Portland Students Discuss Welcoming

By Anne Sibley O’Brien

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Videographer Fred Okot Ben

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.

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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.”

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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.


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I’m Your Neighbor, Portland: Conclusion

IYN Slogan ImageI’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.

Author Profile: Maria Paidan

Out of NowhereAuthor of Out of Nowhere

Maria Padian’s title Out of Nowhere offers perspective on how members from a Franco-American long-term community react to Somali new arrivals in their Maine hometown. At the center is Tom, a high school senior, who, despite making cultural blunders and being confronted with conflicting views from his family and surrounding community, is constantly willing and open to learning about his Somali classmates. We’re immensely grateful for Padian’s work on this title and for all the support that she has shown for I’m Your Neighbor, Portland.

VISIT Maria Paidan’s website for more about the author and Out of Nowhere

JOIN US at the Portland Public Library on August 2nd to celebrate this title

On Writing Out of Nowhere

I grew up in a family where the conversation at holiday dinners was a blizzard of accents. The food combinations were a bit unusual (Spanish rice served with Irish soda bread?) and often, at odd hours, the telephone would ring. My mother would answer those calls from distant relatives by speaking very loudly and slowly into the receiver, to accommodate the poor reception and delays from transcontinental lines.

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Maria Padian signing copies of Out of Nowhere at the I’m Your Neighbor, Portland launch

All four of my grandparents were immigrants, and their stories were woven deeply into the fabric of our third-generation lives. They were maids, butchers, bar keepers and bus drivers. They arrived in New York City with little besides youth and optimism, and relied on their churches and their contacts from “back home” to get established. They didn’t send their own children to college, but my siblings and I went. They worked hard to build new lives and create opportunities for their children and grandchildren, most of whom went on to realize educational and economic success.

A day does not pass that I don’t recall them with grateful admiration.

So it was with great interest that I followed the arrival of new immigrants to my now-home state of Maine: Somali refugees, fleeing civil war in their own country, and resettling in unprecedented numbers in the city of Lewiston. Recalling my own grandparents, I wondered how these newcomers would fare. My relatives struggled despite having many affinities with the dominant culture: they were white, they were Christian, they were literate, half of them spoke English. How, in a post-9/11 America, would black, Muslim, destitute, people fare? Most did not speak English and many couldn’t read, even in their own language.

I suppose it’s no surprise that the stories that interested me the most were those from young people. As a Young Adult author, I’m naturally drawn to teens and adolescents: I love their passion and their candor. And as I met people from both Lewiston and Portland, both young and old, and spoke with them about receiving these newcomers or being these newcomers, I found that repeatedly my conversations with teens were uplifting and energizing and revelatory. My conversations with adults, except for a few cases, were dispiriting, political and cagey.

The fact is the immigrant story is written by the young, and while we adults can bluster and argue and finger point and pigeonhole all we want, our children and grandchildren are the ones who will get down to the business of living together and redefining what it means to be an American. At some point I decided I didn’t want to speak with adults any longer: I wanted to write a story about teens, from their perspective. It took a little searching and a few false starts, but I was finally fortunate enough to meet young people who not only had the command of English to tell me their stories, but also had the courage to trust me with their stories.

The resulting novel, Out of Nowhere, is inspired by anecdotes told to me by those young people, as well as accounts I’ve read about refugee communities elsewhere in the United States. I used recent historical events in Lewiston, Maine as the scaffolding for the plot, but the characters in the book are fictitious and much of what transpires is an amalgam of what I’ve heard, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve imagined. It would be a mistake to comb through these pages in search of actual people and things that really happened. Instead, I hope readers will come away with a greater understanding of what it means to be a stranger in new world as well as to receive a stranger in an established world.

Celebrating Bread Song

Fred Lipp reads from his book Bread Song

Fred Lipp reads from his book Bread Song

On July 24th, adults and children gathered at the Portland Public Library to celebrate Bread Song with a reading by the author and the tasting of bread from many cultures. Author Fred Lipp, his wife Kitty and three grand-daughters were present. Alison Pray, the owner of Standard Baking Company and who sparked the “AHA” moment for Fred when he was writing this book, was also part of the audience.

Lipp and Alison, owner of Standard Baking Co.

Lipp and Alison, owner of Standard Baking Co.

Lipp began with a discussion about new neighbors and overcoming shyness. He talked about the taking the initiative to talk to someone new because the other person might be too shy to talk to you first. During his time at minister at First Parish, he said he would often meet new people by simply walking the streets of Portland and striking up conversations. Lipp imagined it might be especially true for new arrivals coming from different countries to be shy about speaking in a new language. These thoughts were the inspiration behind the friendship between Alison the baker and young Chamnan in Bread Song. 

Lipp then read aloud from his book, acting out Chamnan walking across the street and counting the steps with his grandfather. His energetic reading engaged all members of the audience and kids followed along with copies of the book. After he finished, Lipp shared a secret with the audience. He explained that when he was younger, he too was quiet and rarely spoke because he had difficulty reading and stammered. He remembered what it was like to be shy and the importance of having a friend who reached out and helped him overcome his shyness. “A little bit of Chamnan is in me,” he said.

Samoons, red bean buns and baguette from local bakeries

Samoons, red bean buns and baguette from local bakeries

Following Lipp’s reading, everyone was given a Bread Song matching activity, in which pictures of different kinds of bread had to be matched up with the bakery and country of origin. While it was easy to connect baguettes with Standard Baking and French origins because of the story, others were more tricky. Even some of the adults were stumped!

Attendees were given the chance to sample three different breads from local bakeries all representing three different cultures. Iraqi samoons from Tandoor Bakery, Chinese red bean buns from Bubble Maineia and French baguettes from Standard Baking were available to taste. The red bean buns were most unfamiliar to many, although some had had similar pork filled buns at Chinese restaurants. The samoons were very popular, and several asked where they could find them for purchase.

While they snacked on the breads, people could chat with Lipp and Alison about the book and her bakery. A former South Portland librarian said he was excited to share Bread Song with a Thai family member and her children. Lipp signed copies of his books and then said his good-byes as he and his family were off to lunch at a Thai restaurant to celebrate.

Bread Song Event 7/24/13

Bread SongEarly one morning, children’s book author Fred Lipp asked Alison Pray, the owner of Standard Bakery to share a secret about her shop. Without hesitation, she told him about the “bread song,” when newly baked loaves snap and crackle as they are taken out of the oven.

When Standard Bakery was located on Wharf Street, there was a Thai restaurant across the street.  In the twenty-five steps between those two businesses, Lipp imagined that a Thai “new arrival” or immigrant with limited English might find walking into an English-speaking bakery a challenge.  But after hearing the bread “sing”, Lipp wondered how the experience would impact such a new neighbor.  How would Alison’s secret loosen the tongue of a child and make him feel more at home in this new country?  These explorations would become foundations for the children’s picture book, Bread Song.

Bread Song will be celebrated at the Portland Public Library in Monument Square on Wednesday, July 24, 2013 at 11:30 AM as part of a city-wide read entitled “I’m Your Neighbor, Portland.” Author Fred Lipp will read aloud from his book. The event will include a book signing, book giveaway,  and the sharing of bread from many cultures. The event is free of charge. For more information, contact Curious City at 207-420-1126.

Set in Portland’s Old Port District, Bread Song tells the story of a community helping a Thai boy who has recently immigrated to America feel welcome. Young Chamnan is new to this strange land. Across the street from his family’s Thai restaurant is Alison’s Bakery, which sells bread and where everyone speaks English. Chamnam feels shy about speaking to others in the difficult language that his grandfather is teaching him, until the day that Alison the baker invites him to witness something simply magical.

Fred Lipp is the award-winning author of several multicultural children’s picture books set around the world. In addition to writing children’s books, he is the founder of the Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Foundation, which helps educate girls in Cambodia from 6th grade through university. His organization provides the opportunity for girls from rural villages to pursue higher education and employment. He and his wife have visited Cambodia many times and built long lasting relationships with the students and their villages. Lipp is also a former minister of First Parish in Portland.

Community Organizations Receive I’m Your Neighbor Portland Collection

Intern Lanie Honda putting together the collection for distribution to the communiity

Intern Lanie Honda putting together the collection for distribution to the community

On July 17th Kirsten Cappy and Lanie Honda visited community organizations around the city to deliver sets of the I’m Your Neighbor, Portland collection in the first I’m Your Neighbor, Portland Book Distribution. Rachel Talbot Ross, head of the City of Portland’s Multicultural Affairs (also head of the Portland NAACP chapter); Hildy Ginsberg, Executive Director of the Greater Portland YMCA branch; Regina Phillips, Director of Refugee Services; and Judith Southworth, Elder Refugee Coordinator for Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services received all nine featured titles on behalf of their organizations.

These organizations were chosen because of the services they provide for Portland refugees and immigrants, and for partnering with I’m Your Neighbor, Portland events. All expressed surprise at receiving the collection and Refugee Services already had plans to make them available in their waiting room.

This free book distribution was made possible through the generous donations from members of the community. We are incredibly thankful to all of the individuals and groups for their support. Please see our sponsor page if you are interested in making a contribution. All donations go towards providing free books for those in the Portland community.

Celebrating The Good Braider

Copies of The Good Braider provided by our generous donors

Copies of The Good Braider provided by our generous donors

On July 11th, I’m Your Neighbor, Portland celebrated its first featured book in the collection, The Good Braider. Author Terry Farish was joined by local performers O.D. Bonny and Bianca Abdalla in an evening of exploration and celebration of both the title and the Sudanese American community in Portland.

Bianca Abdalla reads "Be Free" from The Good Braider

Bianca Abdalla reads “Be Free” from The Good Braider

Kristen Cappy, project director, opened the evening with wishing South Sudan a “Happy Birthday,” as July 9th marked its second year of independence. Student and performance artist Bianca Abdalla reading from the chapter “Be Free,” which takes place early in the novel while the character Viola and her family lives in Juba, South Sudan. Bianca beautifully expressed Farish’s writing and the character Viola’s voice.

Farish then led the audience through a discussion of the mother-daughter relationship a central theme throughout The Good Braider, based on what Farish observed in the Sudanese-American community in Portland. One audience member noted Viola’s preference to confide in her grandmother over her mother and wondered if that was a common occurrence in Sudanese culture. Bianca responded that like Viola, she often talked more to her grandmother about certain things that she would never talk to her mother about. She shared that her mother commanded more authority and might try to lecture, whereas her grandmother, as an elder of the family, would listen.

Sudanese rapper OD Bonny performs from his album "Kwo I Lobo Tek"

Sudanese rapper OD Bonny performs from his album “Kwo I Lobo Tek”

Sudanese rap artist OD Bonny came on stage next to perform two songs from his album “Kwo I Lobo Tek” sung in Acholi, OD’s native language and one of the languages spoken in Sudan. He concluded his set with “A Girl from Juba,” which was inspired by the book. He also shared a special preview of The Good Braider book trailer that he is currently in the process of filming.

Many wonderful connections were made during the book discussion, from OD relating his own personal experiences coming to Portland from Uganda to Viola’s story, to a Portland librarian connecting the book’s theme of identity to her family’s history of being Russian Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s. O.D.’s friend Chris, who plays Andrew in the trailer, said that he enjoys friendships with people of all different backgrounds and that as a child, he felt a connection with the kids who were bullied because of their skin color since he too was often picked on.

Bianca performed a second reading, “Flea Market,” which takes place in Portland and describes an afternoon with her American friend Andrew and a moment when Viola first experiences a step towards a new identity in the U.S. The discussion concluded with a conversation on the ability of fiction to connect readers with people of a different culture and life experience. “I moved to Portland a few years ago,” one participant said, ” and I’m aware of the immigrants in the city, but I don’t know any of them, I don’t know their stories. This book series opens your eyes… It offers a chance to hear their stories.”

Terry Farish (right) with OD (center), Chris (left) and Kirsten Cappy (back)

Terry Farish (right) with OD (center), Chris (left) and Kirsten Cappy (back)

Afterwards, the audience was free to talk with the performers or have Farish sign a copy of her book, as they tasted  Sudanese Cinnamon Sweet Tea, and vegetable sambusas and himbasha bread from Asmara Restaurant. They were also able to pick up an I’m Your Neighbor Portland discussion guide to the novel to continue the conversations.

35 readers of varying ages and cultures joined in this wide-ranging discussion made more powerful by the performances of Sudanese Americans, OD and Bianca. Thanks to all who joined us and to the staff of the Portland Public Library who support and partner with I’m Your Neighbor Portland.