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

Two Years, Twenty-seven Branches

Pamela Ehrenberg’s novels and picture books for young readers, including the recent Queen of the Hannukah Dosas, can be found in many local libraries—as well as more distant libraries. Pam writes this blog as a fellow member of the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C. She would love to hear from readers who have undertaken or are undertaking similar library explorations in DC and other locations around the world; feel free to reach out via her website at www.pamelaehrenberg.com - or add a comment below.


 In late 2016, the demolition trucks arrived at the library in our Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., clearing the way for the new building to come.

 It was the best possible reason to demolish a library. And the new branch will be terrific in two years. But in the meantime, every car ride to the interim location made me miss walking to our neighborhood branch even more. I needed a solution that focused on moving forward.

Around the same time, national conversations were unfolding about how communities could break down barriers and talk to one another.  Our country needed solutions that focused on moving forward

I asked my kids (12-1/2-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son): what if we try to visit all of the other DC Public Library branches before our neighborhood library re-opens?

It’s not that people from our Upper Northwest neighborhood never venture east of Rock Creek Park, or the Anacostia River. But too often it’s in a spirit of well-meaning temporary helpfulness that doesn’t generate long-term solutions.

Dorothy Height LibraryOur library visits wouldn’t focus on solutions: there’s too much foundational work to do first. Our visits are a reminder that every single community is built on strengths—and that many of us don’t yet know enough to be truly helpful. What better place than a library to remember how much there is to learn?

With Metro cards and GPS, a library map and open minds, we began exploring our city. Libraries provided the excuse we needed to visit the Anacostia Museum, Labyrinth Games, the DC State Fair. The Benning branch was sort of on the way to visit grandparents in Baltimore.  At some branches, we didn’t have as many hours I would have liked for a full neighborhood exploration, but I’ve learned not to postpone this sort of purposeful wandering until some mythical “free time.” Our time is now.

In every community, we can find a novel to absorb on the Metro, a collection of new chess strategies, a gripping middle-grade book to enjoy together on CD. At the branches named in their honor, we’ve learned about the contributions Watha T. Daniel and Dorothy I. Height  made to our city.

And we’ve been able to imagine, just for a moment, living in other communities. We’ve remembered that real live people live in all four wards, even tiny Southwest, where some of the tweens play computer games at the library Saturday afternoons. Real live people approach their libraries by car and on foot, alone and in pairs, and most of them are very happy to take our photo in front of the library sign. Real live people live close to and far from public transportation, supermarkets, the array of job opportunities that people in other parts of the country may think of when they hear “Washington.” But everyone we’ve met in libraries can access . . . libraries.


Meanwhile, the progress on our neighborhood branch reminds us of our deadline. I know I’ll miss this project after the last map pin is in place and our goal is eventually achieved. But I’ll also look to new goals—building on this initial comfort level toward deeper conversations about our shared city.

Because library locations aren’t acorns but “branches:” not a finite ending but a path to what’s next. And for our family, the exploration is just beginning.






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“Diversity is not a trend,” says acclaimed editor and publisher Neal Porter. “It is a fact of life.”

Also a fact of life are the increasing ways to find, read and promote books by diverse authors with diverse stories and protagonists.

Multicultural Children's book DayThis Saturday, January 27, will be Multicultural Children’s Book Day (MCBD), initiated in 2014 by children’s author Valarie Budayr and blogger Mia Wenjen with a mission to “not only raise awareness for kids’ books that celebrate diversity but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries.”  They define multicultural books as

  • Books that contain characters of color, as well as characters that represent a minority point of view.
  • Books that share ideas, stories, and information about cultures, race, religion, language, and traditions.
  • Books that embrace our world, and offer children new ways to connect to a diverse and richer world.


These are precisely the books that author Gene Luen Yang encouraged with his “Reading Without Walls” Challenge to read a book about a character who doesn’t look or live like you, a book about a topic you don’t know much about, or a book in a format you don’t normally read for fun. 

How many of those have you read in the past year?  And where do you find the best of these books to read? 

The MCBD website  features a wealth of book and award lists as well as activities for teachers and parents. There are book giveaways and a Twitter party Saturday night, July 27, at 9:00 pm Eastern Time. Just sign into your Twitter account, search for the hashtag #ReadYourWorld and join the conversation – maybe even win some books. In addition, Read Your World: A Guide to Multicultural Children’s Books for Parents and Educators ebook created by the MCBD team will be FREE from January 23rd-29th.

Read Africa WeekOnce you are all pumped up after Multicultural Children’s Book Day, prepare to celebrate Read Africa Week during the first week of February. The founders of the Children’s Africana Book Awards invite teachers, librarians, parents and concerned adults to kick off Black History Month with great books about Africa – and then continue reading about Africa all year long. Here are the 2017 CABA winners as well as a Pencil Tips Writing Workshop with writing prompts based on one of the winners, Evan Turk’s The Storyteller about Morocco. On Monday, January 29, I’ll be posting another Writing Workshop about Nnedi Okorafor’s Nigerian tale Chicken in the Kitchen (Illustrated by Nekrdokht Amini).

 A brand new list of books for young readers highlights girls and women of many ethnic backgrounds who are “bold, adventurous and daring. They stand out, and their stories offer much-needed inspiration to young people navigating difficult and confusing times,” writes Takoma Park, MD, librarian Karen MacPherson in The Washington Post.

Finally – and including all types of books – is World Read Aloud Day on February 1: Read aloud. Change the world.  I and many authors will be Skyping with classrooms all around the United States on this day. I’m looking forward to speaking with Susan Walterich’s students at A.J. Schmidt Elementary School in Angola, New York; Lisa Straubinger’s fourth graders at T. Baldwin Demarest School in Old Tappan, New Jersey, and Crystal Brunelle’s third graders at Northern Hills Elementary School in Onalaska, Wisconsin. Skype offers a page to find authors available for video chats with students and author Kate Messner also maintains a list of authors available for World Read Aloud Day conversations.

Now it’s your turn.  Do you have favorite diverse books or authors you’d like to recommend? Please add them as a comment to this blog – with links to reviews, awards or other information.

 Thank you for sharing a new book today with a child!

MCBD Poster


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The Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee (BLASCC) and its Friends of the BA (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) have just co-sponsored the Egyptian premier of the film The Sultan and The Saint in Cairo. Two-hundred people attended the Cairo screening and discussion organized by Ezzat Ibrahim with the publication Al Ahram Weekly.  BLASCC Chairman Tharwat Abouraya helped organize two successful screenings in Washington, D.C. at 

Sultan and the Saintthe Egyptian Culture and Education Mission (with Cultural Counselor Mohamed Hamza) and as part of the Montgomery College Rockville/Global Nexus Program (with Enas Elhanafi). 

Yet another screening is planned as part of this month’s International Friends of the BA meeting in Alexandria: The Arabic-subtitled version of The Sultan and The Saint will be open to the public at the BA Tuesday, October 17, from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm, including expert discussion and a Skype Q&A with film director Alex Kronemer.  The film dramatizes a true story of peacemaking between Egyptian Sultan Malik Al Kamal and St. Francis of Assisi during the Crusades – a story with an urgent message for our turbulent times. We anticipate more screenings and discussions in the Baltimore-Washington area and will let you know when they are scheduled.


BLASCC and the Friends are also delighted to announce the beginning of two collaborations between American and Egyptian children. 

  • Sixth graders at the SEED School, a public boarding school in Baltimore, Maryland, are planning to converse online with sixth graders at St. Vincent de Paul Language School in Alexandria, Egypt.  They expect to have regular conversations throughout the year on a variety of subjects. SEED School teacher Dianna Newton and St. Vincent de Paul teacher Virginia Samir are leading the way in this project initiated by BLASCC member Hany Eldeib.


  • I am collaborating with Dalia ElKony, Head of the BA's Children's and Young People's Libraries, and her exemplary staff to bring together students from St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia (librarian Mary Anne O’Rourke) and young people at the BA for regular book club discussions. Initially, I will be talking to the St. Thomas More students about the ancient and new libraries in Alexandria. Dalia is eager to organize book clubs with students in both countries reading and discussing common books. If you are interested in initiating a similar project, do let me know!


My own enthusiasm for the library in Alexandria was sparked with the 2012 publication of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books. Illustrator Susan L. Roth and I were honored with a Children’s Africana Book Award (CABA) in 2013 and this year, CABA is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a festive dinner on November 3 and a free family festival at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art on November 4.  Make plans to attend both (deadline for dinner reservations is October 20). 

 One of this year’s CABA winners is The Storyteller by Evan Turk, conveying in a beautifully illustrated picture book the magical power of storytelling.  My Pencil Tips Writing Workshop blog here provides some writing prompts for young people based on Evan’s book.    



CABA has now honored a total of 90 books set in 24 African countries, with a website that offers scholarly reviews and criteria for evaluating books that truly reflect the diversity of the African continent. All seven current winners and more than ten former winners are planning to attend the CABA dinner and the festival. 





The film screenings, the school collaborations and the CABA awards are all ways of building global awareness and empathy – I look forward to sharing progress in future blogs. Please share your own projects and ideas to expand the next generation's awareness of our wider world.





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Gene Luen Yang was a programmer and cartoonist who is now the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Comics continue to be his first love and perhaps that is why he is asking us all to Read Without Walls this year.  

Find out what Gene talking about as you think about books to take to the beach, on the plane or just sitting in the back yard this summer.  I enjoyed writing this guest post for As the Eraser Burns, a blog from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia.  Continue reading here.




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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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