Readers of this blog know that I love to write about books and do so regularly. But it’s not often that I get a chance to interview a children’s book writer and illustrator! Well, exciting things happen when the English Teachers Association of Israel, aka ETAI, celebrates its 40th anniversary with an exciting international conference! So, I now have the pleasure of introducing plenary speaker Anne Sibley O’Brien. from Maine, U.S.A., a children’s book writer, and an illustrator who has published 37 books featuring diverse children and cultures. (see details about the conference here).
Naomi: I was once ” the new kid’. My first reaction to the illustration was – “Oh, the teacher on the left is introducing the new student as someone who has something to offer in a relationship by saying that the new student likes to write stories! He’s not someone who simply needs to be pitied and will be totally dependant on others”.
Is that the kind of reaction you were hoping for?
Annie: Yes, exactly. The driving purpose of these two books is to portray the richness and fullness of the lives of people who become immigrants and refugees. They’re not blank slates who come with nothing and need to be filled up. I want people in receiving communities to recognize that new arrivals are already whole people, with a family, a language (often more than one), a history, a culture, interests, talents… and that they have so much to offer. They bring gifts.
I also want people to get a glimpse of how challenging the assimilation period is. In order to adjust to the new place, immigrants and refugees have to learn so many aspects of life all over again, and the more differences they encounter — race, language, culture, religion, etc. — the greater the challenge.
Naomi: Your books are about inclusion, accepting others and celebrating diversity. What made you so interested in this subject?
Annie: When I was seven years old, my parents moved my three siblings and me from rural New Hampshire in the States, to Seoul, South Korea. Working in Korea (my dad was a doctor) was a dream come true for them. I went from always blending in to suddenly standing out, feeling as if someone had turned a spotlight on me. I became fascinated by differences as a result of being “the different one” — but uniquely in a position of high status and extreme privilege, not the standard experience of being the Other!
At the same time, our family was being so warmly welcomed into the Korean community, from which I absorbed the idea that we are all one human family. That combination of experiences gave me my life’s work.
Naomi: You drew the illustration presented above yourself and all the illustrations for your books. What do you start with – the illustrations or the words?
Annie: I’ve illustrated 33 picture books, about half of which I also wrote, half by other authors. Recently I also wrote a couple of picture books that were illustrated by someone else — that was fun! When it’s someone else’s book, then the illustrations usually come second to a completed manuscript.
When it’s my own book, it completely depends on the project, and sometimes on the individual scene or page. I may have strong images and wait to find the few words I need to tell the part of the story that isn’t already in the pictures. Other times I have the story and need to find the images that will enrich, support, and amplify the text. Often it’s both processes in the same book, going back and forth between the two approaches.
Naomi: I understand you visit schools a great deal. Have you found that the children are interested in discussing these topics?
Annie: Absolutely! Children have so much in-depth experience of in-groups and out-groups and issues of difference, even if they live in places where most people look like them and they haven’t had much exposure to the diverse cultures of the world. The subject of human difference is so often fraught with conflict, dis-ease, and discomfort, so I like to model ease in discussing race and culture, as an invitation — we can talk about this!
Naomi:And the final question I ask all the speakers I interview;
What do you do in your free time?
Annie: “Free time” is a bit of a slippery concept since I’m self-employed and there aren’t any preset boundaries around my schedule. It’s also funny because much of my work time is spent doing things — writing, drawing, reading — that other people consider being leisure activities. But I love to read, watch movies, walk or bike on our beautiful Maine island, go out to dinner, and best of all, spend time with our 5-year-old grandson!
Teaching English as a FOREIGN language to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students