Saturday, 26 March 2011

Nnedi Okorafor: (Re)Writing Destiny

Next month’s issue of the New York arts journal Brooklyn Rail features my review of Nnedi Okorafor’s new Young Adult novel, Akata Witch.

I think Nnedi is one of the most important YA authors writing in English at the moment. Her books blend science fiction and fantasy in epic adventures, which draw heavily on African culture and beliefs. Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi’s Wole Soyinka Prize-winning debut, is my all-time favourite book for young people. I wrote on it a few months back, here.

Raised in Chicago by Nigerian parents, Nnedi was a teenage tennis star forced into more sedentary pursuits by a bout of scoliosis when she was at college.

When we met on my recent trip to Chicago, she told me: ‘I would not be writing but for the paralysis. I’d never have thought to pick up a pen. I was only nineteen, really athletic, but scoliosis painted my life.

‘It was like destiny making me write. It was terrible, brutal and completely changed my life in a very specific way. Destiny is brutal, it does not care about you.’

Destiny, and the limits of our freedom to question its demands, is a major theme of Akata Witch.

Its hero, 12-year-old Sunny, is an American-born girl who moves to Nigeria with her parents. As an albino and an akata (a derogatory term for black Americans), she is an outcast within her community. Yet when she begins to develop strange powers and joins the secret society of Leopard People, it seems Sunny may have a part to play in saving the world from apocalypse…

Nnedi freely admits she’s a fan of putting teenage protagonists through the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell: ‘I LOVE the hero’s journey. I can’t get enough of it. Coming of age is a magical time, in-between, full of conflict. And writers love conflict!’

What makes Akata Witch stand out from other fantasy quests, is the marginalized quality of the heroic protagonist. Sunny is not ‘the chosen one’ nor even, like Harry Potter, a key player in the battle for the survival of the world.

When Sunny and her friends are sent to frustrate a child-murdering sorcerer’s attempt to summon a monstruous spirit, they are merely one more team in a long line of failed, dispensable young magicians.

Sunny is explicitly told by her elders that she is effectively cannon fodder: ‘The world is bigger than you are, it will go on without you.’

Destiny seems to have brought Sunny from the US to Nigeria to discover her powers, but it doesn’t guarantee her survival, or even victory.

As Nnedi puts it, ‘Destiny has always been something I’ve been fascinated with, but also resisted. Is everything written? And even if it is, can you rewrite it?’

I’ll be featuring more from my interview with Nnedi on Books and Adventures in the month of April, and you can find my review in the forthcoming issue of Brooklyn RailAkata Witch is released in the US by Viking Juvenile on April 14th - find out more at Nnedi's site.

Coming soon on Books and Adventures: charter schools, interviews with Finnish Education Minister Henna Virkkunen and Super Granny Sally Wendkos Olds, guest writing from Eric Maddern, and reports from Peru as I begin my new project training teachers in Ayacucho.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A Child's Adventure in the Swedish Countryside: Scandinavia House NYC feature at Playing By the Book

Zoe Toft's blog Playing by the Book has just posted my short feature on A Child's Adventure in the Swedish Countryside, an installation designed by Sarah Edkins for the American Scandinavian Foundation at Scandinavia House, New York City.

Scandinavia House, NYC (c) Jonathan B. Ragle
 You can find my piece on this exciting children's book exhibit here:

Monday, 21 March 2011

New Zealand Book Month: Interview with Lincoln Gould of Booksellers NZ and Jo Ockey, World's Smallest Library, Whanganui

While I prepare to move my next literacy project with Domingo Savio school in Peru, on the other side of the world New Zealand Book Month continues.

On February 22nd, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Among the many people left in need of assistance after the quake were booksellers, some of whom had been hit by the previous tremor in September 2010.

At the close of 2010, New Zealand had already begun to address the legacy of the previous quake through initiatives like Scholastic’s special picture book Quaky Cat, designed to help children cope with the shocking events they had experienced. Now, the city finds itself once again recovering from a natural disaster, and a number of bookstores have been badly damaged.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

I've become THAT kind of jet-setter...

So, I'm in Chicago for 36 hours, mostly to interview the great Nnedi Okorafor, and I've finally reached that point where there's no time for exploring.

Chicago Skyline by J. Stephen Conn. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Nnedi and I met at Yassa, a great Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, and the sum total of my Chicago tourism has been the journey out there from O'Hare Airport. 

To be fair, it was a pretty epic journey, involving 2 trains and a bus which wound through a rather desolate low-rise stretch of boarded-up and barred shopfronts. On the bus, a Vietnam veteran began to lecture a group of teenagers who were skinning up right under the driver's nose.

'I'm glad to see your education ain't going to waste,' he growled sarcastically. But the boys were smooth talkers and somehow the vet's stern monologue on the importance of getting an education was turned around until he was admitting that he didn't mind the occasional toke, and it all ended in hugs and handshakes. 

When I stepped off the bus and through the door of Yassa, the world seemed to come alive. The restaurant is bright, welcoming and decorated with displays of African goods, from sculpture to musical instruments and even perfumes! 

The television was tuned to Africa 24, and despite my best attempts to dredge up my schoolboy French, I'm afraid their political pundit's commentary escaped me.

Between the sorrel drink and maffe (a kind of lamb stew), I was totally sold on Yassa's menu. Nnedi's grilled tilapia looked great too, although I figured it's bad manners to take food from the plate of the person you're interviewing!

I hadn't realised that African restaurants also serve as general stores for African clothes, music and African DVD's, so I was pleased to pick up a Nollywood movie about a crime-fighting female journalist - although they didn't have Nnedi's recommendation, Warrior's Heart.

Despite all this adventure, I'm going to be told off by my friends when I return to New York. 

'You didn't do the architectural boat tour?' 
'You didn't go to Hot Doug's?' 
'You didn't go to Do the Moon Hop at Late Bar?' 
(My friends all have very different ideas of what constitutes a good time).

But there's work to be done, so I'm sitting in the Holiday Inn Express, with a terrible coffee and a lot of writing to be done before they kick me out at midday. I've finally become that kind of jet-setter. 

It's probably good that I haven't activated my Twitter account - I might mutate into one of those terrible corporate travellers who spends all their times tweeting complaints about the Chicago transit system or the quality of hotel breakfasts.

Much better to celebrate yesterday's fine meal with one of the greatest living writers, and crack on with the day job. 

If I'm lucky, there's time for a pilgrimmage to the Threadless store. As New York continues to mutate me into a hipster, I feel the need to buy this shirt. Don't you?


Next time on Books and Adventures: more news from New Zealand Book Month, reports from a Q&A with charter school pioneer Geoffrey Canada, and, of course...Nnedi Okorafor.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

New Zealand Book Month: Interview with Nikki Crowther

When a teenage photography apprentice picked up a 25-year-old fantasy novel to while away a long train journey through New Zealand, he could hardly have known that his choice of reading would lead to a knighthood and a piece of Kiwi cinematic history.

But for movie director Sir Peter Jackson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would become one of the books that changed his life.

This March, the people of New Zealand are being encouraged to share the books closest to their hearts as New Zealand Book Month announces that ‘Books Change Lives!’

Undeterred by the tragedy of the recent earthquake, the campaign is running over 200 events across the country, from the ‘World’s Smallest Library in a Whanganui phone box to a nationwide giveaway of four million ‘Books Change Lives’ vouchers.

Throughout March, Kiwis will find these discount vouchers in their schools, banks, gas stations and letterboxes – a free gift from New Zealand’s booksellers and publishers to readers old and new.

‘New Zealand Book Month celebrates books and reading – all books, any books – and takes that message out to an audience who do not necessarily frequent libraries and bookshops. We have strong ongoing support from committed and passionate readers,’ Book Month director Nikki Crowther told me by e-mail, ‘but we wanted to extend our message to lapsed and occasional readers, and to parents of young children – to remind and re-engage them: with books, and the value that books can bring to all of our lives.’

Across the world, Books and Adventures – always a lover of Kiwiland - has found organizations recognizing the power of the book, especially in the early years of childhood. Australia’s Paint the Town Read scheme, which featured on the blog last November, has encouraged parents to read with their children right from the maternity ward. New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Reach Out and Read program, which I also wrote on for Books and Adventures (here) and DNAInfo (here), ensures that their child patients each receive a book at every clinic visit from birth until the age of five.

That’s not to say that the Kiwi book lovers are being prescriptive with their scheme. Nikki explained:

‘As far as we’re concerned, any book you enjoy is a good book. Choosing a book for oneself is an important step to becoming a passionate reader, and we hope to empower as many people as possible by having them choose the right book for them.’

To help readers find that special book, Nikki and her team have instigated a national conversation around the books that have changed Kiwis’ lives. Not everyone will read a book, as Peter Jackson did, and find themselves making a multi-million-dollar movie adaptation – but many of us have special favorites that have sustained us through significant moments in our lives.

Some of these choices can be very revealing: a British survey of male and female readers in 2006 suggested that men and women had very different senses of what constituted a ‘life-changing’ read, and Nikki Crowther admitted that the results of her survey in New Zealand were equally surprising:

‘So many people voted for the classics! Do people feel compelled to pick what they think they “ought” to love, rather than the books they really couldn’t put down and raved to all their friends about?

‘My first life-changing book was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. There have been many since – perhaps it was rather cruel to ask other folk to choose just one. I certainly couldn’t. I always reckon that the next book I read will be the next life-changer…!’

While New Zealand Book Month was born among Kiwi publishing insiders, it’s supported by a network of passionate volunteers across the nation.

‘I’m completely awestruck by our “activists”,’ admitted Nikki, ‘in terms of the time, energy and ideas that they put into promoting books and reading in their local communities. We’re taking the message that “Books Change Lives” out to a much wider audience than the traditional places where books exist – so that it touches people sitting at home in front of the TV, or listening to the radio, or visiting their local bank.

‘We hope to promote the notion that books can be a part of everyday life – and that by giving people a good reason to pick up a book during March, we will encourage just some of them into starting a regular reading habit!’

To find out more about New Zealand Book Month and its nationwide program of events in March, visit

Friday, 11 March 2011

World Read Aloud Day at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Manhattan

Busy times here at Books and Adventures. Caught up in the celebrations for World Read Aloud Day, I managed to turn in a photo story for local Manhattan news website DNAInfo.

You can check out the great work of New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Reach Out and Read program at

Next - New Zealand Book Month's Nikki Crowther joins us to discuss book token giveaways, Kiwi lit culture, and her own life-changing reads...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

World Read Aloud Day, Part 2: Q and A with Pam Allyn

For the first part of this featured interview with Pam Allyn, click here.

Continuing our interview with Pam Allyn, founder of LitWorld, we moved on from World Read Aloud day to the wider work of her non-profit organization in fighting illiteracy around the world.

Are literacy challenges the same in developing countries as in a place like New York City?
In some significant ways, literacy challenges are far more extreme in developing countries. In other ways, they are more alike than you might care to think.

In terms of differences, the developing world has only just come to the idea of mandatory primary education. It is only in recent years that the expectation that all children must attend school is adhered to (and in many cases, still not completely). This is of course a good and great thing, but most of the developing world was not prepared to handle all the children who then poured into schools. As a result, there are far too few teachers per child (in Liberia, the average ratio in a classroom is 90:1), hardly any classroom supplies at all, and not nearly enough structures in place to train teachers on an ongoing basis or to provide state of the art learning that will help children move forward and stay in school. The conditions are grueling and difficult, for teachers and children alike.

In the developing world, we have access to extraordinary resources, especially literature written specifically for children, that teaches children how to read and conveys important big ideas. In fact, the materials used to teach reading can be too dense: they’re not written at a level children can understand and don't do enough to draw a child into a world of words.

Even here in the United States, we do not guarantee equity of access to all children. High poverty districts are far more likely to have fewer books and computers in the classroom. And this is 2011! We still use outmoded forms of teaching in classrooms all over this country, and sad to say, the testing mania has driven us back to some terrible teaching practices that I haven't seen since I was a child.

Just when we have to teach innovatively and creatively, we are all across the world teaching out of fear and insecurity, and that is not going to raise children to be the innovators and creators we hope and know they can all be.

Do your literacy schemes like use a particular approach to teaching and learning literacy? Are you subscribers to a particular philosophy of education?

I am a fierce advocate for what I call a "toolkit" approach to the teaching of reading. There are skills every child needs to learn to read; these include phonics, but also include fluency, stamina and comprehension. One without the others is a waste of time.

I believe in an integrated approach that will both help the child decode words but also beyond that help him to soar through them and transcend the work on the page to see reading as a joy, an art, a pleasure.

One of my heroes is Paolo Freire, who famously asked women in rural villages to tell their own stories as a way to learn to read and write. He was convinced that narrative is the force that drives us in everything we do and that was how he taught women how to read, was by asking them to tell the stories of who they were. I advocate this in my work with children; if they write about their experiences, both imaginative and real, and then read them back, they have a far better chance of becoming lifelong readers. They understand the power of story.

When I started LitWorld, I was thinking a lot about the most vulnerable children I had met, especially those who had been displaced or traumatized, and I wondered if teaching writing could actually HELP to build resilience. Teachers of such children often focused on their trauma. I wondered if by writing narratives that told the stories in ways that would give hope and strength, we could teach the child how to read and write, but also how to grow strong.

I developed the Seven Strengths model in response to that: learning based around Belonging, Compassion, Esteem, Friendship, Confidence, Curiosity, and Hope. We end up raising healthier children emotionally because they can use literacy as a tool for their own sustenance.

In much of the world, literacy and education are not seen as a priority for girls and women, but is this really true of the USA, where you also run your Girls’ Clubs?

At first we thought it would simply be fun for the girls here to join our worldwide network. We thought that the needs of girls here are more taken care of, and there wouldn't be such a demand for the Clubs in the USA. What startled me here is how necessary they are HERE too. The girls we work with in Harlem tell us that the Clubs have been lifesaving. They feel very vulnerable and isolated in their communities, and find it difficult to talk in class. Here in the Clubs, we provide a sanctuary.

You can find out more about LitWorld here, and about Pam at her own website,

Next time on Books and Adventures, we head down under for the opening days of New Zealand Book Month!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

World Read Aloud Day: Interview with Pam Allyn, Director of LitWorld

Today is World Read Aloud Day, an event which draws attention to the 774 million people in the world who cannot read or write.

The event is run by LitWorld, an international non-profit organization based here in New York which seeks to cultivate literacy initiatives around the world.

At 1am I will be reading in Times Square from my prize-winning children’s story ‘Shark with the Mind of a Rabbit’ in support of World Read Aloud Day. LitWorld’s goal is for people around the world to read aloud for a grand total of 774 million minutes on 9th March, drawing attention to the challenges faced by those on the planet who cannot enjoy their right to literacy.

In just 4 years, LitWorld has managed to extend its work in literacy advocacy across 35 countries. With initiatives including Girls’ Reading Clubs, workshops for literacy leaders in developing countries, family reading initiatives and book supply to low-income communities, the non-profit takes on literacy challenges wherever it may find them.

I was joined by Pam Allyn, director of LitWorld, on the eve of World Read Aloud Day.

She said, ‘World Read Aloud Day is an advocacy event for all people, to really raise our voices together through the act of reading aloud itself. This is where WRAD is special. We have children and adults all over the world on March 9th reading aloud with the idea that their voices are going to matter for each other.

‘Literacy is the linchpin for all the UN Millennium Development Goals. The statistics are staggering and untenable. Women who are educated even to fifth grade are sixty percent more likely to vaccinate their own children. High poverty areas have higher rates of illiteracy worldwide. Children who are not in school have poorer nutrition and girls who drop out get pregnant earlier. But beyond the plain facts that a literate person can read a medicine bottle, navigate a subway, apply for a job and keep one, there are more spiritual benefits to literacy.

‘A child who can read can comfort himself, make himself laugh, find refuge in a good story and discover the magic of the imaginative universe. It should be a human right to be happy, and reading makes us happy.

Literacy is democratizing. When we have access to information, we know ourselves and the world far more deeply. We can take action and stand up for what is right. We can advocate for ourselves, our children and for each other. And we can connect with all humanity.

‘If I could not read or write, I would miss the way I can connect with others, with friends and even strangers who have touched my life in so many ways through notes, emails and messages. It's an extraordinary power, literacy. Someone once asked, what is the opposite of fear? And the answer was love. With all this talk about data and accountability in schools, at the end of the day, being literate teaches us how to love. Love of people, love of ideas, love of story. And that's what I'd miss most.’

You can find out more about World Read Aloud Day and the wider mission of LitWorld at

Pam joins us again for a Q and A session on Books and Adventures next time - click here for the second part of this interview.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 3. Kids Comic Con: ‘Giving Comics Back to Kids Again’

For the previous parts of this interview with Alex Simmons, click here:

‘When your children are growing up, you suddenly realise – I’m not Batman, I’m Batman’s Dad!’

Comic creator, writer and educator Alex Simmons’ main community endeavour these days is the international Kids Comic Con, which gives children their own comic book event at a time when so much of the industry seems focussed on marketing to geeky adult males.

The Comic Con originated when Alex provided a children’s activity area at Wizard World's Chicago Con around 1998. Many visitors used the area as a babysitting service while they toured the convention, but that small side event was enough to provoke Alex’s creative streak.

‘That experience validated what I already suspected - that we needed events specifically for kids. Overall, the comic book industry is geared towards selling to guys in their thirties - and in economically depressed times, they’ll continue to follow the money.

‘It’s another symptom of the way we are short-changing our children in society at large. We keep giving them failure, anger and frustration. They are the future – and that doesn’t just mean training up a new generation to look after us in our old age – it means giving them their own lives, their own opportunities and choices.’

Alex’s yearly Comic Con brings together artists and publishers, librarians and educators, to give children and their caregivers just such opportunities to explore the world of comics. Attendees participate in workshops and meet with the men and women behind the adventures of their favourite characters. In 2010, the Convention went to Senegal to bring their brand of fun along with an art exhibit called, 'The Color of Comics‘ to an African audience of children, fans, educators and – hopefully – future comics creators!

Alex couches his sense of mission and personal responsibility in terms of comic books. ‘I love sidekicks like Robin from Batman or Short Round from Indiana Jones – as a kid, I was inspired by junior heroes who were an integral part of helping the hero win. Later I went through the stage of life where you identify with Batman. And then your children are growing up and you suddenly realise – I’m the parent that gets killed now! I’m not Batman, I’m Batman’s Dad!’

Alex’s acceptance of his role as a parental figure and mentor is part of his unique success as the mastermind of Kids Comic Con – ‘How come it was me of all people who set this up? It wasn't that i was the only one on the planet who could do it... But i was the one committed to making it happen. Obsessed, even. I had the contacts in the comic book industry and the connections with educators too.’

Alex didn’t do this alone, though. ‘Much of what we’ve achieved would never have happened without Eugene Adams, Director of Collaborative Education at Bronx Community College. Working with him is endlessly remarkable, endlessly rewarding. He’s been a kindred spirit who gave the Comic-Con a plan, a venue, and a staff of volunteers. If we hadn’t made it happen with all that support, then we’d have been asleep at the wheel.’

A large part of the work of Kids Comic Con involves empowering young creators with the latest technology, using free workshops and outreach sessions to give a taste of the software used in modern comics production. Last month’s Books and Adventures interview with Cody Pickrodt showed how hard it can be for young creators with no computer skills to work in this medium.

Kids Comic Con offers a wide range of opportunities for young people to develop such technical skills. Even the convention website was originally designed by students at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Alex says, ‘The future is in danger of separating us into technological haves and have-nots. People need access to the means by which they can make a living, and more and more that means technology. Not every child we work with may grow up to be a graphic designer, but they’ll surely need more from a computer than just Facebook.’

For more information about attending the Kids' Comic Con, check out their web site at:

Kids Comic Con brings together many strands of Alex Simmons’ work over the past 20 years: a sense of social and historical consciousness, seen in his 1930s adventure stories; a duty to empower young readers and writers with critical thinking, as found in his Archie-meets-Obama story; and above all, a sense of wonder and desire to explore and engage with the world around us.

‘No child is born with a desire to fail. It’s our mission to fire their sense of wonder and of possibility. To empower them to believe in the thoughts which occur to them, and give themselves time to consider the value of their own ideas.’

For more information about Alex Simmons visit his web site at