beginning with “I’m from….” that each child had created. Here are some of the lines:
I’m from old, romantic, Hindi songs.
I’m from Beldangi, near river and forest, close to the desert.
How proud the people of IBBY Mexico were to bring creators of children’s literature and educators from all over the world to Mexico City. They showed us palaces beyond beauty, feted us with tequila and tiny hordeuves with hibiscus at galas, seduced us with the art of Mexican illustrators. The word seduction was the word of the conference to me. A long discussion by – is this term a little too close to the language of marketing? – the creatives – brought a very pointed rebuke to some. Reading, the creatives on the dais said, must not be a slogan for literacy, must not be a lesson twenty minutes a day, you idiots. No, the creatives said, reading is a journey into seduction. My paraphrase. But this is my story, too. Every book is a falling in love. This past summer I read one book, over and over. When I was driving, I listened to the audio of this book. I loved this book. This is not the first time I’ve done this with a story. Yes, reading must be a seduction.
These writers were sharp in their rebellions against the industry. Juan Domingo Arguelles suggested Crime and Punishment would not be published today. Now we must have values in our books. In his hyperbolic way he assured us, “My books have no values.” He had been given a list by a U.S. publisher of 34 things his books must not mention, he said. What are the the taboos imposed, perhaps not articulated, but observed, that publishers perceive as making a book inappropriate, unmarketable? What are taboos observed across culture? I am drawn to dig deeper into these issues and welcome interpretations by others. We do know that the CBC clarified U.S. publishing restrictions based on race in their recent study finding that less that 10% of books feature stories about nonwhites.
Almost 1,000 advocates for using children’s literature as a bridge among cultures and nations were all TOGETHER. Here’s a quote from David Almond who was there and whose books awe me. He said, “Every time a child is born the universe is re-created.” This expressed value is one that gives me a sense of possibility for our work as creators of books for the young.
In this Mexico City conference I found a remarkable addition to conferences I have not seen in the U.S. In every session, a technician staffed the media console. Whatever your presentation, the technician mastered it. All presentations worked flawlessly. I brought a Keynote on ipad. Bueno. In Mexico City, for an audience of people from Mexico, Bolivia, Sweden, Japan, Slovenia, Ireland, Texas, and more I played a video of a rap song written and performed by a South Sudanese-American rap star OD Bony from Portland, Maine. Imagine.
A young man from Gran Bretana working on a PhD presented his research in a poster session. It think the title of his presentation speaks to the soul of IBBY. His title was, “The Potential Role of Children’s Literature in Developing Tolerance Between Turkish and Kurdish Students.” In light of political breakdowns in the home countries of many who joined here, people came for the hope in children and their books.