Nov 28, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Awesome Icons


Alfred A. Knoopf, 2016
When it comes to icons, perhaps no young girl has inspired as many people as Anne Frank. At a time when many people are Clinging to hope that these challenging, even threatening times will ever improve, we can turn to Anne as an example of hope in the face of hardship. 
Author Jeff Gottesfeld has explored Anne's source of inspiration and hope in 
THE TREE IN THE COURTYARD: Looking Through Anne Frank's Window
The focus is on the glorious and stoic chestnut tree outside the annex building in which Anne and her family hid before their eventual capture. Visible day after day, month after month, through the only window was that tree. Throughout their long exile in that hidden space, throughout seasons of change and  increasing threats, the tree's view of events is personified by the author. From the point of view of the tree the author emphasizes the universal humanity of Anne and her family by referring to them as "the girl", "the father", a "woman helper", and "men in gray uniforms". 
The chestnut tree's life eventually ends, but not without a concerted effort to support, sustain, and rescue the tree from eventual death. Lines like this are powerful without being maudlin:
"The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl."

Both the girl and the tree passed on, and both live on. Anne's story is universally known, but this book shares the less-well-known story of Anne's inspiring chestnut tree's legacy. Seeds and saplings now grow in New York City where the Twin Towers once stood, and other chestnut tree offspring grow in significant memorial spaces around the world, along with this excerpt from Anne's diary: 

"The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew....
and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn't speak."

Illustrator Peter McCarty enhances this portrayal of Anne's family as representing universal humanity with muted details and facial features, minimal backgrounds, and grainy sepia monochrome on off-white pages.
* * *
Simon & Schuster BYR, 2016
While Anne Frank was hiding, then losing her life in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, another young Jewish girl was growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  Ruth Bader, daughter of a Russian immigrant, was raised among a city of immigrants with vastly different cultures, but a common understanding:  Boys could do anything, but girls got married. 
That, her mother believed, was foolish. Ruth's childhood was filled with contradictions: books about inspiring female leaders and signs like "No Dogs or Jews Allowed". 
Following her mother's example, Ruth disagreed, spoke out, dissented, and argued when confronted with injustice- toward her, her gender, her religion, or anyone else's, for that matter.
I DISSENT: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark is a biography that humanizes the iconic side of Ginsberg while presenting her childhood story as one kids today can emulate. 
Author Debbie Levy's narrative is as straightforward and energetic as her subject, enhanced by colorful and dramatic book design that expands and magnifies repeated key words. The narrative reveals the heartfelt core to Ginsberg's  will of iron. 
Elizabeth Baddeley's illustrations play a significant role in allowing young readers of either gender to recognize and respect that Ruth Bader Ginsberg confronted challenges, even welcomed them, despite her very human fears and heartbreak. 

In the midst of uncertain and even frightening times for many young people (and others!) these are stories worthy of reading and rereading, inviting discussion and questions. During any year I'd recommend both titles, but this year they feel especially deserving of our attention.







Nov 23, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Part Three



Sometimes it's all too easy to moan, groan, and despair of ever establishing a level playing field, whether that relates to gender, race, age, physical status, or socio-economic resources. Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against you. 
Sometimes it is.
But when the right person steps up, works to rise above the stacked deck, the results can be amazing.
Earlier posts on this topic included a young girl's historic first steps toward equal education rights (in Part ONE) and women in journalism (in Part TWO). 
Simon & Schuster BYR, 2016

In ADA'S VIOLIN: the Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, written by Susan Hood and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, the challenge faced is oppressive poverty. Ada and her younger sister are born into a loving family in a town built on an active landfill. Cateura, their town, is the main garbage dump for the capital city of Asuncion, Paraguay, in South America.

Tons and tons (literally, tons and tons) of garbage arrive daily. No sooner is it dumped atop a mountain of trash than ranchers (recyclers) tear into it with long-handled hooks, snatching up anything that can be reused, recycled, or sold.

It sounds like a miserable life, but Ada's family surrounded her with music and stories and laughter and love. Even so, Ada recognized the empty future that faced her and her sister and the other children. When  an opportunity to learn to play an instrument a beam of hope entered her life. 

In a community of scavengers, actual instruments would disappear overnight. The only way Ada and her friends could learn to play is by converting the detritus of the landfill town into instruments whose value was only in their ability to make music. Illustrations that combine graphic-design, abstractions, realism, and contrasts of shadow and vibrant light to perfectly reflect the complexity of those instruments, Ada's community, and the wide-ranging emotions and dreams of her world. 

Ada and the others would have impressed and inspired if their efforts stopped at the edge of their town. They had innovated, created, studied and practiced. When they played together they entertained and uplifted their community. 
But there was more to come. The eventual stunning success of the Cateura youth orchestra required the same dedication and commitment of any musicians who aspire to greatness. 
They became the LandFill-Harmonic Orchestra and perform around the world.

That required something more. For them to achieve such success they had to first dream it, and that meant seeing beyond the limits of life in a landfill. 

That required choosing hope over despair. 
Action over acceptance. 
If that's not an inspiration to the rest of us, I don't know what is. 
You can watch/hear the real Ada and her orchestra here.

This is a book for everyone but will be of special interest to music lovers, recyclers/up-cyclers, "makers", and anyone (which should be everyone) who believes in the capacity of humans to rise above apparent limitations and soar.

Nov 15, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Part Two

Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill, a widely respected reporter, moderator, and political commentator, died of cancer in recent days.  The barriers she pushed past, overcame, and excelled far beyond were many, including those related to both race and gender. 
Apart from her many accomplishments, her colleagues and friends have praised her genuine character, determination, and decency. Here is a quotation from Gwen:

I'm a preacher's kid, and we were always told,
Act right all the time, because someone's always watching.
- Gwen Ifill
And this is a quotation she reportedly appreciated:
Whatever you do, do with kindness.
Whatever you say, say with kindness.
Wherever you go, radiate kindness.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
Gwen Ifill's success in a field nearly exclusive to men, and white men at that, was remarkable by any measure. At the time she was born (1950) there were certainly barriers aplenty to limit a young girl's dreams. 
But by 1950 Mary Ellen Garber (born 1916) was already surpassing barriers, six years into a sports reporting career that only a war could have provided. The full story is told by award-winning nonfiction author Sue Macy and illustrated by C. F. Payne in MISS MARY REPORTING: The True Story of Mary Garber.
Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016
Growing up in North Carolina, a "tiny bit of a girl", she played tackle football with the boys as the quarterback of her team. She learned to love and understand the minutia of sports at her father's knee. At an equally young age she preferred writing her mandatory updates to grandparents in the form of a newspaper, the Garber News, without digital tools or templates to pave the way. 
By her mid-twenties she was earning her living as a reporter. Relegated to the society pages, she dragged a fashion-minded friend to events to avoid complaints from the debutantes about misnamed designers and style choices. 
As proud as she was to have a job as a newspaper reporter, the sports reporting assignments she craved remained a laughable impossibility until the last male sportswriter on staff joined the navy during WWII. When that door opened, Mary Garber marched on through and never looked back.
But when the war ended, reporters returned, and she was reassigned to the news desk.
Even then, within a year she made her way back into sports, reporting on Jackie Robinson's move from the Negro Leagues to the all-white Dodgers. His determination, courage, and maturity made him a role model for Mary.
Author Macy infuses details of Mary's incredible career with direct quotations revealing humor, insight, and decency. In the segregated South Mary was determined to report high school sports for all-black schools rather than only those with all-white attendance. 
She earned the respect of fellow sportswriters, players, and readers. She worked at the career she loved for more than fifty years, even after retiring, and was voted into many different sportswriters' halls of fame.
The author's note, timeline, and resources include sources for the many direct quotes. Payne's caricature-illustrations and Macy's engaging text bring Mary's colorful, appealing personality to life on the page. This is one "tiny bit of a girl" who overcame apparent limitations to achieve, inspire, and break new ground for all girls/women who followed. 
That includes other reporters, like Gwen Ifill, and anyone who sets out to learn, play fair, and make dreams come true on her own terms. This is a nominated title I had somehow missed along the way while keeping an eye on 2016 releases. I'm grateful to be participating in this Cybils panel so that it crossed my path.
As is so often true when  it comes to books, they manage to find their intended readers one way or the other. Let's help this one along to find many more young readers and celebrate the amazing life of newspaper legend, Mary Ellen Garber.
Check back to the first of this series of posts, here. Stay tuned in coming days for reviews of other outstanding books in which young girls are depicted rocking the boat, making waves, rattling at doors, pushing envelopes, and otherwise cracking, sometimes breaking, those glass ceilings.

Nov 12, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Part One

"Kids are curious about the world around them and nonfiction is the perfect way to introduce them to that amazing world. History? Biography? Art? Science? Math? Animals? Sports? It's all here and more besides!" 
(From the Cybils Awards description of Elementary and Juvenile nonfiction)

After more than a month of reading, relishing, and examining Cybils nominated titles, I've moved along to the sorting and comparing stage. With such a variety of topics and types to consider, I've been grouping into related stacks of outstanding books: quirky animal books, straightforward animal books, inventors/inventions, history... you get the drift.

My eyes locked onto the perfect stack of books for this post, for this week. Each presented a young girl who had defied expectations of her place, time, or gender to pursue her dreams.  

Until recently, one of my most frequently-viewed posts ran in the early days after I launched this blog. WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT FEBRUARY was the first of many references I've made over the years to the dual-edged sword of theme months. My concern has always been that flooding a specific month with attention and featuring books on a particular theme (Black History, Women's History, Hispanic Heritage, even Poetry) is dangerous. That goes beyond the obvious message that such narrowed awareness and exploration isn't "real" learning, that each only merits one-twelfth the attention of all our "more important" studies. Too often this approach also results in unpacking a "theme" collection of books for use, then packing them away again until the next year.
I'll climb down from my soapbox and urge anyone who cares to read more of my eloquent arguments on this thesis in the original post, here.

Assigning such a secondary significance means that the history-making stories of half the population of the world get about 8.5% of the annual educational focus. "HER-story" is stuffed into the month of March then buried under another box of books for a year. That's why November (and every other month of the year) offers a perfect opportunity to celebrate young females who faced challenges and barriers without flinching.


Let's start with THE FIRST STEP: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial. Written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, the story of equal-education-seeking young Sarah Roberts couldn't be in better hands. Many young readers have come to know Ruby Bridges and her solitary studies during the civil rights school integration enforcement in the 1960's. The little-known case of Sarah Roberts, though, set the groundwork for establishing desegregation through the courts those many years later.

Back in 1847, four-year-old Sarah was escorted out of her all-white classroom by a police officer. This launches the heartbreaking story of her family's legal, political, and social battle to gain equal educational opportunities for Sarah and all children of color.
Despite set-backs and disappointments, in 1855, before the Civil War, Boston became the fist major American city to integrate its schools. That was more than a hundred years before the BROWN vs. The BOARD of EDUCATION case that finally established "separate is NOT equal". As Goodman says midway through Sarah's process, 
"Every big change has to start somewhere".

The back matter in this picture book is particularly well-suited to close reading and discussion. As she often does, author Goodman doesn't shy away from significant truths. (After all, she's the author of The Truth About Poop and Pee.) In this case she addresses her remarks to young readers, discussing reliable research sources, making decisions about depicting "cloudy" aspects of history, and using modern language within historical context (when the words used for people of color at the time were insulting and demeaning). She provides a timeline of desegregation landmark events with a challenge to readers to decide for themselves which ones are steps forward and which were set-backs.

Stay tuned in coming days for reviews of other outstanding books in which young girls are depicted rocking the boat, making waves, rattling at doors, pushing envelopes, and otherwise cracking, sometimes breaking, those glass ceilings.

And don't you dare put those books in a box and save them for March.








Nov 6, 2016

The Wonder of Words... and Awards

Taking part in the annual Cybils Awards as a first round panelist was so exciting and gratifying last year that I'm thrilled to be able to serve again this year.  My category this year is Elementary and Juvenile Nonfiction, The following note only hints at the diversity and complexity of the nominations we're considering:


"Kids are curious about the world around them and nonfiction is the perfect way to introduce them to that amazing world. History? Biography? Art? Science? Math? Animals? Sports? It's all here and more besides! We love text and illustrations or photographs that will wow kids and adults alike and topics so fascinating that kids will want to go digging for more, more, more nonfiction!
Nonfiction Elementary/Juvenile includes titles with factual content and informational titles. At least 50% or more of the book should be narrative nonfiction (as opposed to experiments, activities, instructional, or collections of facts without a strong narrative thread like encyclopedias)".

With the nominations closed and my examinations well underway, I've posted some short notes and reviews on Goodreads. As I sat surrounded by piles of worthy books, I debated which title I'd choose for my initial review on this blog.

That note above helped me select a starting point. We are, after all, judging books. The words and images together, from cover to cover, should call out to readers, enticing them to step into their pages and beyond, exploring a vast and astonishing world. That journey should offer information but also inject a powerful sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn more.

Charlesbridge Publishing, Hardcover, 9781580896382, 40pp.

On that score, there's no better place to start than with the remarkable picture book, WILL'S WORDS: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, written by Jane Sutcliffe and illustrated by John Shelley.

Here's the description from Indiebound.org:
"When Jane Sutcliffe sets out to write a book about William Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre, in her own words, she runs into a problem: Will's words keep popping up all over the place. What's an author to do? After all, Will is responsible for such familiar phrases as "what's done is done" and "too much of a good thing." He even helped turn "household words" into household words. But, Jane embraces her dilemma, writing about Shakespeare, his plays, and his famous phrases with glee. After all, what better words are there to use to write about the greatest writer in the English language than his very own? As readers will discover, "the long and the short of it" is this: Will changed the English language forever. Backmatter includes an author's note, a bibliography, and a timeline."

From the first page to the end, the author's use of first person voice amuses, entertains, and intrigues. The illustrations are a sort of historically-based "Where's Waldo", revealing dense details about Shakespeare's London, teeming with the energy and drama of daily life. Brief text boxes on the left of each double-page spread include one or more familiar phrases and are easily understood, sprinkled with wry humor. The right side citations from Shakespeare's works are not only accessible but invite further reading of his original works.

I particularly admired the clever tone of the opening author-note, a plaintive apology for being unable to tell this tale of language evolution without using Will's own words. Shakespeare is woven through every fiber of English.

Then, before the actual back matter, the author concludes her letter-to-the-reader style with a postscript. Following that is a timeline of the life of William Shakespeare and an extensive bibliography, offering readers ample opportunity to launch treasure hunts of their own.

We live in a time filled with "mash-ups", invented words, and vastly varied local idioms among  generations. It turns out every generation has done so. With language as energetic and intriguing as Shelley's illustrations, this book could encourage readers to notice and question our lively language. 

The difference in our current society is with what speed our languages reach a global audience and how their words reach us. A WAY WITH WORDS is an online and public radio-based resource for learning more about our wonderfully unwieldy words. Questions from kids and classrooms are welcome. It's a vigorous and entertaining resource for exploring idioms and "standard" English across centuries and continents.

This is just the first of many nonfiction reviews for the current Cybils Awards cycle that I've posted and there are plenty more to come. For now, though, this is a book I urge you to explore, offering something for everyone. As Shakespeare would say, you'll be getting "your money's worth".

Addition to post, 3/17/17:

One of my favorite blogs, TEACH WITH PICTURE BOOKS, added a post about this book, with teaching suggestions, related quotes and links, and other wonderful insights. By all means, check it out here, then take a look at the extensive and well-catalogued resources in the extensive archive of titles and teaching ideas.






Nov 2, 2016

Interview: Margriet Ruurs, Author of STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey

I first "met" author Margriet Ruurs many years ago at a Wisconsin Reading Conference where I spoke with her during her book-signing after her presentation. I was as impressed by her advocacy for young readers and writers as I was by her delightful books. Since then I've followed her "virtually" through her Facebook and website postings, admiring her literacy-connected world travels, new releases, and openness to cultures across the globe. 

Earlier this fall I read about her latest release, STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey, with artwork by Nizar Ali Badr.  I wrote about it in my last post, here. Now I'm delighted to report that, in the midst of her current travels to visit schools around the globe, she found time to respond to some questions so that I could share them here.

SB: Welcome, Margriet, and thank you for joining me here. The premise of this blog is that picture books have incredible power to reach and teach and touch lives across many ages. Your latest release in collaboration with artist Nazir Ali Badr is a perfect example of that power.
Let's start with this-
Orca Book Publishing says: “Stepping Stones tells the story of Rama and her family, who are forced to flee their once-peaceful village to escape the ravages of the civil war raging ever closer to their home. With only what they can carry on their backs, Rama and her mother, father, grandfather and brother, Sami, set out to walk to freedom in Europe. “

Your author's note and website say you assembled individual scenes  form Badr's art into a narrative that allowed you to imagine a family of refugees.  The family you describe in the text feels undeniably REAL. If this is an imagined story, meant to be representative of so many families facing today’s harsh world, do you consider it fiction or nonfiction, and why?

MR: This is often the question with books such as this, isn’t it? I consider this to be realistic fiction. Rama is not a real child, not a child that I know or interviewed. Rama is a child who sprouted from my imagination, but in a very realistic way. I watched the war in Syria on TV every night, seeing thousands of children and their families flee the war. 
At the same time, I had just finished reading a memoir of someone who survived WW II in the Netherlands, which brought back so many accounts told to me as I was growing up, by my parents who lived during that war. In my head, I combined these events, realizing that war is all too common. To this, I was able to add my own feelings from when I left my parental home, my country, to emigrate to the USA and Canada. I was never a refugee. I chose to come here. But I did recall how it felt to spend that last night in my own, safe bed, knowing that I would never hear these sounds or see these sights again. So, the characters in my book are fictional but the descriptions are very realistic.
I asked Nizar, and his friend Saji who translated my emails to Nizar, for input into the text. They asked that the grandfather in the story stay alive rather than die, as I had him do. So I kept him alive… 


SB:  And I'm pleased that you did, as I suspect it will please other readers, too. The story told by your lyrical text and Ali Badr's incredibly evocative art doesn't shy away from the painful aspects of refugee experiences, but it is ultimately a very optimistic book. The opening spread features a quotation by Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”  Ideally, how do you see this book advancing understanding of the challenges faced by refugees and society as a whole? 

MR: I firmly believe that people need to know, to understand, each other before they can treat them as they would like to be treated themselves. The whole ‘do onto others..’ thing.
It is much easier to be harsh with strangers. But once you know and understand another person, you realize that this person may look or sound different from you, but that he or she has the same feelings, similar values, the same human emotions… I believe that if children understand that other people in other cultures are not so different from us, that they will treat others with more respect. 
Sometimes people are afraid of someone who is different. When I travel and visit international schools in far-away countries, the children may seem different at first glance. Sometimes they dress differently. They eat different foods or speak a different language. But when I get to know them, I discover that they are just like kids everywhere: they like to play soccer, or video games, they love reading Harry Potter or comics. They like candy and playing game.
Their parents, too, may seem different at first, but all parents want their children to be safe, to get an education, to be happy. We may pray to a different god, but ultimately, we are more similar than we are different. I believe that acceptance of that might be the foundation of world peace.
Once we understand that refugees were forced to flee, that they don’t really want to leave their own homes, that they are not coming here to take our jobs… then I believe it is easier to make room and accept them. That is why I use ordinary scenes in the story - the family eating tomatoes and yogurt, the girl playing with dolls - to show how similar we are. 
If our country was invaded, if our homes were suddenly bombed, we too would hope that another nation would welcome and shelter us.

SB: Can you describe the impact/reaction you had the first time you saw Nazir Ali Badr’s creations on Facebook? 

MR: When I first saw Nizar’s art on his Facebook page, it really touched me that his art showed such emotion. The first image I saw was one of a mother carrying her child. She was tender, the child was looking for comfort. Then I realized that the entire picture was made with just plain rocks. That blew me away. As a children’s book writer, I always keep one eye open for unusual art that will appeal to children. Authors really are not involved in the process of illustrating books, but I can still recommend art to a publisher. I instantly knew that art such as this had never been done in a book and that it would appeal to children.
When I saw more of his images, I felt that his art told a visual story of refugees, of people fleeing their homeland, of people trying to escape bombs and death, of people looking for help and a safe place to live. I felt drawn to compose words to string his images together as a picture book.

SB:  Your introductory author’s note describes the inspiration and challenges you dealt with to make this book a reality.  Now that it’s published, how well did it meet your hopes and expectations? Does something more need to occur to make your dreams for it come true?

MR: Orca Book Publishers responded immediately. They, too, recognized the need to tell this very current, yet timeless, story. They blew me away as they designed Nizar’s art and my words into a gorgeous book in a very short period of time. It was their decision, and Nizar’s request, that the book be published in both English and Arabic. That had not occurred to me but, in retrospect, that was a wise decision. I believe that the two languages on each page, bring two cultures together - the very intent of my story. It has been wonderful to meet newly arrived refugee families and see their eyes light up when they realize this is a book that they, too, can read. Audiences have been in tears listening to a young Syrian girl read the story in soft, melodious Arabic. 
But ultimately, a book is merely paper and cardboard. It is the readers, the teachers, the parents, the children - who bring a book to life and choose to change the world, or even one attitude. When a teacher picks up this book and decides to share it with her class, that makes a difference. When a child reads this book and decides to fundraise for refugees, that changes the world. One reader at a time. When that occurs, it is a dream come true for a writer like me.

SB: Have you had an opportunity to meet the artist (in person or digitally)?  If not, do you have plans to do so?

MR: I haven’t met Nizar in person. He looks like a kind man and is a skilled artist. His art expresses his anger at the current situation in Syria and his love of humanity, his caring for his people and his homeland. Even though I will be in Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks, which borders Syria, I have not considered going there because it is just too unsafe. But yes, I’d love to meet him some day. He would say ‘Inshallah’ - a lovely expression which means ‘god willing’ - we will meet one day. I hope that our book not only helps to create understanding of, and financial support for, refugees, but also helps to bring a wider audience for his amazing art.

What has surprised you most about this book (or reactions to it)  since its release? 
I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the book has been received. It seems to verbalize the refugee situation and also touches readers as a human story. I’m surprised now at how easy it was to tell the story - I think many pieces fell into place for me at the time of writing. We hardly had to do any editing. It is very seldom that a writer “is given” a story such as this. Sometimes, it’s easier to write from the heart than from the head. 
Later, once it was printed, I worried about the fact I wrote about a refugee situation which I had never experienced. “Who am I to tell this story?” I worried. But when a Syrian man cried when he read it, and told me that “this is exactly how it was…” then I felt that perhaps I had found the right words, at the right time.

SB:  Was there anything else you hoped I’d ask about? Anything you’d want to sahre with readers?

MR: Just that I am so pleased that Orca Book Publishers immediately agreed to donate a portion of each book to a refugee cause. I decided to donate most of my royalties to different refugee causes because I feel that really this is their story, not mine. I am also thrilled that Orca is making this book available to schools and organizations as a fund raiser. If a school, or a class, decides to do service learning, they can order the book at a 50% discount and sell it. This means that, if a class sells 100 books, they can then donate $1,000.- to a refugee cause of their choice. This can be to help a local family, or they can send it to the Red Cross or Unicef, or any other cause they select. So, besides this being a book to read, it becomes a book that can help people. What more can a writer ask for?



ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS, 2016

Margriet, it has been a privilege to have you share your process and purposes regarding this book. It's one I can't praise highly enough to do it justice. Deepest thanks and best wishes that your dreams for all that this book might achieve will be met and exceeded.

Readers, I urge you to get your hands on a copy to see if you agree with me, and with such luminaries as Mem Fox ("It's exquisite! One can only pray that its message will spread and make the difference we need.") and award-winning author Eric Walters ( "Brilliant and beautiful and inspiring. A book that should be read with every child in the world! An instant classic as solid as the stones on which it is based!"). If you agree, please use every networking means at your disposal to encourage others to read it and share it: word of mouth, reviews on blogs and sales sites like Amazon, social media, and schools/libraries in your communities. 
Learn more about potential fundraising options through ORCA BOOKS here.  

Interview: Margriet Ruurs, Author of STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey

I first "met" author Margriet Ruers many years ago at a Wisconsin Reading Conference where I spoke with her during her book-signing after her presentation. I was as impressed by her advocacy for young readers and writers as I was by her delightful books. Since then I've followed her "virtually" through her Facebook and website postings, admiring her literacy-connected world travels, new releases, and openness to cultures across the globe. 

Earlier this fall I read about her latest release, STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey, with artwork by Nizar Ali Badr.  I wrote about it in my last post, here. Now I'm delighted to report that, in the midst of her current travels to visit schools around the globe, she found time to respond to some questions so that I could share them here.

SB: Welcome, Margriet, and thank you for joining me here. The premise of this blog is that picture books have incredible power to reach and teach and touch lives across many ages. Your latest release in collaboration with artist Nazir Ali Badr is a perfect example of that power.
Let's start with this-
Orca Book Publishing says: “Stepping Stones tells the story of Rama and her family, who are forced to flee their once-peaceful village to escape the ravages of the civil war raging ever closer to their home. With only what they can carry on their backs, Rama and her mother, father, grandfather and brother, Sami, set out to walk to freedom in Europe. “

Your author's note and website say you assembled individual scenes  form Badr's art into a narrative that allowed you to imagine a family of refugees.  The family you describe in the text feels undeniably REAL. If this is an imagined story, meant to be representative of so many families facing today’s harsh world, do you consider it fiction or nonfiction, and why?

MR: This is often the question with books such as this, isn’t it? I consider this to be realistic fiction. Rama is not a real child, not a child that I know or interviewed. Rama is a child who sprouted from my imagination, but in a very realistic way. I watched the war in Syria on TV every night, seeing thousands of children and their families flee the war. 
At the same time, I had just finished reading a memoir of someone who survived WW II in the Netherlands, which brought back so many accounts told to me as I was growing up, by my parents who lived during that war. In my head, I combined these events, realizing that war is all too common. To this, I was able to add my own feelings from when I left my parental home, my country, to emigrate to the USA and Canada. I was never a refugee. I chose to come here. But I did recall how it felt to spend that last night in my own, safe bed, knowing that I would never hear these sounds or see these sights again. So, the characters in my book are fictional but the descriptions are very realistic.
I asked Nizar, and his friend Saji who translated my emails to Nizar, for input into the text. They asked that the grandfather in the story stay alive rather than die, as I had him do. So I kept him alive… 


SB:  And I'm pleased that you did, as I suspect it will please other readers, too. The story told by your lyrical text and Ali Badr's incredibly evocative art doesn't shy away from the painful aspects of refugee experiences, but it is ultimately a very optimistic book. The opening spread features a quotation by Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”  Ideally, how do you see this book advancing understanding of the challenges faced by refugees and society as a whole? 

MR: I firmly believe that people need to know, to understand, each other before they can treat them as they would like to be treated themselves. The whole ‘do onto others..’ thing.
It is much easier to be harsh with strangers. But once you know and understand another person, you realize that this person may look or sound different from you, but that he or she has the same feelings, similar values, the same human emotions… I believe that if children understand that other people in other cultures are not so different from us, that they will treat others with more respect. 
Sometimes people are afraid of someone who is different. When I travel and visit international schools in far-away countries, the children may seem different at first glance. Sometimes they dress differently. They eat different foods or speak a different language. But when I get to know them, I discover that they are just like kids everywhere: they like to play soccer, or video games, they love reading Harry Potter or comics. They like candy and playing game.
Their parents, too, may seem different at first, but all parents want their children to be safe, to get an education, to be happy. We may pray to a different god, but ultimately, we are more similar than we are different. I believe that acceptance of that might be the foundation of world peace.
Once we understand that refugees were forced to flee, that they don’t really want to leave their own homes, that they are not coming here to take our jobs… then I believe it is easier to make room and accept them. That is why I use ordinary scenes in the story - the family eating tomatoes and yogurt, the girl playing with dolls - to show how similar we are. 
If our country was invaded, if our homes were suddenly bombed, we too would hope that another nation would welcome and shelter us.

SB: Can you describe the impact/reaction you had the first time you saw Nazir Ali Badr’s creations on Facebook? 

MR: When I first saw Nizar’s art on his Facebook page, it really touched me that his art showed such emotion. The first image I saw was one of a mother carrying her child. She was tender, the child was looking for comfort. Then I realized that the entire picture was made with just plain rocks. That blew me away. As a children’s book writer, I always keep one eye open for unusual art that will appeal to children. Authors really are not involved in the process of illustrating books, but I can still recommend art to a publisher. I instantly knew that art such as this had never been done in a book and that it would appeal to children.
When I saw more of his images, I felt that his art told a visual story of refugees, of people fleeing their homeland, of people trying to escape bombs and death, of people looking for help and a safe place to live. I felt drawn to compose words to string his images together as a picture book.

SB:  Your introductory author’s note describes the inspiration and challenges you dealt with to make this book a reality.  Now that it’s published, how well did it meet your hopes and expectations? Does something more need to occur to make your dreams for it come true?

MR: Orca Book Publishers responded immediately. They, too, recognized the need to tell this very current, yet timeless, story. They blew me away as they designed Nizar’s art and my words into a gorgeous book in a very short period of time. It was their decision, and Nizar’s request, that the book be published in both English and Arabic. That had not occurred to me but, in retrospect, that was a wise decision. I believe that the two languages on each page, bring two cultures together - the very intent of my story. It has been wonderful to meet newly arrived refugee families and see their eyes light up when they realize this is a book that they, too, can read. Audiences have been in tears listening to a young Syrian girl read the story in soft, melodious Arabic. 
But ultimately, a book is merely paper and cardboard. It is the readers, the teachers, the parents, the children - who bring a book to life and choose to change the world, or even one attitude. When a teacher picks up this book and decides to share it with her class, that makes a difference. When a child reads this book and decides to fundraise for refugees, that changes the world. One reader at a time. When that occurs, it is a dream come true for a writer like me.

SB: Have you had an opportunity to meet the artist (in person or digitally)?  If not, do you have plans to do so?

MR: I haven’t met Nizar in person. He looks like a kind man and is a skilled artist. His art expresses his anger at the current situation in Syria and his love of humanity, his caring for his people and his homeland. Even though I will be in Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks, which borders Syria, I have not considered going there because it is just too unsafe. But yes, I’d love to meet him some day. He would say ‘Inshallah’ - a lovely expression which means ‘god willing’ - we will meet one day. I hope that our book not only helps to create understanding of, and financial support for, refugees, but also helps to bring a wider audience for his amazing art.

What has surprised you most about this book (or reactions to it)  since its release? 
I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the book has been received. It seems to verbalize the refugee situation and also touches readers as a human story. I’m surprised now at how easy it was to tell the story - I think many pieces fell into place for me at the time of writing. We hardly had to do any editing. It is very seldom that a writer “is given” a story such as this. Sometimes, it’s easier to write from the heart than from the head. 
Later, once it was printed, I worried about the fact I wrote about a refugee situation which I had never experienced. “Who am I to tell this story?” I worried. But when a Syrian man cried when he read it, and told me that “this is exactly how it was…” then I felt that perhaps I had found the right words, at the right time.

SB:  Was there anything else you hoped I’d ask about? Anything you’d want to sahre with readers?

MR: Just that I am so pleased that Orca Book Publishers immediately agreed to donate a portion of each book to a refugee cause. I decided to donate most of my royalties to different refugee causes because I feel that really this is their story, not mine. I am also thrilled that Orca is making this book available to schools and organizations as a fund raiser. If a school, or a class, decides to do service learning, they can order the book at a 50% discount and sell it. This means that, if a class sells 100 books, they can then donate $1,000.- to a refugee cause of their choice. This can be to help a local family, or they can send it to the Red Cross or Unicef, or any other cause they select. So, besides this being a book to read, it becomes a book that can help people. What more can a writer ask for?



ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS, 2016

Margriet, it has been a privilege to have you share your process and purposes regarding this book. It's one I can't praise highly enough to do it justice. Deepest thanks and best wishes that your dreams for all that this book might achieve will be met and exceeded.

Readers, I urge you to get your hands on a copy to see if you agree with me, and with such luminaries as Mem Fox ("It's exquisite! One can only pray that its message will spread and make the difference we need.") and award-winning author Eric Walters ( "Brilliant and beautiful and inspiring. A book that should be read with every child in the world! An instant classic as solid as the stones on which it is based!"). If you agree, please use every networking means at your disposal to encourage others to read it and share it: word of mouth, reviews on blogs and sales sites like Amazon, social media, and schools/libraries in your communities. 
Learn more about potential fundraising options through ORCA BOOKS here.  

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.