While the book trailer remains a popular way to promote picture books, Kirsten Cappy and I wanted to create a video that might matter to the mission of my picture book, I’m New Here. Could we model conversations with elementary school children on the universality of “feeling new” and on simple ways to be “welcoming”?
It was such a pleasure to do this project with Fred Okot Ben, a young videographer whose work is mostly in music videos. Fred’s qualifications for this project include his own history; his Sudanese family came to the U.S. as refugees when he was four. Based on detailed information about the product we envisioned, Fred developed a clear, coherent plan which kept us on track throughout the process. During the shoot, he was at once a relaxed, engaged and attentive presence – by far the coolest person in the room, and completely unobtrusive. His set-up included a simple set of instructions in a familiar environment against a backdrop of library bookshelves. All of this set the children at ease.
We planned the video shoot around a workshop with the students, a group of incoming first- and third-graders. I introduced myself, sharing my story of being a child their age, navigating a new culture and new language in a place where I stood out, as if I had a spotlight on me. After a reading of I’m New Here, we discussed the characters’ experiences of being new and the students’ own. We generated a list of what it felt like to be new. Then the students moved to tables to draw pictures and write messages based on their stories.
Students Suggestion on How to Welcome a New Arrival
We came back together for a discussion of how to be welcoming, generated another list, and returned to the tables to write messages of what students might say or do to welcome someone new to their school.
The following day, students were interviewed one by one, sharing the pictures they had drawn and the messages they had written. We were struck by the depth, substance and naturalness of their responses. I noticed the importance of having reflected on their own stories, which deepened the content of what they shared. For instance, when asked what it felt like to be new, some students responded automatically – “happy!” – but when given the chance to focus on their personal experiences, remembered, “Oh, actually, on the first day of school I was scared and I cried.”
IYN Founders Anne Sibley O’Brien and Kirsten Cappy with Featured Student
From the shoot came a second piece where I was interviewed by Kirsten Cappy about new arrival books and my mission with I’m New Here.
“…a glimpse into the complicated lineage of war-torn areas.” —School & Library Journal, starred review
Description For sixteen years, it’s been just Sofie and her father, living on the New Hampshire coast. Her Cambodian immigrant mother has floated in and out of her life, leaving Sofie with a fierce bitterness toward her—and a longing she wishes she could outgrow. To me she is as unreliable as the wind.
Then she meets Luke, an Army medic back from Afghanistan, and the pull between them is as strong as the current of the rushing Piscataqua River. But Luke is still plagued by the trauma of war, as if he’s lost with the ghosts in his past. Sofie’s dad orders her to stay away; it may be the first time she has ever disobeyed him. A ghost can’t love you.
When Sofie is forced to stay with her mother and grandmother while her dad’s away, she is confronted with their memories of the ruthless Khmer Rouge, a war-torn countryside, and deeds of heartbreaking human devotion. I don’t want you for ancestors. I don’t want that story.
As Sofie and Luke navigate a forbidden landscape, they discover they both have their secrets, their scars, their wars. Together, they are dangerous. Together, they’ll discover what extraordinary acts love can demand.
Reviews & Accolades
“New Hampshire. For as long as she can remember, it’s been just the two of them, making ends meet the best they can. An early closure of the shrimping season forces her father down south to the Chincoteague, but not before he unequivocally warns Sofie not to see Luke, a volatile deckhand returned from duty as a medic in Afghanistan. With her father gone, her long-absent mother and grandmother move in to take his place. She grudgingly begins to learn more about their life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and though she doesn’t want their history for her own, she slowly realizes that she may not have a choice. Meanwhile, she finds herself quickly consumed by the pull of Luke. Poetic, spare, and sometimes near stream of consciousness, Farish’s writing is haunting. She paints broad strokes and excels at setting a tone that pervades every word and action. The sexual tension between Sofie and Luke is palpable. Beautifully written and briskly paced, the sparse prose evokes the rugged, bleak landscape, the simplicity of Sofie’s former life with her Dad, and the immediate, unspoken union between her and Luke. VERDICT An excellent choice for readers seeking a less than neatly packaged love story or a glimpse into the complicated lineage of war-torn areas.” —School & Library Journal, starred review
“In New Hampshire, a 17-year-old Cambodian-American girl falls for a mysterious military medic in this poetically rendered novel by the author of The Good Braider (2012). Most people would dial 911 if they saw a lone figure with a gun standing on a broken pier near icy, rushing water. But instead, Sofie Grear calls out to Lucas, a National Guard medic who served in Afghanistan. Their chance encounter leads to a romance that must be kept secret, because Lucas is 22. Along with a new boyfriend who seems to be suffering from PTSD, Sofie is also worried about her white fisherman father’s struggling business. He must leave home for fresh fishing grounds, leaving Sofie in the care of her estranged Cambodian mother, who is pregnant with another man’s child. For Sofie, who insists “I am not Cambodian…I have no ancestors. I have no mother. I make myself from scratch every day,” this is a terrible betrayal. But once her mother and grandmother move in and share their history, which dates back to the tyrannical rule of the Khmer Rouge, Sofie discovers that stories from her past are helpful in solving the problems of her present. Though the characterization is uneven (Lucas is a cipher, while Sophie’s no-nonsense grandmother steals every scene she is in), Farish spins an atmospheric plot with lyrical language. Readers willing to take their time will enjoy this earnest cross-cultural meditation on love and family.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Though technically not a verse novel like The Good Braider (2012), Farish’s new novel, a bittersweet love story between a fisherman’s teenage daughter and a soldier returned from Afghanistan, reads like a series of connected prose poems rather than a straightforward narrative. Sixteen-year-old Sofie knows the ins and outs of the fishing business in their coastal New Hampshire town, and her father is about to go under. While he takes his boat south to find a better winter catch, Sofie’s estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother arrive to stay with her instead. Resentful of their intrusion and unsettled by stories of her Cambodian family, inextricably tied to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Sophie spends more time with gentle, enigmatic Luke, a young army medic. They fall in love despite being aware that it cannot last. Luke, suffering from PTSD, hasn’t yet found his way back from the war. With evocative language and imagery, and a wandering, internal narrative, this quiet novel examines the intersections of love and war in a family’s history.” —Booklist
Setting United States
Author Cultural Research
Explore Terry Farish’s research for this novel here.
Engagement Projects Author Terry Farish maintains a resource-rich blog on the groups represented in the novel here.
I’m Your Neighbor, Portland was a 2013 Portland, Maine community-wide read and series of public events designed to promote a sense of community among the diverse people who make the port city their home.
READ the I’m Your Neighbor, Portland Narrative Report
Want to hold your own community-wide read of New Arrival Children’s Literature?
Explore book options and contact us at I’m Your Neighbor Books.
“Whether readers are new themselves or meeting those who are new, there are lessons to be learned here about perseverance, bravery, and inclusion, and O’Brien’s lessons are heartfelt and poetically rendered.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
Description Maria is from Guatemala, Jin is from Korea, and Fatima is from Somalia. All three are new to their American elementary school, and each has trouble speaking, writing, and sharing ideas in English. Through self-determination and with encouragement from their peers and teachers, the students learn to feel confident and comfortable in their new school without losing a sense of their home country, language, and identity.
Young readers from all backgrounds will appreciate this touching story about the assimilation of three immigrant students in a supportive school community.
Anne Sibley O’Brien is one of the founders of I’m Your Neighbor, an organization that promotes children’s literature featuring “new arrival” cultures. As the rate of immigration to the United States increases, topics related to immigration are increasingly more important in the classroom and home. I’m New Here demonstrates how our global community can work together and build a home for all.
Reviews & Accolades “Readers walk in the shoes of three students struggling after immigrating to the United States.
Readers meet Maria, from Guatemala, Jin, a South Korean boy, and Fatimah, a Somali girl who wears the hijab. O’Brien fosters empathy by portraying only one challenge each must overcome rather than overwhelming readers with many. Maria struggles with the language. Though back home, “Our voices flowed like water and flew between us like birds,” the sounds of English elude her. Clever, phonetically spelled dialogue balloons bring home to readers how foreign English sounds to Maria. For Jin, writing is the trouble; the scribbles of American letters close the door to the wonderful world of stories. Fatimah’s challenge is abstract: she cannot find her place in this new classroom. Gradually, each child begins to bridge the gap—soccer, stories and shared words, artwork—and feel like part of a community. O’Brien’s watercolor-and-digital illustrations masterfully use perspective, white space, and the contrast between the children “back home” and in their new settings to highlight the transition from outsider to friend. Other diverse students fill the classrooms, including a child in a wheelchair. An author’s note tells O’Brien’s own immigrant story, how difficult the transition is, the reasons families might emigrate, and how readers might help.
Whether readers are new themselves or meeting those who are new, there are lessons to be learned here about perseverance, bravery, and inclusion, and O’Brien’s lessons are heartfelt and poetically rendered.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“This well-conceived, thoughtful picture book traces the first day at a new school for three children with very different experiences of adjusting, linguistically and culturally.” —Shelf Awareness
“The simplicity of the narrative combined with vibrant watercolor artwork depicting a wide range of diversity results in a powerful message of empathy for the immigrant experience.” —Booklist
Education & Literacy
Multicultural or Cross Group Friendship
Setting United States
Author’s Cultural Research I’m New Heregrew in my mind over many years of considering recently-arrived, culturally diverse students, as I interacted with them while creating books, speaking in schools, and evaluating available resources. Though there are many wonderful books featuring individual child immigrants, it seemed to me that in the big picture something was missing. Somehow the emphasis was on what immigrant children needed to acquire, as if they arrived as blank slates, needing to be filled. I wanted to focus on the strengths these children already had, leading rich and complex lives in their home countries, where they know how to fully communicate and participate. Immigration, however it happens, means losses, and it means starting over, having to learn everything all over again.
I had the help of many people throughout the process, including ELL and classroom teachers, language and cultural experts, and young students themselves. I read research papers about adjustment issues for immigrant children, and many books by and about immigrants.
I also drew from my own experience of my family’s move from the U.S. to South Korea when I was seven, the same age as the children in this book. I didn’t have to learn a new language or culture for school, but I did form a new identity as I became bilingual, bicultural, and at home in a new country. —Anne Sibley O’Brien
Engagement Projects View & DownloadI’m New Here: Creating Conversation About Welcoming Immigrants & Refugees: A Classroom or Community Event Kit
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For those who attended the celebration of The Good Braider on July 11th, you may remember the preview we showed of the book trailer featuring the song “A Girl From Juba” by OD Bonny. We’re pleased to announce that the final version has been released! You can view it below and on YouTube.
Nearly 100 YMCA campers and staff attended the reading and participated in activities Photo by Gabe Bornstein
On Thursday, August 8th, families, children and almost one hundred campers from the Portland YMCA summer program gathered in the Rines Auditorium at the Portland Public Library for a celebration of the book A Path of Stars, written and illustrated by Peaks Island author Anne Sibley O’Brien.
Anne Sibley O’Brien with Sokumthim Nou, husband and neighbor, July
Project Director Kirsten Cappy briefly explained I’m Your Neighbor, Portland and encouraged the children to find books in the library that were about children from different cultures before inviting O’Brien to the stage. The author first introduced herself and then was joined Sokunthim Nou and her husband, the Cambodian owners of Chiang Mai restaurant, who prepared the Cambodian dish mango sticky rice for a snack that would be eaten later in the event.
O’Brien showed a map of Cambodia and explained some Cambodian history to give background to her story. She also explained that her book was inspired by the stories of her friends Vaensa and Peng Kem, who were born in Cambodia and had to leave the country because of the war. The audience sat captivated as O’Brien read A Path of Stars aloud and watched illustrations from the book projected on the screen.
After the story-telling, the children watched a video of traditional Khmer dancing before standing up and trying a short dance of their own. O’Brien led the audience in learning the steps and hand movements of the dance and soon the room was filled with sounds of Khmer music as children stepped and flicked their wrists.
Once the music ended, the audience prepared for a drawing lesson of the lotus flower. O’Brien showed pictures of the lotus and explained its significance in Cambodian culture. “The lotus flower is a symbol for purity because it roots itself in the mud but blooms on the surface of the water beautifully clean and pure,” she said. The audience gasped when O’Brien showed pictures of the famous temple, Angkor Wat, and a giant statue of the Buddha sitting in the lotus flower. O’Brien led the children in the drawing lesson and drew different examples of a closed and open blossom. Once everyone had learned and practiced drawing the flower, cards with “I’m Your Neighbor” written in Khmer were handed out to everyone in the audience. They could draw and color the lotus on the front and then write their own messages on the inside. While they drew, they snacked on the mango and sticky rice.
Decorated cards would be delivered to Chiang Mai restaurant in Portland as thanks for the mango sticky rice Photo by Gabe Bornstein
Before leaving, the children turned in their cards that would be delivered to Chiang Mai restaurant as a thank you for the delicious snack. Some kids wrote that they hoped to visit Cambodia one day or that they thought Cambodia was cool. Others wrote “I’m Your Neighbor” on the inside and signed their name.
I’m Your Neighbor Portland is tremendously grateful to the Law Offices of Joe Bornstein, who helped sponsor this event and advertised it on the Time and Temperature building. With their generous donation, every child left with personalized copies of A Path Of Stars signed by O’Brien, a set of colored pencils and a lotus blossom drawing activity. We also thank Xpress Copy (located on Fore Street in Portland, ME) for donating cardboard mats that the children used while drawing and the YMCA for bringing their campers to the library!
Last Friday, August 2nd, I’m Your Neighbor Portland hosted its largest event yet, “Ramadan Mubarak: A Holiday Celebration and Education for Families of All Faiths.” Over two hundred people attended throughout the evening, including members from the Muslim community, Portland residents and those passing through on their First Friday Art Walk circuit.
Many attendees waited to be decorated in beautiful henna designs
Attendees could have their names written in Arabic when they first entered. The Portland Library had a display of their collection on Islam next to the I’m Your Neighbor Portland bookshelf, and PPL staff were on hand for anyone who wanted to check out books. The henna station was extremely popular and volunteers were kept busy as a constant stream of people were lined up waiting to have their hands painted with beautiful designs. Peaks Island author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien had her art work from Moon Watcherson display to show the process of her research and early sketches for the illustrations. There was also a prayer rug room set up with a video of how to pray and prayer rugs loaned to us from our Muslim neighbors on display. Volunteers were on hand to answer any questions visitors had about the prayer rugs or Islamic practices.
Prayer rugs and a video on how to pray were on display
After introducing remarks were made by project director Kirsten Cappy, Reza Jalali, director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Southern Maine and author of the children’s book Moon Watchers took the stage to talk about Ramadan and practicing the Islamic faith in Maine. He touched on his own experiences coming to Portland and the growth he has seen in the Muslim community in the almost thirty years he has made this city his home. Jalali also spoke about the five pillars of Islam and the celebration of Ramadan as part of an “Islam 101” education for those in the audience who were unfamiliar with the practices. Attendees were given a chance to ask questions, some of which were answered from Muslim teenagers who were in the audience.
Pious Ali of Maine Interfaith Alliance then hosted a panel discussion with Reza Jalali, Anne Sibley O’Brien, Maria Padian, author of Out of Nowhere, and Padian’s cultural adviser, a Somali young man named Shobow Saban. The topic of the panel was the process of cross-cultural collaboration on the titles Moon Watchers and Out of Nowhere. Pious guided the panelists in conversations about how each team came to work together and the many conversations that took place between author and cultural adviser. O’Brien and Padian shared what they learned about Islamic practices and the Iranian/Somali culture during their research. The panel concluded with the audience answering the question “What is one thing you will take away from this evening?” The remarks made were wonderful; many commented on a greater understanding of the religion and Ramadan and one attendee expressed a reawakened desire for connection across faith. Another said it was “wonderful to be here with so many neighbors.”
Shobow Saban (left), Reza Jalali and Maria Padian (right) stand together after their panel discussion on cross-cultural collaboration
At 8:15, it was time to break the fast as a community. As Jalali described during his talk on Islamic practices, Muslims fast from sun rise until sunset during the month of Ramadan, as a time to practice self-discipline and to increase awareness of and compassion for the poor and hungry. A man from the Muslim community gave the call to prayer and signaled the time to break the fast. Hungry attendees of all faiths gathered to taste food from Tandoor Bread and Restaurant including Iraqi flat bread, hummus, falafel, lentil soup, white bean soup and mountains of rice perfumed with saffron, raisins and almonds. For a sweet end to the meal, there was rice pudding and baklava.
Our thanks go to the many volunteers, Portland Public Library staff, Reza Jalali and Pious Ali, who dedicated their time and expertise to make this event a wonderful success. We also thank the family at Tandoor Bread and Restaurant for providing such excellent food to break the fast and which certainly was enjoyed by all who joined.
Guests of all faiths were invited to break the fast at 8:15
The picture book A Path of Stars, set in Maine’s Cambodian community, will be celebrated at the Portland Public Library in Monument Square on Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 10:30 AM as part of the city-wide read entitled “I’m Your Neighbor, Portland.” All ages welcome, but best for families with children ages 7-12.
Author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien will read aloud from her book and lead a series of events including the drawing lesson of a lotus flower, teaching a Cambodian dance, and sharing Cambodian food from the Chiang Mai restaurant. Children and families will decorate cards that will be sent to the Cambodian temple in Buxton, Maine. Free copies of the book will be given away (while supplies last) courtesy of the Law Offices of Joe Bornstein. The event is free of charge. For more information, contact Curious City at 207-420-1126.
When author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien received a commission from the Maine Humanities Council under the New Mainers Book Project to create a picture book about the Cambodian American experience, she knew that her own experiences and perspectives would be insufficient to tell an authentic story. However, she hoped that by listening and immersing herself in Cambodian culture a story might come through her. O’Brien read every book about Cambodia that she could find, and listened to the stories of her friends Peng and Veansa Kem, who grew up in Cambodia and escaped the war to come to the U.S. Filled with stories of beauty, trauma, loss and heroic survival, O’Brien waited. After many weeks, she had an image of a girl in a garden picking a tomato and a rose. From this image, a story began to take form and grew into her book A Path of Stars.
The children’s picture book tells an affecting story of family, loss, and memory. Dara loves the stories her grandmother, Lok Yeay, tells of the Cambodian countryside where she grew up—stories of family, food, and the stars above, glowing in the warm, sweet air. There are darker stories, too—stories of war and loss that Lok Yeay cannot put into words. Lok Yeay yearns to return to Cambodia to be with her brother. But when that dream becomes impossible, it’s up to Dara to bring Lok Yeay back to a place of happiness.