Almost Own Stories

I began my professional career as a bilingual teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, but my desire to seek a deeper understanding of my students and foster intercultural connections in the field of education lead me to accept a Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala. It was during my Peace Corps years in Guatemala that I first met Amanda, and I have been fortunate to benefit from both personal and professional exchanges since then. For ten years (2005-2015), I worked both teaching and training teachers in Guatemala. These experiences were instrumental in crafting my instructional practices with expanded definitions of teacher and continue to impact my current work in outreach, coaching educators and consulting on multicultural/diverse literacy programs and resources in Wisconsin today. Amanda built her experiences into an innovative educational center.


Often my interactions with Amanda center around our shared identities. This year I recommended several novels at Amanda's prompt for feminist novels featuring Latina characters. It was also in Guatemala through Amanda that I began to reconnect with my Jewish identity. Several young adult novels I recently discovered highlight this same intersection. Reading those stories, inspired me to finish out Hispanic Heritage Month 2022, revisiting a blog post I submitted to Amanda's blog Sailaway Story.


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“Who is your blog’s primary audience?” I asked Amanda shortly after I began writing.


“My best guess,” she responded. “Would be educators and parents and people who like me.”


I read those final words multiple times incorrectly as “People like me.”

And who are those people?


Like Amanda, I was an avid childhood reader, and books remain a means to both expand my world as I look forward, as well as make sense of my life as I look back. It was during a writing class my first few months in Wisconsin after returning from Guatemala that began to identify what ‘people like me’ meant when it came to books. For the workshop, I had written a modern fairy tale about teaching and blank books, travelling and (re)writing your own story. The day my story was critiqued, I had stayed behind after class, sitting side by side with my writing instructor.


“What do you like about teaching?” she had asked while I bit back tears of embarrassment. My classmates’ comments had not been exactly what I expected. “The purpose for this story, you have to narrow it down.” The instructor spoke very matter of fact, “Why are you a teacher?”


My mind shot to the books my mother had written with me. Recycled paper with stick figures and a few words. “The storytelling,” slipped out with tears I’m not sure I hid.


This blog is for ‘people like me’ and that means both the act of storytelling and the reason it is being told. Amanda makes wonderful recommendations on her blog. If you are an adult and enjoy reading children’s books suggested here, you are not alone. My own analysis of diverse book lists for adults are too often crowded with VERY academic/thick texts. This research also tends to be EXTREMELY depressing which I do not believe is the most effective way to inspire human relationships nor agency. Prior to my own travels, I too read many books about Guatemalan genocide or general horrors like riding La Bestia. These stories are true, but the people I worked with and continue to know are also true stories, professionals and changemakers with stories under told.


Getting Started-Reflection


If you are a classroom teacher and/or parent reading Sailaway Story, you may be familiar with the concept of Family Engagement. Family Engagement in education is best described as commitment and intention developed through communication between all parties, child, caregiver, school/community. This ideal influences how I select resources. Parents and classroom teachers, young and old, readers and listeners are all storytellers. No matter who you are, as you read I would encourage you to talk about:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?

  • How? Or, why are they still relevant today?

  • Do you see any of your favorites reflected in children’s selections?

  • How might a children’s book engage adults in conversation? And, vice versa, how might you encourage complex themes to be discussed with children?

  • What is your story? How would you tell it? In paragraphs, pictures, poetry?

To get you started in conversation, the recommended books below were selected in honor of the region of the world where Amanda and I first met, the Latin America. I arranged them from general to specific to general in scope and somewhat chronologically.


Getting Started-Book Recommendations


Since the Peace Corps welcome packet had arrived at my door complete with a recommended reading list, I was familiar with U.S. intervention in Latin America. Amanda referenced this type of story in her previous selection of Caminar by Skila Brown. What I learned while reading Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II by Mary Jo McConahay was the fight for the allegiance of Latin America beginning during World War II and the impact still felt today. One example of the implications of World War II politics is detailed in the young adult book in verse Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. Margarita Engle is a masterful voice of little known stories and her young adult novel in verse illustrates in the story of a young Jewish boy’s attempted escape from Europe the complex themes in McConahay’s large scope.


An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder speaks through present day voices about the same struggle for hearts, minds and riches of Latin America. In order to appease U.S. efforts to win the “war on drugs” Bolivia responded to pressure to make increased numbers of drug related arrests. Crowder’s novel follows the arrest of a father on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority. The final books, a picture book and an adult novel, illustrate the narrative of immigration, its hope and its obstacles. In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is narrated by three different people, a Chilean lecturer who completed her education in Canada after securing escape from Chile in the 1970s, a human rights professor, son of Jewish immigrants and an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. Each one of them, if not in the political definition of the term, are dreamers. And, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales is the illustrated autobiography of her immigration story.


Building Connections-Reflection


“What do you like about teaching?” I return to this question for purpose. My heart will always be in the answer I gave to my writing teacher on that October evening with my own story swirling in red ink. However, there are a variety of questions to consider with your ‘teacher hat’ on and selecting a story that you do not consider “your own”:


  • Does the author share background or common experiences with the book’s content? How or where did the author conduct his or her research? How could you verify or who do you know that might verify the veracity of a particular book about a field in which you have little experience?

  • Does the picture book authentically capture the nuances of a particular group or does it generalize or stereotype? Do the illustrations support diverse/multicultural book initiatives?

  • Are you selecting a balanced collection between books that celebrate a group, honor their past and/or struggles, and reflect an everyday experience? Is the author or group the usual subject? If so, who else might be a less known figure with a similar message?

  • How does the book positively frame identity development and self-esteem?


Building Connections-Book Recommendations


The following recommendations highlight another underused opportunity for Family Engagement, author crossover. Family Engagement is a big term that elevates intentional connection. Many authors do this for us because they write for both children and adults.


Juno Díaz is the author of the picture book Islandborn and the adult novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In Islandborn, the main character Lola easily skips through her neighborhood to gather stories, only slightly concerned with ‘the monster’. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not for the feint of ear. Díaz’s language is harsh and his accurate description of discrimination in the Dominican Republic based on skin color and societal attitudes toward women are not easy to read. Teenage Oscar lives in New Jersey with his mother and sister dreams of being the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein. Oscar guided me from the first pages through the harsh realities of Trujillo’s dictatorship alluded to in Islandborn as simply “A monster fell upon our poor Island. . . It could destroy an entire town with a single word and made a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” Set against the backdrop of the adult detailed narrative, the themes of history, memory and immigration explored by Lola are richer in opportunity for deeper conversation.


At its foundation, themes addressed by the books described are like those integral to other selected books on Sailaway Story’s blog: adolescent leaders, bravery, courage, hardship, friendship, kindness, ancestors, traditions, war, loss, memory, immigration, family, journey, community, responsibility, survival, optimism, empathy, hope. My focus on connected but diverse stories and formats is to facilitate conversations across ages, experiences and reading levels.


“What do you like about storytelling?” I flip the question for you, Sailaway Story reader, because everything can be a story and that the same story could be told in an unnamed number of ways.


And sometimes the story is your own.


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Below are my most recent, 'almost own' stories.


Together We Burn by Isabel Ibañez


Ballad & Dagger: An Outlaw Saints Novel by Daniel José Older


And one more to dream on.


The Lost Dreamer by Lizz Huerta


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