Friday, June 10, 2016

On Stories, Sugar, and Being Disinvited

I rarely blog these days, but there is a story I've kept in my head for too long.

For years, I told myself I'd tell this story in public. One day. When I had the time. Or opportunity. Or courage. I don't know why I've held onto it for so long, but this morning, when Isatou Ceesay messaged me a series of photos, I knew it was time to share.

This week's news from Phil Bildner and Kate Messner, plus this past post by Meg Medina, and the photos mentioned above have cumulatively unlocked it. Thank you, Phil, Kate, and Meg, for helping me find courage and make the time. Here goes.

Nearly a decade ago, before I'd even sold my first book, I was working as an advocate for fair trade groups. Isatou Ceesay, the founder of a women's recycling cooperative in Njau, Gambia, was making a trip to the United States. I was tasked with finding her venues where she could share her amazing humanitarian, environmental, and women's empowerment projects, and perhaps solicit a few donations. (Anyone who has worked in the nonprofit or development sectors know how important securing funding can be.)

With the help of friends, I lined up a YWCA women's luncheon talk, as well as a youth group chat at my church and then a similar talk at another church. She arrived to the US, and the first two speaking engagements went well. When I got to the third church, a place I'd never been, things changed. Upon arrival, the Pastor told me she "needed a word" and led me up a narrow staircase to an office inside what I can only describe as a dimly-lit attic.

The Pastor closed the door. I swallowed. She pulled up my blog page on her computer screen, turned to me and said, "What is THIS?"

I blinked. I felt like a fifth-grader who'd been staring out the window and suddenly finds herself being called on by the teacher. What was what?

My confusion must have been obvious, because the Pastor pressed on. She scrolled up and down the page, reading it out loud. It was a post in which I had shared an event link from a local interfaith group. It had the details for an Eid celebration in a nearby city, inviting local people to attend the feast. My stomach began to knot up as I feared where this conversation was going.

"What is this Islamist stuff you promote? Are you Islamist? I just don't know if I can have your presentation in my church today." My chest tightened as she spoke. I felt trapped, unsafe. I feared for Isatou, who was waiting downstairs, alone.

The Pastor faced me directly. "I need to know that you have Jesus Christ in your heart," she said. "Or we can't continue. And I can't ask my congregation to donate anything."

I had a flashback to elementary school—when we learned about how our school, Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, got its name. I wondered what that last moment felt like for those martyrs, being questioned by an angry stranger who lacked the capacity to accept those who were different. I considered standing up and walking out, or giving her a piece of my mind. But downstairs was the leader of a charity I'd become passionate about, which needed the money this church had pledged to donate. I was also in charge of keeping Isatou, a Muslim, safe during her stay in my city. I was young, and wholly intimidated.

I fumbled through responding to the Pastor. I let her know that I was Catholic, and that our presentation contained no religion—Isatou's or mine—and that it was simply a recap of the efforts she was spearheading, especially recycling, helping young mothers, and sending local children to school. I told her that my blog would continue to showcase all kinds of multicultural events in our area, that I didn't help others because they were Christian, and how peace, justice, and acceptance of many cultures and religions were important to me.

I don't remember how many minutes passed, but finally she opened the door. I breathed out. We went downstairs. Isatou gave her presentation (without knowing any of this), and I listened to that Pastor deliver the angriest homily I've ever heard (she even threw VHS video tapes on the ground). After the service, we were given pastries and everyone mingled politely. I came to realize that a majority of those who attended this "newly founded" church were people who were vulnerable or impressionable in some way. Some had mental or physical disabilities, while others had experienced trauma or illness or were living in poverty. Some were either very young or very old. Many shared stories of how they wanted to belong. I began to boil inside at the feeling that this pastor was manipulating them down a path of hatred—both self-hatred and hatred of others.

I took the check, cashed it for Isatou's charity (which ended up sponsoring a few school children), and never looked back. I don't know why I kept this story mostly to myself for so long. Embarrassment, perhaps? This woman, and the kind of church she runs, aren't all that rare where I live. Heck, I'm related to people with similar fears and beliefs. I'm so tired from always being the activist, that sometimes I find ignoring things to be my way of self-care. It's not excusable. It's privilege. I know and acknowledge that.

Although I was only questioned, and not actually disinvited like Kate or Phil or Meg, this story matters because it's communities like mine whose children need to hear the messages of unity, empathy, and universality. Whose children need windows, not only mirrors. Whose children (and adults) need diverse stories and speakers to come and share their work at our libraries.

This morning, Isatou Ceesay messaged me photos. They were of burlap sacks of sugar, and dozens of smiling faces distributing it. She sent captions with a thank you, because I share royalties from One Plastic Bag with the women of Njau. Because of the book's recent successes, families across the village who rarely can afford to buy sugar now have enough for the entire month of Ramadan.

Think about it.

With this round of money, they bought sugar. Something I have four pounds of sitting in my cupboard at any given time. After 18 years of doing important and amazing work for our earth, they're still using their income to buy basic necessities. Every time a school, church, library, or store sells One Plastic Bag, there is a direct benefit for the women.

But there's more—the kids and grown-ups who read it gain something, too. I have witnessed a spark in students who want to help organize clean-ups. There have been individuals who are inspired to make a difference in their own communities, some even starting petitions or seeking new legislation. The fears that hearing an inspiring story about a Muslim woman will brainwash or convert people or that funding her charity might be linked to terrorism are all completely ridiculous. There is so much positivity and progress that comes out of stories like One Plastic Bag—and through books like George, The Seventh Wish, and Yacqui Delgado.

Growing up, I hid the alcoholism that plagued our family. I felt ashamed by it, othered by it, and that it was inappropriate for a family like mine to be in a story—even though I know that there are many, many families in my area who deal with similar situations. As a child, I was never handed a book in which a character or their family dealt with addiction or alcoholism, and still to this day I find myself wanting to erase parts of my childhood, and I'm often unable or unwilling to talk about it.

Even writing this blog post and hitting 'publish' was hard. Will a school disinvite me because of it? I hope not, but it is a concern I share with many authors who increasingly don't get to enjoy a separation of personal life and business that employees in other industries do.

Administrators, teachers, and librarians have a lot of choices to make. I am not here to tell anyone how to do their job. But as my 10-year-old daughter put it yesterday, "It should be up to us, and maybe our parents, to decide what we read. We can handle it. We're not stupid. Reading about tough stuff helps us figure out what to do when we're faced with those things. Or it shows us we're not alone."

Oh, how I love that girl. And how I love children's authors. I wonder if parents, teachers, and administrators understand how much time, thought, and heartstrings are poured into the kinds of books that are winning awards in children's literature today. I hope this post helps people understand how their silence and censorship directly impacts society at large, especially the youngest of our citizens.

Most importantly, I hope this post might show readers how their voice and support can uplift others and lead us all in a more loving, inclusive direction.

Speak up.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

One Plastic Bag named a 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young Readers

Growing up, I didn't really like social studies (other than geography, thanks to my fifth grade teacher). I considered history boring and full of dates and wars and people I couldn't relate to. 

Today's educational materials, especially books, are changing how history is presented, and who is included. Thank goodness.

It is surprising to reflect on how I felt about social studies growing up, and realizing that now I have two books with Lerner Publishing Group shelved in the social studies section (Whose Hands Are These? and One Plastic Bag).

So today's news—that One Plastic Bag was named a 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People—is surely a surprise, but also an honor. 

Teachers, please introduce yourself to the wonderful books and authors on this list — they will engage your most reluctant readers or history-haters (like me) and bring nonfiction to life.

Also, please check out the Library of Congress's archived video of Isatou's and my presentation at the Young Reader's Center in Washington, D.C.

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