Monday, November 10, 2008

Building Libraries

It's not long time that I came to know through the surprising "world wide web" Amy Bodden Bowllan and I'm very happy about that because she inspires people like me and many other mothers and educators that what is really needed to build up an ambitious project, are small constant continuous actions, actions that everyone of us caould do. Amy is mother teacher and builds libraries for low-income people. She is one of those active eclectic person who never rejects new challanges and share her 24 hours between family and work, building libraries and teaching technology, reading and blogging. Maybe we can think she is a "superwoman" and in a way she is, but Amy is also a humble person who recognize in her own family the source and insipration of her socio educational committment in favour of disadvantaged people. A family who gave her strenght and encouraged her to pursue the value of sharing and respect for the others.

KABILIANA - Amy would you like to tell us something about your childhood and background ? Where is your family originally from?
AMY - In my immediate family – my father’s side - we have ancestry from Jamaica, Portugal and Belize and on my mother’s side from Savannah, Georgia and the Bahamas. But I was born and raised in Hollis, Queens, which is a suburb of New York. My parents are also both native New Yorkers, had seven children and adopted 3 additional children from my mother’s sister who was unable – at the time – to raise them, so all together – growing up – there were ten kids in my home. As you can imagine, the quarters were tight but we grew up in a disciplined and a Catholic environment. My father knew that our neighborhood, while family oriented, had some bad elements happening during the 1980s: drugs, crime, crack epidemic, etc. Therefore, my parents made sure we were out of the community and playing tennis every day. We really couldn’t afford it, so we played during off-peak times and truly mastered the game. Hence, I received a full tennis scholarship to college. I am also grateful my parents were so vested in our upbringing.

KABILIANA - How did your background influence your commitment in socio-educational projects?
AMY - As a kid, I remember my older sister, Joanne, she use to call me the civic-minded social worker because I always crying for the world’s people. Those who were suffering in the newspapers touched me at an early age. So crying for them was my way of helping. But that’s a good question and one I never connected with my background and now that you ask there are certainly definite correlations. As far as my commitment to projects, well, that started once I entered high school. You see, my Catholic school was one that fostered good behavior; meaning if you were “good” you did well academically. Unfortunately, there were really no expectations for academic excellence. Then when I went on to high school, I was overwhelmed by how much more the other students knew and how little I knew. I could tell right away I was out of my league, so I decided to approach college with a vengeance. I wanted to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I will never forget what it was like to feel “stupid” and I always believed that the foundation wasn’t strong, academically. My parents did their best and I had to do the rest. But as far as resources, there wasn’t much. And back then I didn’t know they were important. It was only when I got older that I realized how important it was to be informed. It’s funny how people see America as this land of opportunity, and don’t get me wrong, it is. However, there are varied levels of the basics and needs that are not balanced in schools. If you come from wealth, you have the SmartBoards, whiteboards, technology, books, travel, language options, sports options, etc., in schools. If you are like me and did not come from wealth, then you’ll have the chalkboards, sitting in the same seat all day, and hope to have, maybe, one field trip a year. So my goal as an educator, blogger, and former journalist is to change that paradigm and help the world’s people. We have to be able to equip all students with the same tools. It’s only right!

KABILIANA - From your resume I see you are a very eclectic person with lots of activities on your board. One of your main activities is building libraries for low income families. Can you tell us more about this? How does the project works in details?
AMY -About ten years ago, and after working as a journalist, I decided to get my start as an educator. I wanted to take my news experience and infuse into the students who needed it most, so I set out to work at a small Catholic school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s important to point out that with the exception of the principal, no one knew that I had just left a very successful career as a journalist - I wanted to be a part of the norm. What I found was that, again, these students in this school did not have resources – no library – no technology – no yard to play, “truly the concrete jungle.” And I was again catapulted to my past and saw, “my gosh this is not right.” It was almost as though time was standing still for these kids. I noticed there was no library or technology at the school, so I decided to work with the principal to bring in the right people who could make it happen. There are so many good people in this world who care and who are very giving. I’ve been trying my best to help schools ever since. I certainly don’t do enough, since I work full-time and am a mother but every little bit helps. One book at a time.

KABILIANA - Can you share some experiences you did concerning this activity?
AMY - Over the past several years I’ve worked with a woman named Verne Oliver who is truly the maverick behind this endeavor. She is well into her 80s and visits underpriviledged schools in an effort to build libraries for them. It’s amazing what she’s been able to accomplish…over 100 Building Libraries initiatives! I am on my fifth so there’s way more to go for me. I do, however, feel that she has taken me on for the ride. Not to mention, I’ve learned so much from Verne. Barcoding, spine lables, Dewey, she teaches it all! But the best part is, when we finish a job, those students will have a place they can call THEIRS – a place where they can explore the world – a place to read. That’s the reward.

KABILIANA -You are also Promoting and Fostering Diversity Through Media and Information Literacy, can you explain us more about this activity?
AMY - Having worked in a newsroom, I was able to interview people from all walks. By the way, diversity is more than just color. It’s so broad and needs to be inclusive, so that everyone is welcomed in this world. Reporters know that they have to be the eyes and ears and break through the stereotypes in order to get the story. That’s why now, as an educator I use the same skills – TEACH LIKE A REPORTER – to infuse diversity related materials and train teachers on how to be inclusive throughout their curriculums. It’s basically looking through different lenses.

KABILIANA - You are directly involved in promoting educational technology program. How much important is to prepare the young generation to become part of the world wide web?
AMY - That to me goes hand-in-hand with promoting the need to have libraries in schools. Technology opens up the gates of information. We did not grow up with the internet but our children will/are. Students having access to a wealth of resources on the Web will broaden them to new heights! Can you imagine what the world would look like if all children, all over the world had access to the same information? We would learn so much more from our world’s children. Educational technology is the framework to build on this and it encompases so many areas: teacher training; Web site evalaution; safety; digital presentation tools; etc.

KABILIANA - Do you think that also in third world countries access to technology will allow them to achieve a new perspective on their problems?
AMY - I believe it’s crucial for third world countries to join hands with the world through the Web. I am not sure it will provide a new perspective but I do think it will open their perspectives to solve some of the problems they endure. But that’s probably another issue.

KABILIANA - Don’t you see any risk of losing identity for the “poorest” countries? How will technology in the next future wil let preservation of cultural heritages coop together with an eye on the world?
AMY - People preserve their heritage in more ways than we give them credit for. The fear is always the unknown. But technology is the tool, it’s not the oracle or the bad guy, so to speak. Technology can enhance cultures by being able to find information that wasn’t accessible before. The only way of not being able to preserve ones culture is through genocide. And that is a huge fear of mine, not the technology. Although I do understand your point.

KABILIANA - How can literacy change disadvantaged people’s life?
AMY - Literacy can take a socio-economically, deprived child and put him in Harvard.
Literacy can take a single mom, raising five kids alone and place her in the right job for her family, once her application is complete. Literacy can take a gang member who’s married to his gang and transform his life, by understanding just one word, PEACE. Literacy can take an aged person who may never have had the opportunity to write a letter and send the stamp of LOVE. Literacy is the key to unlock any door! I truly believe that.

KABILIANA - Amy you have a blog at School Library Journal . Who are the main followers of it? Teachers, Readers, students?
AMY - My blog readers are from all over the world. I have met the most inspiring people. I have librarians, authors, teachers, speakers, students, and my mom.

KABILIANA - Can you tell us three children‘s books you recently read and loved?
AMY - Oh gosh – Not fair!!! I read so many children’s books it’s hard to name just three. Here you go:
Snow Falling in Spring By Moying Li
The Mzungu Boy by Meja Mwangi
Hip Hop Speaks to Children by Nikki Giovanni

KABILIANA - You are mother of two children. How do you transmit them the love for reading ? Do they love reading? What are their current favourite authors or titles?
AMY - Honestly, I would love for my children to love reading, so what I try to do is to have them review the books I receive from authors. Some they like, and some they don’t, but getting them to love reading is a work in progress. One that, ironically, I struggle with. As my children grow older, I’ll know if I succeeded. My daughter loves the Junie B Jones series and I am trying to move her to more age appropriate books, while my son enjoys a variety of sports and Goosebump books.

KABILIANA - Do you have any suggestions for parents, teachers and librarians on how to encourage reading among their children/students/readers?
AMY - Yes – I would say for students – they should be encouraged to read everything that comes into their hands, from newspapers, to press releases, sports, EVERYTHING. I teach students that reading is like tasting food. Eat it all – Read it All! Teachers and librarians should continue to be creative with their displays and they should get the books off the shelves – spread them out. Have an all day Book-a-Thon! Make it a party! Bring the librarians into the classrooms on a regular basis. Write to the authors. Recognize the illustrators. Invite the authors in. There’s so much to do to make reading fun and a lifelong habit. But first, the books on the shelves make it hard to see the beauty inside. I use that analogy with my students, get yourself off the shelf and live.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Power of Reading

As I said in my latest post here the fist interview to a children's author and illustrator. The guests of this first Writing Room are author Katia Novet Saint-Lot and illustrator Dimitrea Tokunbo who will introduce their "Amadi's Snowman". Amadi share with us the wonderful and mysterious world of books. His initial scepticism, his doubts on the importance of reading will turn into the most exciting discover of every child, learning the sounds of words and their meaning.When I first read this book to my daughters they were really partecipating at Amadi's journey through the awareness that reading can take you far and I'm sure many children will recognise themselves in Amadis' great adventure.

KABILIANA - Katia, you've lived in Nigeria for quiet some time and now you are living in India since 4 years, why did Amadi's story came out only now?
KATIA - The publishing process is long, and arduous, as you probably know. It also depends on so many things. I've heard editors at conferences or in interviews say that they sometimes have to reject a book that they would have loved publishing, for financial reasons, because the marketing department rejected it, etc, etc. The editor at Tilbury, Audrey Maynard, loved the story when I first sent it, but it was at the beginning of the war in Iraq, and school library budgets had been drastically cut, and she had to reject it. She sent me an email two years later, asking if the story was still available. I had made quite a few changes in the meantime, and they liked them. And then, there is the whole illustration process, and that takes quite a while, as well. And then the printing, etc. It takes time to publish a picture book.
KABILIANA- Would have Amadi been written if you didn't have the chance to live in Nigeria?
KATIA - Absolutely not. The story was born within a certain context, and even though Amadi's experience has a universal feeling to it, and children all over the world can relate to it, it could only have been born in Igbo Land.
KABILIANA - What is your relationship and feeling with the African Continent?
KATIA - This is a difficult question. I strongly resist discussing the continent as a whole. First, I don't know that many countries in Africa. I have lived in Nigeria, and I have visited Benin and The Ivory Coast, and that's it. I'm familiar with several cultures of West Africa, because I have friends who are from Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, etc. I also did a lot of Senegalese dancing when I lived in New York. It's called Sabar, and I used to take 4 to 5 classes a week. That's how much I loved it. But I don't know East Africa, nor the south of the continent. People who know Africa quite well always say that they're very different.
KABILIANA - In which way literacy can help economically disadvantaged population to change their life/future?
KATIA - Education is key. It's not only a matter of knowing more, it's also that an educated people can better defend themselves, against abuse, ignorance, superstition, and so much more.
Amadi has also a multicultural view as it introduces to Nigeria and a small village's life.
KABILIANA - How /When does diversity becomes a value when different people confront each other?
KATIA - Exposure to diversity opens up the world and the mind. If you experience others' ways of living, whether directly or through books, it becomes easier to realize that there is not one way of doing things, but millions of them, and your horizons broaden. My children have lived in Nigeria and India, they know life in France, the US, Spain and Haiti, and they take it all in stride. In India, people eat with their right hand, sitting on the floor. Fine. In France, or I should say the western world, we eat with a fork and a knife. That's not halfway as much fun as eating with one hand, but Oh well, if that's the way it's done. They understand that languages change from one place to another. They also understand that customs change from one place to the other. In India, Ganesh, Durga, Diwali, etc, are celebrated. In France, they'll go to the baptism of a cousin. They have been in churches, temples, mosques, and they understand that people worship in diverse ways, and none is better than the other. The risk that these children grow up to be narrow-minded and convinced that there is only one way to speak, eat, dress, act, worship, and/or think, is really quite unlikely. Tolerance is a component of their psyche. And the world certainly needs more tolerance.

KABILIANA - You have started presenting the book in Indian Schools, what was your first impression meeting directly the students? What do they like most reading and what do they ask you when you share Amadi's message with them?
KATIA - Children love Amadi because he's so real. He's nto perfect, but he's smart, and he grows throughout the story, and the ending is satisfying. A lot of them, here, also seem to relate to the fact that he has never seen snow.
KABILIANA - As a mother and a writer how would you propose a book to somebody who is not interested in reading? What will you suggest him/her or which kind of approach will you think to stimulate him/her?
KATIA -I find it very hard to believe that a child would be totally opposed and allergic to books. So, it's really a matter of offering the kind of material that will stimulate them, and catch their attention, exactly like Amadi in the story. He won't hear about learning how to read, but as soon as his curiosity is peeked, that's it, he's caught.
KABILIANA- We writers all know that without reading we would never be able to write… how much do you read children's literature and how do you choose what to read in this field?
KATIA -I read constantly. And my tastes and interests influence what I choose to read, of course. Anything multicultural is likely to interest me. I also keep informed, see what comes out, what my friends read and recommend, etc, etc.
KABILIANA - Can you give us three titles of the three children's books you ever loved in the last year?
KATIA - "Henry's Freedom Box," by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. It's the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom. It's a story of amazing bravery, and Kadir Nelson's illustrations are absolutely stunning.
"Burn My Heart" by Beverly Naidoo, about the uneasy friendship of two boys, one white, one black, in colonial Kenya. It's about hard choices and children being caught in political turmoil and the kind of frightening mess that adults are so good at creating.
"Amazing Grace" by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch. I only discovered this book, and others in the series, recently. They are wonderful. Grace is an energetic, confident, imaginative child, and a perfect role model for any girl.
KABILIANA - Officialy from today Amadi is on a World Virtual Tour. Would you like to explain how does it work and who will involve?
KATIA - The idea is to engage children from several countries around the world in a conversation about reading, books, and each other. As I've mentioned before, kids are not encumbered by the many prejudices that adults carry around - unless they've already been influenced by those adults, of course. They are naturally interested and curious about other children. Having lived in many places, and having also contacts in quite a few, I thought it would be fun to virtually visit schools, libraries, etc. We'll see children in Nigeria, in the US, in India, in Italy (thanks to you), and maybe in Ethiopia and in Haiti (we're still working out the logistics, but it's looking good.) There will be interviews, conversations about the process of writing, and reviews on blogs dedicated to children's literature. We'll have some video clips, quizzes and trivia, and a photo challenge, and there will be prizes at the end. I didn't realize, as I embarked on this adventure, that it would entail so much work, but it's been great fun, and I made some wonderful contacts all over the world. What I want, aside from trying to get the book out there as much as possible, is for children to have fun, to learn about each other, and to acquire or renew their conviction that reading is THE thing to do.

KABILIANA- What inspired you to become a children’s book illustrator?
DIMITREA -I think my mom was my first inspiration to become an illustrator. She encouraged me to draw from the time I could hold a crayon, she would ask me what story went with my picture and then she would write it on my drawing word for word. Looking back at some of the drawings she saved from before I was two are pretty funny. Anyway, she taught me to associated words and pictures as a team, which is what children’s picture books often do.
KABILIANA - Which emotions inspires you when you have to transform words in pictures?
DIMITREA -I think emotions are broadcasted from our faces. I’ve always been interested in drawing faces. Happiness, Anger, Curiosity, Fear are a few emotions that are very clear expressions to paint and draw. I also think that color conveys an emotional state and I absolutely love to play with color.
KABILIANA - Dimitrea you are from Nigeria and living in the Us. How does your african background feeds your American Life and viceversa, how does the mutlicultursl US society enrich your being African?
DIMITREA - My father was born in Nigeria and my Mother was born in the US. I was born in the US. My last name Tokunbo is actually my middle name and I had it legally changed a few years back because it means Born Away from Home which I feel speaks to that part of me that longs to no more about Africa and Nigeria specially. My daughters and I are going to Nigeria soon and they are very excited to be visiting for the first time. Sometimes I feel isolated by my differences to the two sides of my family but most times I feel luck and blessed because I feel it broadens my experiences and gives me more things to love.
KABILIANA- I know Amadi in travelling far also in Africa, did you have the chance to notice any difference in the perception of the story with African children and Us ones?
DIMITREA - That is an interesting question, I have only read it to American children so far and I look forward to sharing it with my Nigerian cousins soon. I will have to revistit the is question later.
KABILIANA- Amadi’s illustrations looks so captivating, they have essential shapes and the colours are wonderfully warm and deep. It seems that the colour was much more important then anything in this book.Isn’t it? Can you also tell us the tecnique and how do you choose your style every time.
DIMITREA - You are very right about the importance of the color in this book. One of the things that struck me during my visits to Nigeria was the vibrancy of the color. From the fabrics to the landscape to the baskets and wood carvings, I felt a warmth and energy. I was really hoping to give that same feeling to the readers of Amadi’s Snowman.
KABILIANA - According to you what children and parents, same or differently, look for in an illustrated book?
DIMITREA - Hmmm…according to me, I think children look for repletion of sounds and a musical quality to the narrative. I also think children like to see children that look like themselves and people they know. I think parents are concerned with teaching opportunities books can provide. They want the books to influence good behavior but they also want the books to feel fun, since most kids I know want to hear their favorite books over and over again. I think both children and parents are attracted to beautiful paintings whether they are soothing, scary or funny.
KABILIANA - How did it happen that you were asked to illustrate Katia’s Book?
DIMITREA - I think the publisher was looking for diverse artists and they found work I had done for another publisher that create great multicultural titles.
KABILIANA - How was your collaboration with Katia?
DIMITREA - Katia and I didn’t actually have any direct contact until the book was completely finished.
KABILIANA - How does reading contribute in helping disadvantaged children to raise looking forward a different future for themselves?
DIMITREA - I think that reading opens up worlds and choices that don’t otherwise occur to disadvantaged children because of the limitations of their environments. I speak from personal experience. From the time that my daughters were very small (we lived in Indiana for the first seven years of my eldest daughter’s life) we stayed in the library. We took out tons of books of stories from all over the world. People were often surprised at how cultured and sophisticated my children were to be so young and not to have traveled farther than New York. It was the books that allowed us to travel and to dream of things outside our experience. Now that we live in New York City we get to meet people from all these places and we truly appreciate the diversity.
KABILIANA - How are American children readers according to your experience? What do they prefer most?
DIMITREA - The American children readers I know the most about are my children. My mom just retired after many years of teaching kindergarten and special reading. She says that if a book is written at their reading level, the kids like to read books that have characters that are familiar to them. They like funny pictures and bright colors. She agrees that repetitious and musical phrases are attractive to American children. I think that her observations are probably applicable universally.
KABILIANA - Which illustrators do you admire? Why?
DIMITREA - I love Trina Schart Hyman, Leo & Diane Dillon, Brian Pinkney, Kadir Nelson and Patricia Polacco. Something that they have in common is the richness of their art and their ability to tell a story, even without words. They have all done books where they were both the author and illustrator and that is what I would like to do soon.
KABILIANA - Have you ever tried to write yourself a story?
DIMITREA - I am working on a few right now.
KABILIANA - Would you tell us three illustrated books you read and liked most in the last year?
DIMITREA - I recommend The Girl Who Spun Gold by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Dianne Dillon, The Fortune-tellers by Alexander Loydd, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman and The Shark God by Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon.
Thank's to Katia and Dimitrea and best luck for the Virtual Tour! And many thank's to Katia Dimitrea and Tilbury Publisher or donating their copy of "Amadi's Snowman" for the Kabiliana Library Project.