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

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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I recently had the pleasure of writing about American universities welcoming women from Middle Eastern countries to their campuses.  The article has just been published in NAFSA's International Educator magazine. NAFSA is the professional organization for study abroad coordinators on college campuses. 

The number of students from the greater Middle East and North Africa has more than tripled since 2000 to more than 103,000 in 2014–15. The largest number by far come from Saudi Arabia, whose generous King Abdullah scholarship program is now entering its second decade, but there have been significant increases in students from Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, and Yemen as well. More than a quarter of the 90,000 students coming to the United States from Saudi Arabia are women. Although the overall percentage of women is not tracked, U.S. campuses are finding it may take more than a simple foreign student orientation to help them feel comfortable and welcome.

I welcome your comments after you've read the article here.

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School Girls Unite is a perfect example of young women making a difference in the world.  SGU began in 2004 in Kensington, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., when a group of 12-year-old girls and young African women discussed discrimination and education. The girls started paired organizations in the U.S. and in Mali; SGU began raising money for scholarships for girls in Mali. There are several SGU chapters in the United States – but the core connection between Maryland and Mali continues.  I have shared Hands Around the Library at an SGU Day of the Girl event, and SGU members have helped me present Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words, at events in schools, libraries and the Library of Congress.  In this blog, I am pleased to share a newsletter article written by Sophie Cobb & Ilhan Alyanak, School Girls Unite Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Maryland.


School Girls Unite usually skypes every Wednesday afternoon with Fatoumata Coulibaly, the president of Les Filles Unies pour l’Education in Mali (Girls United for Education in Mali). When we aren’t busy with our extracurriculars, we chat online with Fatoumata who goes to an Internet café in Bamako.

Since last November our sister organization that runs our scholarship program started in 2004, has been planning to hold a Day of Awareness about the importance of education of girls in rural Mali. The idea was to bring together students, their parents, teachers, school directors, and government representatives for the first time to the central community of Ouolodo, located 75 km from capital city of Bamako. This event had to be postponed twice because of security issues in Mali but on January 30th -  between 10 am – 3 pm - there were speeches, eating, singing and dancing.

School girls at a Day of Awareness Ceremony in Mali 

Due to poor living conditions, societal and financial obstacles, only one out of every four girls in Mali will reach seventh grade, and only four percent will be enrolled in college. Batoma Diarra with Les Filles Unies writes in her report to School Girls Unite: “This was my first time going to Ouolodo; my trip allowed me to see another reality facing girls.”


Alima, a 6th grade scholarship student, with leader of Les Filles UniesA large setback for girl’s education in the region is child marriage and its impact on young women. In her speech, Fatoumata told the crowd of over 100 people:

“Mossodje was given away to child marriage during her 7th year, so she was unableto continue her studies. In most rural areas, especially in Ouolodo, once a girl is married off, she no longer has the right to attend school.”


Mayor of Ouolodo with 6th grader Alima Diarra and Fatoumata Coulibaly, president of Les Filles Unies

The Mayor spoke of the importance of the education of girls and applauded the efforts of Les Filles Unies since 2004. Alima, one of our scholarship recipients, stood next to the Mayor and spoke into the microphone, saying how the school supplies and monthly tuition provided by School Girls Unite allow her to get an education.

Many of the attendees, including parents, expressed their support for the organization and their hope for a bigger, better and brighter future for their daughters. The current director of one of the schools presented his optimism and confidence in the efforts of Les Filles Unies. Despite being on strike, many of the teachers attended this ceremony. Whether the advice was given to current or potential students, the message was successfully communicated.

During one of our Skype calls, Fatoumata told us how proud she was, adding, “The ceremony was super!”

A 15-minute broadcast by Mali ORTM, the national television station, about this Day of Awareness was a beginning. Fatoumata anticipates a similar ceremony next year, in hopes of spreading the word to an ever larger audience. As Batoma concludes in her report: “Vive les FU vive les SGU!”    Long live Les Filles Unies-Mali – Long live School Girls Unite!


Lots more here


Instagram: _SchoolGirlsUnite

Twitter: @SchoolGirlsLead


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