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

Paula Willey, Karen Leggett, Hasmig Chahinian, Susan Roth, Nadia AbourayaWe thought a conference on informal education might be a small, informal gathering. To our delighted surprise, 650 people registered for the two-day event in October at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt.  They came from Cairo and Alexandria but also Minya and other far-flung towns; there were librarians, college professors, teachers, authors and representatives of NGOs that work with children outside the regular school day. 

The seed for the conference was planted soon after the publication of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books in 2012 when I met with library director Ismail Serageldin at a Starbucks in Arlington.  Conference ideas were massaged and debated by email until the library staff took over, added its own themes and objectives and scheduled the conference for October 12-13.

Dr. Serageldin said informal education in libraries, museums, zoos and within families should give children “a sense of fun and wonder and a greater ability to interact with their surroundings.” The higher-than-expected registration demonstrated a huge demand for information, resources and tips on storytelling, ways to make learning exciting for children and keep reading important in a digital world. The audience applauded when one attendee said schools focus too much on preparing children to sit for examinations and earn certificates without providing real education.

That audience included people like Sawsan Radwan, whose foundation runs a preschool for poor children near Alexandria, Egypt. She creates her own storybooks and is seeking ways to publish them for a wider audience.  There were several young people from the Nebny Foundation, which offers art and study programs in poor neighborhoods of Cairo. Khalid Aziz came from the Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages, which has started Egypt’s first accredited vocational qualification in childcare. (Wataneya video) It was suggested that a considerable number of young adults in Egypt are turning their revolutionary fervor to social action and the conference benefited from their enthusiasm. 

Sawsan Radwan's handmade book for preschoolers

Several people came to share books or educational products they had already created themselves, including Nazih Girgis who has long published his own series of children’s books, some incorporating classical music like Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and others drawing attention to environmental or health concerns. Olfat Salem and Nadia Atia Kandil came to learn about ways they could enhance their programs for children with special needs and in art at the Alexandria Sporting Club, where I was able to do a separate program about Hands Around the Library for a group of very engaged youngsters.

There were conference presentations on the impact of reading on the brain, the value of folklore and heritage, animation as an education tool, even a cancer hospital for children in Cairo that operates a full time school within its walls. 


Alexandria Sporting Club

The Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Maryland/Washington, D.C., Virginia in the United States and the Baltimore Alexandria Sister City Committee sent Baltimore, Maryland, librarian Paula Willey to the conference as a presenter and participant. Willey said it is important “to get parents used to the idea that they are integral to developing their children’s learning process.” Parents are encouraged not to sit on the sidelines during library storytime so that children come to understand that learning and participating are important activities.

Hasmig Chahinian from the International Board on Books for Young People at the 
National Library of France shared research showing that three areas of the brain are activated when a child listens to stories: visual imagery, association and meaning, and visual associations and meaning.  Reading aloud to children, she said, is a “shared moment of joy, a gift with nothing expected in return.” 

In organizing the conference agenda,  Ingi Abd Elkader, Head of theBA Children’s Library Section, emphasized the importance of both modern multimedia and traditional folklore in informal education. Dr. Mervat Nasser, founder of New Hermopolis, talked about the value of sharing myths to connect children with Egypt’s heritage and teach values without preaching.

Susan L. Roth

Susan Roth and I talked about their children’s picture book Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books as a way to empower children to be active in their own communities. Malak Wassef-Edgar, a member of the Egyptian Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, led a panel discussion on the importance of Egypt’s folkloric heritage, saying modernization should not be considered a threat but an opportunity to use modern tools to protect that heritage.

Several animators, including Shewekar Khalifa and Ahmed Ateyia, expressed concern about the lack of funding for high quality animated films that could open children’s eyes to the world and help preserve an interest in Egypt’s heritage in an increasingly digital world. 

Concluding the conference, Lamia Abdel Fattah, Head of the BA Library Sector, announced that the library would establish an online network for participants to continue sharing ideas, networking and collaborating. I will also be encouraging the BA to plan webinars and smaller workshops to discuss issues and possibilities for which there just wasn’t time at the initial conference. 

Lamia Abdel Fattah, Karen Leggett, Ingi Abd Elkader, Susan Roth, Lobna Elzoghaby  

Several in Egypt and the US had been openly skeptical about whether a single conference could make any difference at all. Of course nothing changes with a couple of days of listening to people on a stage. But something stirred - people realized how many others shared their passion for improving opportunities and expanding access to knowledge for all children. It was an exhilarating, hopeful time. 

Nervine Gomaa collects her certificate of participation in the conference.



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You never know what doors will open when you publish a book. The publication of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books in 2012 led almost immediately to discussions about ways to extend the reach of children’s literature in Egypt.  The ideas and possibilities were massaged and contemplated and shared over many months with many helpful and enthusiastic individuals. Now the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Friends of the BA in Baltimore/Maryland/D.C./Virginia are delighted to announce a conference on Informal Education for Children at the BA on October 12 -13, 2015, barely three weeks away.

Educators, librarians, children’s authors, software developers and other professionals who focus on developing children’s skills through informal education are invited to attend. Lamia Abdel Fattah, Head of the Library Sector, Ingi Abd Elkader, Head of the Children’s Library, and their staff have created an agenda that will inform and excite participants about storytelling and children’s literature, animation and multimedia tools for learning and development, and supporting a new generation of children’s authors in Egypt.  

Susan Roth and I will share the backstory of Hands Around the Library and Susan will demonstrate her superlative collage technique.  Baltimore County librarian Paula Willey, whose attendance at the conference is sponsored by the Baltimore Friends of the BA, will talk about getting families involved in informal learning.  There will be presentations about the role of myth in children’s literature (Mervat Abd Elnaser), children’s literature as a window on the world (Ingrid Bon), Alwan wa Awtar’s projects to bring art to the lives of poor children in Cairo (Ines Khedira). IBM will launch its Kidsmart project at the library during the conference. Dalia Fouad with Nahdet Misr Publishing will talk about “learning beyond walls.” Look at the full program here.

On the second day of the conference there will be focus groups or “drill down sessions” on improving informal learning for children and the Egyptian heritage in folkloric literature. We expect participants to brainstorm ways to improve access to knowledge and children’s literature, including collaborative projects that build on the fine initiatives already underway in Cairo and Alexandria. Many of the young people now working for NGOs in Egypt believe that improving opportunitiesfor poor children in Egypt is one way realize some of the hopes and dreams of the 2011 revolution. We hope this conference will also be a step in that direction.  As the young Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai has said, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”

Please consider joining us. Registration is free - sign up here. For those unable to attend, we look forward to sharing news and ideas from the conference in this space. 

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All the world knows John F. Kennedy and probably Robert and Edward Kennedy. But what about their sisters Eunice, Jean and Rosemary? Their worldwide impact on people with disabilities - especially intellectual disabilities - has been immeasurable and it is worth taking note during this month when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 40th anniversary of VSA: Very Special Arts.


Rosemary Kennedy was the first daughter born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Although her intellectual disabilities were hidden for many years because of the stigma attached to such conditions, Rosemary inspired her sisters Eunice and Jean to open the doors wide for others with disabilities.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a summer camp in her backyard that grew into Special Olympics, with the first summer games for children and adults with intellectual disabilities held in Chicago in 1968. This week, more than 6,500 athletes from 165 countries are competing in 25 sports in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. 

"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt."

Special Olympics Motto

Egypt has 68 athletes participating in 12 of those sports, including boccia, athletics, aquatics, equestrian, bowling, basketball, handball, football, table tennis, tennis, powerlifting and badminton. In Egypt, Al Ahram covered news of the delegation; in the United States for the first time ever, the major sports network ESPN is offering daily television coverage. There are also delegations from United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Afghanistan.

Terrell LimerickHere in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., we are especially watching Terrell Limerick, who is scheduled to become the first American to sail in the highest level 5 solo competition. We also know Terrell from the ArtStream stage, a local inclusive theatre company.  Inclusive companies, communities and organizations focus on abilities, not disabilities, saying to people with physical or mental challenges, “You are welcome here!” 

The ADA, signed in 1990, helps make this possible by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. 


Children-with-disabilities.jpgThe Bibliotheca Alexandrina strives to promote social inclusion of children with special needs, writing in a brochure about its programs that “Our goal is to develop their skills, improve their living conditions and to raise public awareness and tolerance of their special needs through provision of services to the children and their families. Hardware, software and other resources that support the appropriate needs of the children with different types of disabilities are available at the children’s and young people’s libraries.” 

In 1974 another Kennedy sister - Jean - started Very Special Arts, now known simply as VSA, with 4 goals:

1) Every young person with a disability deserves access to high quality arts learning experiences.

2) All artists in schools and art educators should be prepared to include students with disabilities in their instruction.

3) All children, youth, and adults with disabilities should have complete access to cultural facilities and activities.

4) All individuals with disabilities who aspire to careers in the arts should have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills.

On July 26, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. hosted a celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act and VSA that defied stereotypes and expectations.  Young blind pianist Justin Kauflin performed a jazz solo while his service dog sat quietly next to the piano.  Niv Ashkenazi played the violin from his wheelchair.  J.P. Illarramendi, a young actor with Down Syndrome,  eagerly said that he had “never once been afraid of being in front of an audience.” Jeff Rosen, the deaf chairman of the National Council on Disability said he was not “disadvantaged by my body, but by the opinions and oppression of others.”  Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, quipped that “Taylor Swift shakes voluntarily, I do it involuntarily,” agreeing with Rosen that “access is one barrier, discrimination is even bigger.”  

Tear down the walls of exclusion. Follow in the huge footsteps of Rosemary, Eunice and Jean Kennedy. The next step is to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.  So far, 143 countries have ratified the Convention - including Egypt back in 2008.  Unfortunately, even though the United States has a long list of inclusive opportunities, it has still not ratified the Convention - despite many strong advocacy groups.  Twenty-five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we have accomplished a lot - and we have a long way to go.  

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Shubbak.jpgShubbak (meaning “window” in Arabic) is about to open in London – July 11 – 25, 2015. The city’s largest biennial festival of Arab culture was founded in 2011 by the Mayor of London. The 2013 event presented more than 55 events across 42 venues, attracting an audience of more than 50,000 people.

Egypt will be well represented in this year’s festival. Andeel, co-founder of Egypt’s comic magazine Tok-Tok and political cartoonist Tarek Shahin will join a panel on graphic novels. There are performances by Egyptian jazz-rock fusion band Massar Egbari and a performance of The Tree Climber  by Tawfik Al Hakeem, just to name a few.  An Eid festival on Trafalgar Square will celebrate the end of Ramadan on July 25. 

Catalogue edited by Jennifer HeathRight in the midst of all the attention to Arab culture will be a small, dynamic and thought-provoking exhibit at the P21 Gallery: The Map is Not the Territory. Thirty-nine artists, mostly Palestinian, Native American and Irish, look at the relationships and common themes in the Palestinian, Native American, and Irish experiences of invasion, occupation and colonization. “It is a smart show that illustrates how we cannot achieve change unless we understand history,” says curator Jennifer Heath, who writes widely on the Middle East and Afghanistan and conceived the novel premise behind this exhibit.  Co-curator Dagmar Painter previously hosted the exhibit at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds in Washington. 

 In the words of the curators, the artists’ “images in the exhibit are details of a larger picture that stands for all who have suffered everywhere – and will one day triumph.”   The exhibit is deeply creative and provocative. Although it can also be troubling and confounding, there is strength and perhaps even hope in realizing a shared experience across disparate cultures and times.

The exhibit is grouped around themes:

  • Conflict/resistance – “slaughter is often met with slaughter”
  • Land/food – “Palestinians, Native Americans and Irish share a deep reverence for the land”
  • Overlay/identity – “American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of the Middle East,” (Russell Means, 2009)
  • Words/persistence – “Our stories are anchors that teach us to remember, to endure, to act courageously, to look adversity in the eye and maintain our faith that justice must and can prevail.”
  • Home/diaspora – “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Beit-Salaam by Helen Zughaib, 2013; archival pigment printWashington Post reviewer Mark Jenkins called “Beit/Salaam” by Helen Zughaib “a gentle mantra for a show that’s more often bristling.” Tiny Arabic calligraphy repeats the words "Beit/Salaam" - "Peace/Home" in seemingly endless circles. "Circling round and round, as if in meditation, calling Peace/Home, Home/Peace," writes the artist.  A Palestinian viewer told the artists, “Your artwork brings us closer to God.” 

Mary Tuma, Lingering Presence, 2013, Mixed MediaMary Tuma was born to a mother of Irish descent and a Palestinian father. She studied art in Kerdassa, Egypt, and says of her "Lingering Presence" image above: "We are part of the fabric of the place, sewn in layers, patched, and rewoven...We will always be home, even as we long for home."

Curator Dagmar Painter quoted Palestinian intellectual Edward Said who said, “Let the power of culture triumph over the culture of power.” Painter added that the artists in this exhibit “tapped into their deepest feelings about loss of identity, of home, sometimes even of life, and created powerful art that will triumph over the culture of power…”

You can see many of the images online here and share your reflections below. The Map is Not the Territory will be on display in London until July 25. Beginning September 5, it will be at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. On January 22, 2016, it will open at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. A full catalogue of essays, art and poetry is now available as well. I encourage you to follow the exhibit on Facebook. 


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#DrawDisability is a global campaign to enhance awareness, especially among children, of people with disabilities. Young people are being asked to reflect on their understanding of "disability," and draw how they see people with disabilities in their community - their struggles and challenges as well as their accomplishments and successes.


The #DrawDisability campaign is a global campaign launched by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), in partnership with the Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI) and the United Nations Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group (GEFI-YAG).  It is one small step toward realizing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which ensures that every person with a disability fully enjoys access to such basic services as education and health care, decent jobs and civic participation.

Whatever contact you have with children - teacher, parent, librarian, summer camp counselor - encourage children to participate. Drawings may be submitted by classes or individuals at www.globi-obsevatory.org/DrawDisability or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by post to GLOBI, Via Pietro Cossa 280/10, 10151 Torino, Italy. THE DEADLINE IS JULY 15. The drawings will be divided into two age groups - 6-11 and 12-17 years old. A final selection of artwork - based on message, creativity, technique and overall impact - will be exhibited at the United Nations General Assembly session this fall in New York.

The #DrawDisability campaign provides an opportunity for teachers, families and other youth groups to raise awareness about the capabilities of people with disabilities. A teacher's guidebook suggests activities that enable children to experience different disabilities, such as this example of youngsters with intellectual disabilities who may have a harder time learning or communicating:

b2ap3_thumbnail_Untitled.jpg            Invite two students to sit back to back. Give one student a paper with an abstract shape

            like the picture here. Give the second student a pencil and paper. The second student must draw 

            the  shape following the first student's directions.



World Braille Day at the Bibliotheca AlexandrinaAt the Taha Hussein Library for the Visually Impaired at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, blind and sighted children compete in a variety of games on World Braille Day each year.  The BA is also leading a pilot project to develop skills and promote computer use by children with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Throughout the United States there are more and more efforts to promote inclusion in schools and communities.  In Montgomery County, Maryland, a nonprofit organization called ArtStream puts people with autism, Down's Syndrome and other disabilities on stage in original plays and musicals. Mentors are on stage to help as needed but the goal is to build the confidence and self-expression skills of people who might never have dreamed of speaking publicly.

ArtStream Cast

One of the founders of ArtStream, Nicolette Stearns, is also guiding and collaborating with a young woman who has Down's Syndrome to write a children's picture book. Her story is a perfect example of ways to engage and include these young people in challenging and productive activities.


The American Library Association gives the annual Schneider Family Awards, honoring authors of children's and young adult books for their portrayal of the disability experience. Here are the 2015 winners.



Another organization seeking to expand the worlds of young people with disabilities Mobility International USA (MIUSA), a disability-led American nonprofit organization which empowers people with disabilities around the world through international exchange and development programs. MIUSA operates the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, funded by the U.S. Department of State, to increase participation by people with disabilities in international exchange programs. Among its many projects is WILD - Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability - a regular gathering of women with disabilities that nurtures their leadership roles in developing countries.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to write about college study abroad programs that welcome students with mental illness, providing ways for students and overseas program leaders to meet challenges as they arise. Although the number of college students with mental health issues has risen, study abroad programs are finding ways for them to be successful overseas. The article was published in NAFSA's International Educator magazine.

#DrawDisability, the Taha Hussein Library, ArtStream, MYUSA - they are all steps on the road to realizing the United Nations Convention.

Please share programs and individual stories you know about in the comments section.  Everyone can make a difference!


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