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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When author Terry Farish was working at the Portland Public Library, she befriended a young man from the Sudan who told her “there is no word” when asked about his favorite family meal. “My mother will cook it for you,” he said. Terry Farish joined his family for a meal and from that day, began a journey of listening. Her new friends in Portland’s Sudanese community told of their tumultuous path from South Sudan to Portland, Maine.
The cultural exploration that started as “there is no word” became a braiding of stories, experiences, and words which culminated in the award-winning novel, The Good Braider.
The Good Braider will be celebrated at the Portland Public Library in Monument Square on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:00 PM as part of city-wide read entitled “I’m Your Neighbor, Portland.” Bianca Abdalla, a local performer, will read aloud from The Good Braider, the author Terry Farish will talk about the development of the novel, and South Sudanese rapper OD Bonny will perform songs from his new CD, “Kwo I Lobo Tek.” The event will include a book signing and the sharing of East African refreshments from Asmara Restaurant. The event is free of charge. For more information, contact Curious City at 207-420-1126.
The free verse novel for teens and adults is told in the character’s Viola’s strikingly original first person voice. The narrative follows Viola’s dreams of South Sudan and her navigation of the strange world of America – a world where a girl can wear a short skirt, get a tattoo or even date a boy; a world that puts her into sharp conflict with her traditional mother who, like Viola, is struggling to braid together the strands of a displaced life.
“As I built relationships with new friends in Portland from Sudan,” Terry Farish said, “I explained to elders that I wanted to write a book about the teens as they made their homes in Maine. The elders very much wanted this story to be told and shared their experience and struggles with me. I approached the work as documentarian, spending a lot of time with families and learning how they spent their days, about their art, the work of their hands, the music they love, the stories they tell. However, I used this research method to create a novel. The Good Braider is fiction and based on research and dozens of stories I recorded.”
Sudanese American rapper and performer OD Bonny was given a copy of the book prepublication and recognized Viola’s journey in The Good Braider as he and brothers also fled South Sudan as young men. In response to his reading, OD Bonny wrote and recorded the song “Girl from Juba” and is currently producing a music video for the song and book with local filmmaker Fred Ben. OD Bonny performs in a mixture of English and his native Acholi. His new CD “Kwo I Lobo Tek” translates as “Life is Hard in This World.” “The song is about the struggle that we are facing in this world,” says OD Bonny, “and what we can do to solve some of those issues.”