Monday, June 24, 2013


I’m delighted to welcome Karen Leggett Abouraya to Pencil Tips.  Karen is a long-time champion of children’s books and literacy and first-time co-author, with Susan L. Roth, of Hands Around the Library (Dial 2012), an inspiring nonfiction account of people coming together to protect the great library of Alexandria during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.  Karen reflects on the joys and challenges of writing and offers a prompt to jumpstart youngsters’ thinking about their own civic engagement. The book’s back matter and Susan’s website include information on the international “Let’s Hold Hands” art project, which encourages children to create and share their own self-portrait collaged paper dolls.   This could be a wonderful project for the classroom or home.

1.  I loved reading about a community acting together to ensure the continuation of a library.  It seems that libraries are one of the most important (and cost-effective) ways to foster a love of reading and to ensure the availability of books for everyone.  What was your greatest joy in writing Hands Around the Library?
My greatest joy was finding the opportunity to write a compelling story about modern Egypt – and collaborating with a good friend to do it (acclaimed illustrator and collage artist Susan Roth).  Children know all about pyramids and mummies and the Sphinx, but we tend to forget that Egypt is full of people living busy and interesting lives today.

Here are Karen and Susan in one of Susan’s collage illustrations for the book.
2.  Has the book had an impact internationally?

The book has provided an opportunity to share both similarities and differences in the lives of American and Egyptian kids. During a Skype session between students in Alexandria, Virginia, and Alexandria, Egypt, one American boy asked the Egyptian children, “What’s your favorite food?”  An Egyptian girl said, “Pizza and hamburgers.”  It may have been one of the more significant questions of the day because it reminded these kids that they are more alike than different.

3.  What was your greatest challenge in writing the book?

The biggest challenge was making sure we stayed true to what actually happened during the revolution in Egypt in 2011.  The “goosebumps” in this story come not so much from a sense of imminent danger as from seeing so many diverse people – rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, young and old – holding hands to save one community institution they all cherished.  We worked hard to give that message top priority in the story.

4.  Your school visits galvanize much discussion.  Do you have a writing prompt that might connect with the book?

I have conversations, more than writing exercises, with students, but this question would work as a writing prompt as well. The most interesting discussions have been generated when I ask, “What place in your community is so special that you would work hard to save it if it were going to be damaged or destroyed?”   The answers have ranged from the local animal shelter to a local park to the students’ school and homes to Chuck E. Cheese (yes, that was the very first answer I received to this question!). Then we talk about what you might do to save that place – especially if you are one kid or a group of kids – making signs, writing letters, organizing friends, gathering petitions, etc.  I’ve had some great discussions with kids on these issues of civic engagement.

Thank you, Karen!   Your prompt got me thinking about ways to save and strengthen libraries in the United States, many of which have been hit hard by budget cuts.

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