Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Jerash—Greco-Roman ruins near Amman, Jordan

Part of a seriesMiddle East, October 2023:

I traveled to the Middle East for school visits, landing after midnight on 10/8/23. That afternoon, I explored Jerash, Greco-Roman ruins 45 minutes from Amman, Jordan. Technically, the modern city is called Jerash and the ruins are Gerasa. As a municipality, it may date as far back as 7500 BCE. Jesus allegedly passed through.

Arch of Hadrian

gladiator arena
(I would have, but forgot my armor.)

Temple of Zeus

South Theater
(the largest and oldest of the three theaters at the site)

South Theater 

Some evidence suggests bagpipes originated not in Scotland 
but rather the Middle East.

South Theater

oval plaza

Monday, October 30, 2023

American Community School, Jordan—two days after Hamas attacked Israel

Part of a series: Middle East, October 2023:

Whew, what a year in school visits.

In Taiwan in March, a trip in the works since before the pandemic, two of my three librarian hosts were unable to be there for my school visit because of unexpected, 11th hour developments—one due to a family matter, the other because she got COVID.

In Georgia in August and Texas in September, schools canceled me when I refused to omit the word “gay” from talks to elementary students. 

Then came an issue even more personal for me.

I am sharing it here because I feel it has the potential to be insightful and inspiring, as it was for some people directly involved. For others, it may instead be infuriating. 

The month before an October trip to speak at an American school in both Jordan and Oman and a side trip to see Israel for the first time, parents at the Jordan school were in a “fervor” when they discovered that I am on the board of an Israeli organization.

Except I’m not.

But I am Jewish

The parents were referring to my time serving on the regional board of BBYO, a Jewish youth group—yes, when I was a teenager.

This somewhat fraught situation was about to get even more complicated. I departed for Jordan the evening of 10/6/23, and while I was on the plane, Hamas attacked Israel, murdering about 1,200 people (primarily civilians) in a day and seizing more than 200 hostages.

In the Middle East, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. I was scheduled to present for three days at the American Community School in Amman starting on Monday 10/10. This would include three assemblies (elementary, middle, and high), a professional development workshop, and writing/visual literacy workshops for smaller groups of high schoolers (meaning I would see every participating high schooler twice). 

The night before, I was asked to join a Zoom with heads of school, none of whom I’d been in touch with before. 

They wanted to check if I felt safe and wanted to update me on the rising tension at the school, which has a significant Palestinian population. They also—understandably—wanted to know if I planned to mention the geopolitical situation that had gotten even more volatile overnight. I said no. They asked how I would answer if a student asked me about it. I said I would say it’s a valid question, though not a topic I was there to discuss, nor one about which I have any authority.

I appreciated their sensitivity on both fronts.

Earlier that day, an administrative assistant, who is Palestinian, was asked to read several of my books to assess them for content that could be problematic for their population. (Page 1 of Bill the Boy Wonder mentions that Bill Finger was Jewish.) The assistant wondered if the mention of Hitler (in Boys of Steel) would upset their (few) Jewish students. Otherwise the assistant expressed no concerns.

That same Sunday night, more than one anonymous account posted “Free Palestine” or similar comments under my Instagram posts related to Judaism.

The following morning, my first at the school, the administration received a petition from 127 parents who did not want my visit to proceed. They had seen and disapproved of my Facebook post of 10/7.

(With great disappointment, I called off my trip to Israel.)

Head of school Joelle Basnight saw this as a chance for the school to live up to its stated commitment to inclusivity

Unlike Georgia and Texas, ACS did not cancel my visit—which would have been the path of least resistance. And the stakes in Jordan were serious on a whole other level. 

I, too, was eager to carry on and prepared to compartmentalize.

I applauded and thanked the school—not on my own behalf but rather for the kids. I told staff how much I appreciated their courage—which I would repeat numerous times over the next three days.

Before each assembly, school leaders reminded students how to treat a guest. At least one teacher cautioned against ad hominem

However…students were allowed to opt out of attending. I said that I am not in favor of opt-out options. I believe we should require students to attend all events within a safe space, even those that may be beyond their comfort zone. 

The world is challenging. We do students no favors by trying to shield them from this.  

The subsequent discussions with teachers and parents are fertile opportunities for growth.

But due to the fragility of the circumstances, I felt in this case it was acceptable to offer an opt-out (not that it was up to me). 

I was originally told that 30 high schoolers chose to skip my talk, but later learned it was more. A few tried to walk out during the assembly, but staff stopped them, saying “You already made your choice.”

Some kids wore the Arabic headdress called a keffiyeh or hattah and/or shirts referencing Palestine. I did not feel threatened, but did not feel welcomed by that segment. I was told that students did not wear keffiyehs on Sunday, the first day of school after the attack, and instead started on Monday—the day I arrived. So it was indeed a statement aimed at me.

Of course I am not an official ambassador of Israel or the Jewish people. That said, I understood—emotions were in overdrive and we all have the right to support our communities. Some students have family members in Gaza. (The following week, after the 10/17 explosion at a hospital in Gaza, ACS closed for three days of mourning.)

The high school audience was virtually nonreactive. Typical teen behavior? More protest? Likely some of both. I was told that they would not get a Q&A session.

(The middle and elementary audiences, however, let themselves enjoy the presentation. They laughed and applauded at the usual cues. And I was able to answer questions.)

The high school breakout sessions were more charged—at first. Fewer kids, smaller space, nowhere to hide for them or me. But the material is engaging, if I may say so, and my approach, as always, shows kids I respect their intelligence and value their opinion. They warmed to me. We got our Q&A. I felt I had a few breakthroughs with Palestinian students.

After one session, a senior asked my advice on his college application essay. After another, a high schooler walking out with his friends turned back to me and placed his hand on his heart. This silent gesture moved me deeply.

Throughout my time at the school, to my surprise, none of the Jewish staff or students approached me and identified themselves as such. Indifference? Fear? Likely some of both.

A central element of who I am combined with highly distressing current events meant my hosts had to contend with more than they signed up for. I was frequently asked if I was still comfortable. My hosts answered hard questions and sometimes had to be the bearer of bad news. They thought of everything. 

Example 1: my hosts suggested that the division heads hold their pre-assembly debrief with students before they enter the auditorium—in other words, before they see me. That probably wouldn’t have occurred to me but seemed like a good call. 

Example 2: I used the same laptop for every workshop and one night we left it out in the library overnight; the next morning, my hosts suggested that I check my presentations before starting in case anyone had modified it. (No one had.)

On my third and final day at the school, I was told that a high school student, the child of a prominent politician, had told a staff member that after hearing her friends discuss the assembly, she regretted that she had opted out of it.

Despite the underlying feeling of unease, I felt the visit went smoothly. I did not directly hear a single negative comment or see a single instance of inappropriate behavior. I realize I was not privy to all that happened behind the scenes, but that is all the more reason I hold this school in the highest regard. 

Despite intense objection and fear of reprisal, they forged ahead as planned because they felt that was in the best interest of their students—and in the spirit of the school. 

This was bravery. This was conviction. This was leadership. 

Thank you yet again to ACS for showing how it’s done. 

I echo the sentiments of some of your staff who told me they feel my visit will have positive ripple effects beyond any academic boost from my sessions.

A primary goal of my school visits is to inspire students to speak up for whatever cause is meaningful to them—even when that is difficult. 

A primary goal of this school visit was to connect with kids one human to another and embolden them to view others not as symbols but as individuals.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Meeting Ana Aranda, illustrator of "The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra"...six years after the book was published

Today, at a Day of the Dead event at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington DC, I met Mexican-born illustrator Ana Aranda for the first time.

She exhibited/sold original art from her book Our Day of the Dead Celebration and held court with a steady stream of fans of all ages.

Of note: Ana and I made a book together...six years ago.

Meeting in person was such a long overdue pleasure!

My first drag queen interview

That could be the title of a picture book! 

Or, these days, perhaps not.

First, an unfortunately familiar recap:

  • In August, in Georgia, the Forsyth County School District asked me to omit the word “gay” from assemblies for elementary students in grades 3 and up or leave. I left.
  • In September, on the eve of my tenth and final scheduled day of talks in Northside Independent School District (San Antonio), the same thing happened.

Intolerance does have an upside: it gets people talking (and, hopefully, reflecting). 

A drag queen named Amber LeMay invited me to discuss these incidents on her YouTube show.

I rarely do podcasts or other streaming interview shows, especially on a topic that the press has already widely covered, but couldn’t resist this. Amber was a gracious host and a savvy interviewer.

Thank you, Amber, for your compassion and time!

Friday, October 27, 2023

“San Antonio Express-News” says school district was right to cancel me

In August, in Georgia, the Forsyth County School District asked me to omit the word “gay” from assemblies for elementary students in grades 3 and up or leave. I left.

In September, on the eve of my tenth and final scheduled day of talks in Northside Independent School District (San Antonio), the same thing happened.

Nancy M. Preyor-Johnson, Deputy Editorial Board Editor & Columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, reached out multiple times for comment. I naively thought her take, like most of the other mainstream press coverage (from the New York Times to the Associated Press), would be in favor of treating all people with respect, as I did in her community, but I was wrong.

Excerpt of my reply to Nancy:

I find it unfortunate that, while you seem to agree with me, the headline (which is all many will read) gives no sign of that. It will fuel the hatefulness of the intolerant.

I also find it unfortunate that your article fails to explain WHY it would be inappropriate to say “gay” to 8-10-year-olds in the context I do. Just because a minority of parents do not like gay people does not mean that gay people do not exist or that it is fine to refer to straight people but not gay people in equally nonsexual terms.

I do appreciate you mentioning that members of the community DID see the value of my visit. 

She replied that she respects me and mostly agrees with me, but that younger students and their parents (emphasis mine) need to be treated differently in conservative states. 

My reply:

They don’t. Precisely my point. Who gay people love is not political to them, just like who you love is not political to you.

Your article could’ve done some good in a community that is not fully living in the 21st century, but instead it will embolden harmful prejudices and make LGBTQ people feel unsafe and unwanted in San Antonio.

By the by, here are reactions to my talks from NISD educators (i.e. people who heard me present and who have the best interest of the kids at heart):

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Stories of Hope: Kidlit Against Book Bans

Last year, I created a show called Stories of Hope: Kidlit for Ukraine and produced it with KidLit TV. It was an unprecedented and emotional benefit starring 28 kidlit authors that raised $15,000 (in a week!) for the children of Ukraine.

In August 2023, while speaking at elementary schools in Forsyth County, GA, administrators asked me to leave out the word “gay” from my presentations or leave. I left. This made national news including the New York Times, Newsweek (I wrote this one), Los Angeles Times, AP, and more.

I had already been intending to do a benefit to fight back against book bans and censorship, but this fast-tracked it. 

On 8/24/23, I asked Julie Gribble of KidLit TV, my partner for #KidlitForUkraine, if she was up for this spiritual sequel, including the tight deadline—aiming for Banned Book Weeks (first week of October). She said yes immediately. 

We chose PEN America as the organization to which we’d donate 100% of proceeds.

I tapped Lauren Castillo to design the luminescent logo (her graciousness also glowed!). It is the colorful image within this graphic:

I set out to follow the template of the first show but with an all-new group of 30 children’s authors and allies. Over the next couple of weeks, I lined up a cast that includes the following:

  • the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
  • a Newbery winner
  • two Newbery honorees
  • numerous other award winners
  • a 30 Rock star

#KidlitAgainstBookBans stars the following:

Anika Aldamuy Denise
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Lisa Fipps
Daniel Handler
Kimberly Latrice Jones
Erin Entrada Kelly
Hena Khan
Adib Khorram
Jo Knowles
Gail Carson Levine
Alex London
Andrea Loney
Jessica Love
Yuyi Morales
Maulik Pancholy
Andrea Davis Pinkney
Toby Price (MI assistant principal fired for reading I Need a New Butt! to 2nd graders)
NoNieqa Ramos
Raul the Third
Jewell Parker Rhodes
Katie Rinderle (GA teacher fired for reading My Shadow Is Purple to 5th graders)
Alex Sanchez
Eliot Schrefer
Jon Scieszka
Laurel Snyder
Christina Soontornvat
Don Tate
Mychal Threets (CA supervising librarian and influencer)
Andrea Wang
Paul O. Zelinsky

Unlike the Ukraine benefit, this got no coverage in kidlit press.

The $4,000 we raised fell short of my goal to match the $15,000 for Ukraine, but I’m happy we were able to contribute something to the ongoing campaign.

I think it was easier to raise money for Ukraine at least in part because we announced that benefit soon after the war started, and it was not just any war—it was the first war in Europe in our lifetime. It was raw, scary, and making headlines daily. (So is book banning, but as we know, many don’t see fighting it as a priority...)

Among the ways I tried to boost the total:

  • emailed the 300+ who donated to the Ukraine effort
  • asked author/illustrator friends to hand out flyers promoting the benefit at the heavily attended Chappaqua Book Festival on 9/30/23
  • because Star Trek actor George Takei posted about my Georgia fracas to his 1.4 million Instagram followers, I asked if he would spread word (if even 1% of his followers contributed, it would add 14,000 donors!)
  • asked PEN if they’d ask big names who have supported them if they would plug it on social media 

Unfortunately, I thought of the Chappaqua idea the night before the book fest and the Takei/PEN ideas the day before the show premiered…in other words, too late. 

I hit other roadblocks—KidLit TV backed out a little over a week before the world premiere (so I switched from live streaming to posting the benefit as a video to be removed immediately after), the donation link on the platform I chose to host the fundraiser (Facebook) didn’t work for some people—but in the end, the show went on.

Thank you again to all who donated, spread word, helped behind the scenes, and, of course, told a story of hope.