Susan Roth & Karen Leggett Abouraya
A Conversation with Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya, the authors of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books
By Emily Griffin
You are both members of the Washington DC Children's Book Guild. Is that how you first met? What led to this collaboration?
Karen: Susan has been in the Guild longer than I, but she was one of the first people I met there. The Guild is a great place to nurture friendships among people who share an interest in children's literature. When Susan was planning a family trip to Egypt, I recommended--well, insisted--that she visit the great library in Alexandria.
Susan: Yes, that is how we first met, at the Guild. I had known that Karen had Egyptian connections when I was planning my trip to Egypt, and so I asked her for advice. She insisted so loudly that I visit the library that I felt that I just had to do it. Egypt had always been on my list--I was desperate to go. To be honest, though, I wasn't too excited about visiting a modern library. I wanted go to Egypt for the art and the art history. Finally, the only reason I went to Alexandria was because of Karen. But the mammoth library, such an astonishing, huge, beautiful open space, and the building itself is so dazzling, you can't believe it when you see it in person. It was like the first time one sees: the Grand Canyon, Times Square, the Taj Mahal, Petra, the Vatican, the Eiffel Tower, the Alps...stop telling me not to be so effusive!
How did you hear about this incredible true story and when did you realize you wanted to write a picture book about it?
Karen: We were writing our book--originally intended to be about the ancient and new libraries of Alexandria--when the revolution happened in Egypt. I had been gathering information from the website of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina when the director, Ismail Serageldin, began writing quite eloquently about the protesters who held hands around the library to protect it from vandals. I then located other news stories about the event, including a CNN interview with Dr. Serageldin. The library protest became the essence of our story.
Susan: Karen and I had been searching for a way to tell the story of the library, ancient as well as modern, from the minute that I returned from Egypt. When this true story presented itself to us we embraced it (our editors did too!).
Tell me about Shaimaa Saad, the children's librarian at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. How has collaborating with her been?
Susan: When I visited the library, I of course, had to see the children's department. It was awesome, in the truest, not California-sixties, sense of the word. It looked like a very fancy children's library with books and desks and cute tables. I introduced myself to the librarian at the front desk who turned out to be a very sweet woman with whom I spoke and who showed me around. The children's department also has a very nice room for art projects, lots of scheduled activities with ample space to enjoy them, and extraordinary resources for special needs. Somehow, in just a few minutes, Shaimaa and I made a personal connection. This later led me to organize the first Skype session between students who were working with Shaimaa Saad in the library in Alexandria, Egypt and students in the library at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia. The first Skype event was just an audio call--like the old days--but all the students were sitting around the computer listening and it was still thrilling to be talking in real time. It went well; everyone was very polite and all the students had questions ready. Note that the participating Egyptian children are all fluent in English! Since then, we've enjoyed several audio/visual calls.
The book's back matter includes translations, from Egyptian to English, of words seen on the protest signs. We often see photographs of protestors all over the world--and when their signs are in a language we don't understand we have to interpret visually--which can often mean we misinterpret the message and tone of the protestors. How did this come to be included in the book?
Karen: My Egyptian husband wrote the protest signs shown in the book (and the Arabic words in the back matter) based on signs he saw in newspaper and television accounts of the protests. The publisher included his actual handwriting in the final published book. We thought it would be interesting and helpful for readers to know what some of the signs said so we translated a few key words. It's a glossary plus! I have children pronounce some of the words during school visits.
Susan: Karen's husband helped and the signs are in his handwriting. I think it's a nice touch for readers, especially for Arabic readers. We all did lots of fact checking. If you can't read something you have to be careful--you never know if someone is making a joke, or if there is some double meaning. Karen's husband checked all the proofs for us. I once did a book where, as part of the collages, I chopped up newspapers for part of the background material; I used newspapers in different languages and was obligated to get checkers for all the languages.
Reading Hands Around the Library, I was surprised, and embarrassed, to realize I knew more about Ptolemy and the ancient Alexandria library than this current library. What a beautiful and unique modern building. Can you tell us about your experiences visiting it in person?
Karen: I first saw the library when it was almost brand new. It opened in 2002; I saw it in 2004. At that point there were only a few books in the children's library and there weren't many programs. But it was already an amazing work of architecture, beautifully designed and located right on the Mediterranean Sea. I could tell it held great promise. Egypt does not have public libraries as we have in the United States--so this library would be introducing (or perhaps re--introducing) a whole new cultural tradition to the country. And indeed, it has done exactly that--becoming so valuable to young people in just a few years that they adamantly wanted to protect it.
Susan: The first glimpse of the open space is startling in its beauty: eyes do not want to take the time to blink! At second glance one is amazed in realizing the vastness of the breaths of collections and departments. Finally, I think that each of us in my family felt the need to connect with this extraordinary place in a personal way. I remember that my husband sat down at a computer and sent a few emails to colleagues. He wanted to "work," to do something concrete with his own hands, in the library. Our daughter's response was to walk through every space, seeing absolutely everything, top to bottom. And you already know what I did.
How have you found the response to the book? Are you enjoying talking to students about this event in recent history?
Karen: The response has been gratifying, both in this country but perhaps especially among Egyptians. For them, this represents a very proud moment when, as Dr Serageldin says in the book, "In these eighteen days that shook the world, men and women, young and old, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor came together as never before." This remains a hope for many Egyptians, perhaps especially as the political divisions seem to become greater and great. The Deputy Chief of Mission at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, Yasser Elnaggar, wrote to us-- "I love your book. It was written as if, the reader, was part of the group in Alexandria. It gives me great pleasure that it has a wonderful ending and a re--affirmation of being proud of my country, Egypt." It has been especially fun organizing Skype sessions with students, including one between students at the library in Alexandria, Egypt, and students at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, VA. We talked about everything from democracy and voting to favorite foods (which included pizza and hamburgers in both countries!).
Susan: For the longest time I have participated in most post-publication book events all alone--it's been wonderful having a partner again. Co-authors make every event like a social visit, and easier, too. I began book writing (in 1984!) with a partner, another guild member actually---Ruth Phang. It was scary in the olden days. Every aspect of book writing was brand new to us back then, and we supported each other greatly. Ruth because brave when I was a scaredy cat, and vice versa. Ruth and I have collaborated since and we continue to collaborate, and it's still fun, and we still support each other even though we've grown braver over the years. Karen is wonderful to work with. We've done several events together. It's lovely to have a partner; when good things happen it's especially nice to celebrate with a friend!
Is there anything you hope readers, both young and old, come away with?
Karen: I want people to see that in the midst of all the violence and extremism we often see depicted in the Middle East, there are also great moments of patriotism and mutual acceptance and friendship. I also hope Americans come to appreciate the importance of our own public libraries in providing free access to a wealth knowledge, both digitally and in print.
Susan: I think, without getting political, I would like my readers to appreciate the universality of libraries-to think of libraries as a link, because literature is a link from people to people. For me, that idea is international. My message, even if this story is about Egypt, is international. I think Karen feels the same way. Peace on earth, good will towards men, respect and appreciate others and other's cultures and beliefs, hold hands, be friends!
Karen, while this is your first book for children you have experience in journalism and are involved in children's literature, particularly through the Book Guild and reviewing. Was it an easy transition? Or were there surprises about both the creation and publishing process?
Karen: Writing as a radio journalist forced me to condense important news and big ideas into very short spaces, so that experience was helpful when I began to write the text for a picture book. The big challenge was making sure my writing would be appealing to a much younger audience without talking down to them. I also learned a lot about writing more lyrically from Susan.
Karen, since Alexandria, Egypt is your husband's hometown, did you feel any pressure in depicting a place you have visited so often? Or did that make it easier?
Karen: I think it made it easier because I had a sense of the place I was writing about and I could always ground--truth what we wrote with my husband or other Egyptian friends. Tharwat made several recommendations that were quite valuable, in addition to the Arabic language signs. For example, he noticed that one little boy in one of the first spreads in the book had his feet straight out, pointing toward the other children. In Muslim cultures, it is considered disrespectful to have the soles of your feet facing another person. This is a detail, but it's important to get it right. So Susan cut a new pair of crossed legs for the little boy.
Susan, which was your favorite spread to create? Which gave you the most trouble?
Susan: Karen and I are both very partial to the wall that has the images of 500 alphabets; I incorporated the alphabets into a photo montage as a background for the end papers. Karen's son, Adam, generously provided me with many of his excellent photographs to use for this and other spreads. The library helped as well. Nadia, Karen's daughter, also helped. She organized all the photos for me, as well as taking several of her own art objects that are on exhibit in the Abouraya home. Tharwat, Karen's husband watched over the whole project (and made suggestions and corrections as needed). It was a family event!
What's next for you both? Any new projects in the works?
Karen: We do hope to publish another book together, but mum's the word on any topics for now!
Susan: We are working on another book but I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it! We spent two hours on the phone last night discussing it. Even though we were friends before working together, I think our friendship gotten better and better.
The inside jacket copy poses the question "What would you do to protect the books you love?" If you could only save a small handful of books from your personal library, which would you choose and why?
Karen: I would choose books that I could read over and over again and still find enriching. Certainly a few picture books, perhaps David Wiesner's Three Little Pigs and our own Hands Around the Library because art of such high quality is so vibrant and energizing that it inspires my own creativity. As a pick--me--up when my own imagination might be flagging, I would bring Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit. I would bring a Bible, a Koran, and perhaps one of Pema Chodron's books on Buddhist philosophy as reminders of our common ethical traditions. I would bring a book for fun, perhaps one of Alexander McCall Smith's First Lady Detective series, because the community of characters is so funny and compassionate. I would bring Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist because it was such a mind--opening book for my son. I would bring Sharon Creech's Love That Dog because it's a reminder of the wonderful influence writers and teachers can have on children and certainly a book of Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry. Is that more than a handful??
Susan: I don't know! I can't imagine! Right now I'm reading a biography of James Joyce. It's a big, fat book so I can't take it with me and I don't own a kindle. I'll have to finish it before making my collection.
To learn more about Susan and Karen--including how they can be contacted for speaking engagements--please visit:
Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books
The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families
Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers
Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea
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