On Monday night at the United Nations in New York City, nine children's book authors talked about their contributions to What You Wish For (Putnam Penguin) in a discussion moderated by Leonard Marcus. The book is the result of a partnership between the Book Wish Foundation and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Book Wish founder Logan Kleinwaks, who spearheaded the book project, said that 100% of the proceeds will help establish libraries in refugee camps in Chad, on the Sudan border, which are home to more than 250,000 refugees from Darfur, most of whom are children.
These kinds of fund-raising efforts are crucial because, as Udo Janz, director of UNHCR's New York office, explained, most of the budget for the camps must go to maintaining security. Education is "funded almost entirely through voluntary contributions," Janz said.
Mohamed Yahya, a survivor of the genocide in Darfur and co-founder of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy, has helped thousands to flee Darfur. In a moving speech, Yahya said, "Genocide is not just killing my brothers and sisters. Genocide is also erasing our culture, our ideas, and our dreams. They erase your identity. That is how genocide begins." He expressed his thanks to the authors: "What you are doing is not just for the Sudanese but for humanity."
Moderator Marcus highlighted the ways in which What You Wish For pushed many of the contributors in new directions. Newbery Medalist and novelist Karen Hess ("Nell") had never written a short story before and took her inspiration from "The Little Match Girl."
Marcus asked Marilyn Nelson whether there was a place for humor, given her poem "Cautious Wishing," which he called "a cautionary tale leavened with humor." Better known for her more serious-minded works of nonfiction and poetry, such as the Newbery Honor book Carver: A Life in Poems and the Printz Honor book A Wreath for Emmett Till, Nelson said she relishes humor--it keeps things in perspective. "I gave a graduation speech and told the college grads to keep a clown nose in their medicine cabinet. Once on a while, I put on a clown nose and say, 'I'm a fool,' " she said.
R.L. Stine's ("Funny Things") experience was just the opposite. He started out writing joke books. "Scary books were someone else's idea," he explained. But kids love what he calls "safe scare" experiences. "We all like to be scared if we know we're safe at the same time--in the library, in your room," Stine said. Nate Powell ("Conjurers"), the only graphic contributor to the collection, said that he generally subscribes to the Cormac McCarthy (The Road) school: you wait 40 pages for the characters to find a can of peas, and that can bring "contentment in a world so bleak." For this collection, Powell said, he was trying to go with wishes as "hope and promise."
Cornelia Funke ("Rosanna") who joined the group via Skype, is a former social worker who agreed with Marcus's suggestion that fantasy gives kids "a way to talk about things for which there are no words." Like Nelson, Meg Cabot ("The Protectionist"), who also joined by Skype, sees the advantages of humor. She said, "Reading helped me at times when I was sad; it can take you away from your life." Jeanne DuPrau ("Pearl's Fateful Wish"), whose protagonist lives in a near future with nine billion people on the planet, said that her "impulse" was more toward cautionary tale than Utopia.
One of the first to sign onto the project, Newbery Honor and Baby-Sitters Club author Ann M. Martin ("The Lost Art of Letter Writing") helped build a library in Ghana through her foundation, and her Lisa Libraries are helping schools and libraries damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irene to rebuild their collections.
Sofia Quintero, who has written primarily for adults in the past, has always wanted to write for young people. She noted that she grew up during the crack epidemic in the Southeast Bronx, when it was "the international symbol of urban blight." Her safe haven was the library. "If there's any place that's sacred and open to everyone, it's the library."
To find out how to get involved and learn more about the project, check out Facebook.com/bookwish and Twitter @bookwish. --Jennifer M. Brown