Hands Around The Library Author's Blog

Blog posts from Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, the authors of The Hands Around The Library - Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books.

The Author's Blog

The Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee (BLASCC) and its Friends of the BA (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) have just co-sponsored the Egyptian premier of the film The Sultan and The Saint in Cairo. Two-hundred people attended the Cairo screening and discussion organized by Ezzat Ibrahim with the publication Al Ahram Weekly.  BLASCC Chairman Tharwat Abouraya helped organize two successful screenings in Washington, D.C. at 

Sultan and the Saintthe Egyptian Culture and Education Mission (with Cultural Counselor Mohamed Hamza) and as part of the Montgomery College Rockville/Global Nexus Program (with Enas Elhanafi). 

Yet another screening is planned as part of this month’s International Friends of the BA meeting in Alexandria: The Arabic-subtitled version of The Sultan and The Saint will be open to the public at the BA Tuesday, October 17, from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm, including expert discussion and a Skype Q&A with film director Alex Kronemer.  The film dramatizes a true story of peacemaking between Egyptian Sultan Malik Al Kamal and St. Francis of Assisi during the Crusades – a story with an urgent message for our turbulent times. We anticipate more screenings and discussions in the Baltimore-Washington area and will let you know when they are scheduled.


BLASCC and the Friends are also delighted to announce the beginning of two collaborations between American and Egyptian children. 

  • Sixth graders at the SEED School, a public boarding school in Baltimore, Maryland, are planning to converse online with sixth graders at St. Vincent de Paul Language School in Alexandria, Egypt.  They expect to have regular conversations throughout the year on a variety of subjects. SEED School teacher Dianna Newton and St. Vincent de Paul teacher Virginia Samir are leading the way in this project initiated by BLASCC member Hany Eldeib.


  • I am collaborating with Dalia ElKony, Head of the BA's Children's and Young People's Libraries, and her exemplary staff to bring together students from St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia (librarian Mary Anne O’Rourke) and young people at the BA for regular book club discussions. Initially, I will be talking to the St. Thomas More students about the ancient and new libraries in Alexandria. Dalia is eager to organize book clubs with students in both countries reading and discussing common books. If you are interested in initiating a similar project, do let me know!


My own enthusiasm for the library in Alexandria was sparked with the 2012 publication of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books. Illustrator Susan L. Roth and I were honored with a Children’s Africana Book Award (CABA) in 2013 and this year, CABA is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a festive dinner on November 3 and a free family festival at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art on November 4.  Make plans to attend both (deadline for dinner reservations is October 20). 

 One of this year’s CABA winners is The Storyteller by Evan Turk, conveying in a beautifully illustrated picture book the magical power of storytelling.  My Pencil Tips Writing Workshop blog here provides some writing prompts for young people based on Evan’s book.    



CABA has now honored a total of 90 books set in 24 African countries, with a website that offers scholarly reviews and criteria for evaluating books that truly reflect the diversity of the African continent. All seven current winners and more than ten former winners are planning to attend the CABA dinner and the festival. 





The film screenings, the school collaborations and the CABA awards are all ways of building global awareness and empathy – I look forward to sharing progress in future blogs. Please share your own projects and ideas to expand the next generation's awareness of our wider world.





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Gene Luen Yang was a programmer and cartoonist who is now the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Comics continue to be his first love and perhaps that is why he is asking us all to Read Without Walls this year.  

Find out what Gene talking about as you think about books to take to the beach, on the plane or just sitting in the back yard this summer.  I enjoyed writing this guest post for As the Eraser Burns, a blog from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia.  Continue reading here.




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When I ask young children what they know about Egypt, the answer is typically pyramids and mummies.  When Elaine, a library media specialist who posted a comment on one of our blogs,  asks her students what they know about Africa, she hears about animals and the desert.

That is why the first week of Black History Month is Read Africa Week – an effort to change misperceptions about the African continent. And it is a continent, with more diversity among its countries than among the states of our own nation.

 REad Africa Week poster

In 2008, Brenda Randolph, the librarian who founded the Children’s Africana Book Awards (CABA) and Read Africa Week, reviewed 30 children’s books about Africa and found more than 90 percent showed only rural or village life and jungles. So Brenda titled the article she co-authored with Elizabeth DuMulder in Teaching Tolerance Magazine that year, “I didn’t know there were cities in Africa.”  Unfortunately, nine years later, Brenda says little has changed, even though there is more conversation about diverse children’s books and more books about African countries available.  

Map of Africa highlighting GhanaThis year’s Read Africa Week focuses on Ghana. There are bookmarks to download and lists of picture and chapter books, CABA winners and adult books – accurate, balanced and recommended by scholars. The first CABA was presented in 1992. Since then, more than 70 titles have been recognized. There are lesson plans and ideas accompanying many of the titles.

Maimunah Marah, the founder of Tutu’s Storybooks – an online and pop-up bookstore in the greater Washington, D.C. area – recommends six ways to introduce young children to Ghana -

  • Read Anansi storybooks.
  • Read storybooks about mythical characters from the Asante.
  • Read storybooks about Kente cloth.
  • Read the Ghanian version of a classic tale.
  • Read storybooks set in modern-day Ghana.
  • Read stories by Ghanian authors.

Maimunah suggests specific books in each category in her blog.  If you know others, please add them in a comment below along with any activities or projects you work on with students.

The importance of building children’s awareness of people who live in other places and in different ways cannot be overstated.  Stereotypes contribute to racism and xenophobia.  As Brenda wrote in Teaching Tolerance,  “If the next generation of students develops a deeper and more respectful understanding of African countries, then our foreign relations and policies will follow suit.”

A few other tips when teaching and talking about Africa -

  • Use specific country names.
  • Use regular language (“house” and “people,” not “hut” and “tribe.”
  • Share contemporary stories as well as folktales.
  • Highlight everyday modern activities.
  • Don’t forget about North Africa, including Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and of course Egypt – which is why we were honored to accept a CABA award for Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books in 2013. 





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This blog first appeared as a Pencil Tips Writing Workshop


MarilynNelsonCurtRichterPhotography.pngUsually when we talk about diverse books, we mean books that enable children of all ethnic groups to see themselves in the books they read.  In this year’s Zena Sutherland lecture, the African-American poet Marilyn Nelson added this notion.

 “While reading about characters and experiences we already know is affirming, and while self-affirmation is an important aspect of self-knowledge, literature offers more than the experience of reading in a cubicle with a mirror. Literature allows us to extend our understanding beyond ourselves; it asks us whether we can understand others. Literature teaches us empathy.”

 And this year’s Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Yang wants young readers – all of us for that matter – to have empathy with people who are not like us.  He is asking children “to read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.” He calls it his “Reading Without Walls Challenge.”  

Such reading opens the door to countless writing prompts.  

  • How is the child in the book different from you? What is the same?
  • How are your days different or the same?
  • What would you like to do with that child if you could meet her?
  • What would you show that person if he came to your school?


The next question might be where to find such books – especially good, accurate ones. One answer is to look at awards such as the Children’s Africana Book Awards (CABA) - and the African Studies Association’s Teacher’s Workshop Dec 3 in Washington, D.C. - the  Middle East Outreach Council, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.

This year’s recently celebrated CABA awards include an exuberantly illustrated folk tale from Nigeria, Chicken in the Kitchen, written by Nnedi Okorafor, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, an Iranian artist living in Great Britain. 

Elizabeth Wein wrote Black Dove White Raven, a World War II young adult novel about a black boy and a white girl raised together in Ethiopia. 

Miranda Paul wrote One Plastic Bag and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, about Isatou Ceesay’s efforts to recycle discarded plastic bags in her community.  

An earlier Pencil Tips Workshop focused on the CABA honor book, Emmanuel’s Dream, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, about Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa who was born with a deformed leg yet grew up to play soccer and raise money for people with disabilities in Ghana.




The opportunity to read, think and write about any of these books gives children a chance to deepen their awareness of countries where they may one day live or travel or have a friend – and build pride in their own countries of origin.


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Several important events coincided recently in Washington.  The Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress organized a panel discussion on the role of heritage in storytelling. Kiran Singh Sirah told another audience at the Library of Congress about the importance of stories as bridges of diversity. And the Friends of the Library Montgomery County honored young winners of its Mosaic creative writing contest on diversity.

Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, has parents from India and Uganda, a brother born in Uganda and Sirah himself was raised in the U.K. He sees stories as a binding force: “We must be the story we want to see in the world.”


Upstairs, Cuban American author Meg Medina noted that in 2016, 81 million people living in the United States are immigrants (people without U.S. citizenship at birth) or the children of immigrants – a quarter of the entire population of our country.  Several panelists and audience members spoke of not seeing themselves in books as children but also not being aware that was a problem.  Pakistani American author Aisha Saeed said books can make a difference for children who feel left out or bullied because they are different. Chinese American author Wendy Shang said the most useful question today is, “What more could you do if you saw yourself in books?”

There are several efforts to draw attention to the need for more diversity in children’s books, including ethnicity, gender orientation, disability and more.

And if you don’t see the story you want in a book, start writing!

The Mosaic creative writing contest gives middle school students in Montgomery County a chance to celebrate their diversity in writing. For the past six years, students from every public middle school in Montgomery County have been invited to submit essays, poems or short stories expressing their personal reflections on diversity and culture.   Here is a sampling of the winning entries.


Vera Chaudhry, 6th grade, Thomas W. Pyle Middle School

“When I see people stereotype based on culture, it makes me wonder.

What will it take to cure their blunder?

Each place has its own logic,

Just look at its positives and it’ll create magic!

Culture is what makes each of us different,

It impacts our clothing and food; we can’t be ignorant.

To make a world not bland and the same,

We must celebrate from where each of us came.”


Tessa Brizhik, 6th grade, John Poole Middle School

“…I now understand Papa a little better. For example why he always tells us to eat bananas! He explained that when he was little bananas were rare. I realize now, he wants us to appreciate having them and doesn’t understand why we sometimes don’t want to eat them. This trip has shown me that Russian and American cultures are different, but both cultures represent who I am…Not only my genes and cells make up who I am, but it’s also my heritage and all the people and experiences that I have learned from that make up who I, Tessa Brizhik, am.”


Amy Vinh,7th grade, Ridgeview Middle School

“…Visiting Vietnam, I never would’ve expected for the people to have inspired me the way that they had with such courage, strength, and love. Vietnam may seem like a penniless and unkempt country to some, but not so deeply under the surface is a country that has suffered countless tragedies, and yet still has a heart of gold.”


Abrar Sheikh, 7th grade, Roberto Clemente Middle School

“…I live with Indian blood in my veins, but an American heart.

I lived as two people, different but the same.

In school my pledge to America is what makes my day start.

At home, there is a different me under the same name.

Either way, both of them are who I am.”


Jessica Ye, 8th grade, Thomas Pyle Middle School

:…if you are being hurt by what others are saying about your culture or if you are lost and aren’t sure who to identify with, remember to always be who you are and think outside the box. You’ll find who you are and those that make fun of you for having an amazing cultural identity are the ones that need to find respect in their own cultures and identities.”


Annabelle Sargent, 8th Grade, Earle B. Wood Middle School

“…My grandparents have never had anything but a hard life

They deserve better

But that’s not what they’ll get

People mock their accents,

Their mismatched clothes

The way they smell like noodles

The things I love about them

Aren’t good enough for others

So they will die



And forgotten by most

Except for a few golden memories

In the back of my mind.”


Luka Brizhik, John Poole Middle School

“…I ran to the window and saw the cherry blossom tree (Great job, Japan!) blossoming in our yard. I looked down on the floor and saw the Persian rug that my father had bought me. I look at the wall where my poster of Missi hung (You make Argentina proud!)…I started to think about how other cultures impact my life on a daily basis and I don’t even notice it. So many ideas, beliefs and inventions wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for other cultures.”


Many of the parents and grandparents who sacrificed so much to bring their families to America were proudly in the audience for the Mosaic award ceremony. Congratulations to them all – and good luck to next year’s writers!   

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