I have no shame in saying this book is face out on my bookshelf. Writing it with Rebeka Uwitonze, the fact that we can call each other not just friends but coauthors, is a story I’ll tell again and again. You can find plenty of posts on this blog about living life with Rebeka, and the process of writing her story together. Yes, I love the story told in these pages. But I also love the story outside these pages. The experience of traveling to Rwanda multiple times to interview her parents and teachers and others who know her. The experience of making a video, sharing artwork kids have sent, facetime calls at 3AM, and Rebeka getting to come back to the US so we could go to the NAACP Image Awards together in LA. We’ve been able to do school visits together and sign books side by side with our left hands (because we’re both left handed).
Our lives will always be linked. Not just because Rebeka lived with us in 2012-13 while she went through one of the hardest experiences of her life, but because our names are side by side on this book. It will hold a place of honor on my bookshelf all my days not because it was my debut, but because it tells a story that changed both our lives, forever.
This is an oldie but a goodie, a picture book I read with my kids when they were little. You may only be able to find it at a second hand store or a library, but it’s well worth your time. The illustrations by Dee Huxley are charming, she captures emotion so well. And I love the story author Margaret Wild spins, of an old man named Mr. Nick who knits on the train, hedgehogs and kangaroos and sweaters for his nieces and nephews. All the while he sits next to his good friend, Mrs. Jolley, until the day she doesn’t show up.
I love Mr. Nick’s pince-nez and bowler hat, and Mrs Jolley’s purple hat and sensible shoes and overstuffed purse spilling yarn and knitting needles. But mostly I love the friendship between these two, and Mr. Nick’s creativity and dedication (He knitted during his lunch hour, and in the bathtub, while he cooked his dinner and while he listened to the radio.) so that he can help his friend feel better. It ends with a surprise (what has Mr. Nick been working on?) and a sense that we can all be connected, even when we’re apart.
I love Annie Dillard, the way she writes, the way she opens my eyes to the natural world, its beauty and violence. I am still traumatized at her account of a small green frog deflating before her eyes, liquified from the inside out and then consumed by a giant water but. But she also grounds me in the real work of being a writer. She tells it straight. I love that the same woman who wrote these words in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when describing a creek that streams over a series of sandstone tiers,
I feel as though I stand at the foot of an infinitely high staircase, down which some exuberant spirit is flinging tennis ball after tennis ball, eternally, and the one thing I want in the world is a tennis ball.
This book has been my introduction to a man who is quite famous in other mediums, from comedy to host of The Daily Show. I learned so much about south Africa and apartheid through the eyes of Trevor Noah, whose voice is irreverent and honest. It is told slant, of course, through the eyes of a kid who gets into lots of mischief/trouble, a kid born of a white father and a black mother. At a time when people were neatly slotted into categories based on the color of their skin (as they often still are), he found his way, seizing opportunity when he saw it. I love this powerful quote, when Trevor visits his dad for the first time in many years as an adult and realizes his dad hadn’t rejected him:
Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.
Noah has a knack for hitting on universal truths. Here’s another one:
But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.
My book is feathered with blue page markers, and I really love this cover, too. When I was talking with Scholastic about the cover of Her Own Two Feet and they asked me for my vision, this was one of the ones I sent them. While mine turned out quite different, the blues and yellows are an echo of it.
I discovered this book before we took our kids on our trip around the world in 2007-08. Perhaps just as much as the idea of traveling around the world, I fell in love with this family. Author Janet Gillespie keeps it real traveling with her husband and four kids ages 8-16 around Europe. They aren’t always thrilled, it’s not always fun, but it’s definitely an adventure and she paints what she sees with authentic strokes, like this:
Our gondolier shouted to other gondoliers and occasionally burst into scraps of song. With his single oar he sent the gondola through the pink evening like a bird through the air and this swift silent flight put us all under a spell. Billy, who sat in the bow with the curved beak of the gondola rising behind his head, was too overcome even to smile. Solemn as a little owl, he stared at the people who waved at us from bridges.
And then a little later, still in Venice at a museum with the four kids:
The gigantic canvases of Venetians eating and drinking left the younger members very cold, but fortunately we found paintings of the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula which had great appeal.
I love the honesty and humor. I convinced my book club to read this book and we still agree, it’s one of our favorites.
Full disclosure, not only is author Kathi Appelt an awesome teacher and an amazing writer, she is a good friend of mine. She helped me start the Austin chapter of SCBWI way back when, and she’s been in my life ever since. She taught me at VCFA and writers workshops, and she’s written alongside me at writers retreats. One of the things I love about Kathi is that she’s always learning.
But even if I didn’t know her, even if I’d never crowned her queen for the day with a paper crown and a toilet plunger scepter, this would still be one of my favorite books. I remember the first time I read it. My three kids were younger and one of them was pestering me just as I was getting to the last few chapters, so I hid. I squeezed between the couch and the wall and I finished the book, teary-eyed, and then I hugged it to my chest.
It has this great, gut-wrenching, heart-clenching first line: “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road. A small calico cat.” Okay, so that’s two sentences, but there is something so specific and tender and perfect about that second line that drew me in the first time and draws me in still. Draws me under the porch with the hound dog, into a setting that is palpable. I wish I could put it in your hands this very second but since I can’t, I may curl up and read it again.
My good friend Natalie Green and I had a plan. Natalie’s official title is U. S. Director of Strategic Partnerships for Africa New Life Ministries, but unofficially her title is Connector. She does this well for so many people, including our family. Natalie initially connected us with Rebeka and in the years since, she’s connected us multiple times across the ocean via Facetime. Without Natalie, Her Own Two Feet would not have happened.
This was the plan. She was leading a team in Rwanda, and she would be in Kayonza where Rebeka goes to school on Friday, January 17th. Natalie would pull Rebeka from class and try to call between 4 and 7AM my time. I had my computer next to my bed, all set up to receive the call. Clay helped me figure out how to loop in our daughter Alayna who lives several miles away. We practiced how to record a Facetime call. We did all this knowing the call may not work out. The connection may be poor, the team may have an unexpected change of plans, Rebeka may be in the middle of taking a test and unable to go to the office for the call. So many things had to go right. And they did.
When the call came at 4AM, my brain was groggy, my hair messy, my eyes crusty and my heart bursting. It had worked! We flipped on lights and shook out the cobwebs. One of the first thing I noticed was Rebeka’s shirt. She got it when she was living with us in Austin, a shirt that said We All Have a Story to Tell. Yes we do!
We dialed up Alayna on Clay’s laptop so she could see Rebeka, too. We shared news, caught up on life, and squealed over our recent NAACP Image Award nomination and her passing the P6 national exam and being promoted to S1 (equivalent of 7th grade).
“Rebeka, what did you think about all those pictures and letters from that class?” I asked. Students in Morristown, TN had read and loved our book. They made dozens of handmade pictures and notes, and I made copies of all of them before sending the originals to Rwanda.
“I loved them,” said Rebeka.
“What did you do with them?” I asked, envisioning them hanging on the walls of her small home in Bugesera.
“My neighbors asked if they could have some . . .”
My gut clenched. Her precious treasures?
“And I said ‘sure.’”
Sure? I am storing these treasures with great care and reverence, displaying a few at a time in my kitchen. I couldn’t possibly part with them, or at least I couldn’t imagine doing that, until I heard Rebeka’s “sure.” She shared generously, happily, and immediately.
It has been my experience that this is the way Rwandans live. Generously. On one of my first trips to Rwanda I gave a package of Starburst to one of the kids we sponsor. As I gave them to him, I worried about the dozen or so kids clustered around that had not received anything. He slowly and carefully unwrapped a piece of candy, bit off one corner, and then passed it to one of the kids who took another careful bite and passed it to the next. They each got a taste of sweetness.
Rebeka makes me want to be not just generous, but immediately generous. Maybe her “sure” makes you feel that way, too. If so, I have a suggestion. The Food for Tomorrow ANLM campaign has a goal to make sure kids in school get a free, healthy lunch. Whether a one-time donation or monthly sponsorship, you can make a difference by helping children have a full belly during school, sometimes the only meal they’ll have that day. You should also know that when you buy our book, half the proceeds go to ANLM, to campaigns like Food for Tomorrow.
I love to imagine artwork drawn with great love and care by students in the US, a freewill offering sent across the ocean, being displayed in homes across Bugesera. There are so many more threads of connection because of Rebeka’s immediate generosity. Can one word change a life, a community, the world?
Sometimes superheroes wear two casts and big daisies on their heads, and sometimes superheroes are dusted with chalk, their fingers stained with marker, their secret bat cave a classroom where they share stories about girls in casts and daisies. The Amazing Mrs. Proffitt is a fifth grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher in Morristown, Tennessee who first contacted me via a direct message on Instagram September 13th, 2019. She sent pictures of artwork her 48 students had done in response to Her Own Two Feet, and my jaw dropped.
She’d picked our book out of all the hundreds of thousands of books and bought multiple copies for her class to read.
I sent a thank you note, bookmarks and Chance Comes Once bracelets to the class, she sent more pictures of excited kids, and a relationship was born.
A month later, on October 22nd, we set up a virtual author visit via skype. I could not wait to meet these kids! As soon as our call started and the students appeared on the screen, they all called out in Kinyarwanda, “Mwaramutse!” (good morning) and “Amakuru!” (how are you?). I was so shocked I couldn’t remember how to respond in Kinyarwanda! One of the students explained how Mrs. Proffitt posted Kinyarwanda words from the glossary at the back of the book all over her class so they could learn how to speak Rebeka’s language.
Taped to the screen are Kinyarwanda words and pronunciation.
My eyes filled up with tears. I would have never guessed, when Rebeka came to live with us back in 2013, that six years later students in another state would be inspired to learn her language after reading her story.
I had a few questions for the kids, like on the book cover, what did they think Rebeka was sitting on? They knew immediately. “A skateboard!” they said in an excited chorus. I asked them why that was such a good image, and one boy said, “So she could see her feet?” I hadn’t thought of that, but it was a good, creative answer. She could see both her casted feet stretched in front of her as she rolled down the driveway, again and again.
As the visit went on, Mrs. Proffitt explained that since her class was so large, most of the students sat at their desks and watched me on a large screen. Smaller groups rotated through to talk and ask questions via her laptop, and those were the kids I was seeing. I never heard a complaint. I never saw a push or a shove as students gathered in small groups around the laptop and a few minutes later went back to their desks to make room for more. They raised their hands, they waited their turn, and yet they were still kids. They jumped up and down with excitement and sometimes burst out laughing.
This was the best crowd shot, maybe not the best “Meredith” shot!
It takes a special kind of teacher to create that kind of culture in her classroom, and it takes a superhero kind of teacher to squeeze all the juicy goodness out of a book, doing art projects and tying in vocabulary words and going above and beyond to bring in local media to do a story in the paper, and setting up an author visit so we could talk to each other.
One of the kids asked if there would be another Rebeka story, and I was taken off guard. I hadn’t ever thought about it. Rebeka and I consider her story told, at least for a while, until she lives the next chapters. I asked what they’d want it to be about and another student stepped forward and suggested the next book could be Medea’s story, Rebeka’s little sister. I was touched by how engaged they were with Rebeka’s life, her family, and my writer’s brain went into overdrive as I thought about what that story would be like. Not the story of having a disability in rural Rwanda, but the story of a young girl who helps her sister learn how to walk, says goodbye and stays behind as that sister travels to America, and later to boarding school. The sister with a shy smile and a kind heart and her own story to tell.
I don’t know if I’ll pursue that story, but what I do know is that the Amazing Mrs. Proffitt and her class inspired me and made my day a whole lot brighter. Marvel is fine, so is DC, but I prefer my superheroes coated in chalk dust, a smile on her face and a class of kids ripe for learning.
All pictures are taken by the fantastic Courtney Cope
The big day arrived, the day to celebrate the launch of Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk, the day I had been dreaming about for so many years. I had a list of things to bring. Retractable poster banner? Check. Chance Comes Once rubber bracelets? Check. Markers and stickers so people could “sign” Rebeka’s cast? Check.
Cookies? Check. Coloring pages with colored pencils? Check. Temporary “strong like a butterfly” tattoos? Check.
But these were just the things that had been piling up in the corner of my room for weeks. Was I really ready? Was I ready to stand up and talk in front of a room full of people? Apparently, I was.
What I wasn’t ready for was the impact it would have to see all of my circles of friends colliding. So many people crammed into one of my favorite places in this city, the second floor of BookPeople. I saw their eyes peeking over bookshelves because the chairs were full. I wish I had taken a picture of them, those eyes, crinkled in the corners because they were smiling as big as I was. They were people who had watched me write and write for years, working to get published. Like the book club I’ve been a part of for the past twenty years. They’ve known for ages that I write, and they couldn’t wait to help me celebrate the book that finally got into print.
Many of these women knew Rebeka. She came with me to book club when she lived with us, that crazy year when the world was topsy turvy and most months I didn’t even read the book for book club but I needed to connect with good friends and good readers and Rebeka was always game for a gathering.
Then there was another circle, my family. My parents and sister, Clay’s parents and brother and his family, his uncle, my aunt, my cousins and their kids. It was like a reunion!
Clay’s side of the family, including boy and girlfriends, back row: Choi, Brant, Craig, Jeff, McKenzie, Maurice, Nate, Clay and Benji, front row: Alayna, Candace, Rhonda, Peggy, me, Jordan, and Casey
My mom and dad, Marvin and Sharen Eggleston
My sister Leslie, and niece Claire
My cousin’s little girl Callie who came with her sister, mom, two aunts, and her grandma (my aunt)
This family has known me long before I started writing children’s books back in 1995. They embraced Rebeka when she came to live with us, they cooked with her and exchanged gifts with her and watched her feet slowly turn. They supported our family as we cared for Rebeka, they supported me all these years that I’ve pursued publication, and they cheered when Rebeka and I teamed up to co-author Her Own Two Feet.
So there they were, my family circle and my book club circle sitting in the same room. Then there were the old friends, the ones who knew I was a writer, even way back then. The ones I wasn’t sure would come, they came. The ones I hadn’t seen in far too long, they came too.
Walter and Tara Bodwell, we’ve shared meals and kids stories and once upon a time, Clay and Walter worked together.
I’ve known Steph since before I was a writer, and I watched her beautiful daughter McKenna grow up. Our past is sprinkled with marvelous play dates, hard times and good times and this very best of a time.
So now there was book club and family and old friends and then there were the kids. The ones who read Her Own Two Feet before it was released and came up with questions for Rebeka. I taught these kids at church, we’ve jumped around and sung songs and glued crafts and shared stories and now we share this new story that they’ve embraced with great enthusiasm. They are part of Rebeka’s story now, and a glimpse into our future when lives across oceans will intertwine in meaningful, important ways.
Sweet Vera and her mom Casey are so dear to me. They live a life of intention, and Vera is a huge reader, just like I was as a kid, and still am.
I taught Amelia, a smart and earnest girl. She and her sister Natalie were quick to say “yes” when I asked if they’d read our book.
Aliyah is such a fun girl, and has a special connection to our book as she was born in Rwanda. I love her fiery spirit and hope she and Rebeka get to meet in person someday!
So, the circles collide, book club and family and old friends and kids, and then there was the Africa New Life (ANL) circle, represented here by two board members, my dad and my husband, Clay, and also by Natalie Green, Director of Strategic Partnerships. ANL sponsors over 10,000 children in Rwanda so they can go to school, and Rebeka is one of them.
Marvin Eggleston, me, Clay Davis and Natalie GreenAnd then there were the neighbors. Neighbors from the street we used to live on at the lake, who knew and loved Rebeka when she lived there, and neighbors we live next to now. Pile on church friends and those I meet with each week. We pray for each other, they’ve seen me struggle with rejection, they love Rebeka, and they celebrate so well. Courtney took over 230 pictures of the day, so many pictures, so many circles colliding. I won’t include all those pics here, but there is one more circle, a really huge circle, that collided with all the others on Saturday, October 19, 2019.
My writer circle. There is an organization called the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and it supports writers and illustrators all over the world. One of the best things it does is connect us. Way back in 1995, with the help of Kathi Appelt and several others, I started an Austin chapter of SCBWI. Kathi introduced me at the launch. She has been a mentor, teacher and friend for all these many years and it was such a joy to stand next to her in front of all my circles and hear her speak about me, this book, Rebeka, and the journey that brought us there.
Kathi Appelt, a talented and accomplished writer who is my mentor, teacher and friend
Over the years, I have met so many writers. We’ve traded drafts of manuscripts, edited each other’s work, accepted criticism and praise from each other, and cheered each other on in both writing life and regular life, where all those other circles lie. This next picture represents a whole lot of hours around tables, working out plot snarls, brainstorming, commiserating and celebrating. I was in a critique group with Anne (far left) for many years, starting in the late 90’s. I went to her wedding last year in Canada, where she now lives with a lovely man and lives happily ever after. I am so grateful she flew all that way for the launch. To Anne’s left are Jerri, Paige and Gayleen, all faithful critique partners who know me better through the stories I write, and they edit, and I revise. These women are amazing cheerleaders.
Anne, Jerri, Gayleen and Paige
Debbie is another good SCBWI friend. She lives in Michigan now and wasn’t sure she’d come. It’s expensive, and she travels a lot already for her own debut book, but her husband insisted. Flowers were not enough. And so she came, a gift from Michigan. We both served as RA’s for Austin SCBWI, we both published our debuts this year. We are bound by our work and our words.
Debbie Gonzales, author of Girls With Guts
One of my biggest wishes for this launch was to not only see all these circles collide, but draw them into an ever-widening circle that crosses the ocean and reaches all the way to Rebeka. Although she couldn’t be present in body, I wanted to include Rebeka every way I could. Courtney took great crowd shots, four of them to capture all those circles but I’ll just put one here.
A few of the circles coming together
In each of these crowd shots, Rebeka is there too, perched on a skateboard, a jaunty daisy on her head. I can not wait to share these pictures and the stories of the launch with my co-author. Without her, all these circles never would have collided. My hope is that Rwandans will see her story, and be encouraged to tell their stories, too. We are so hungry for their stories!
I owe a special thank you to Courtney Cope, professional photographer, who took all the pictures on this blog post and so many more.
Courtney signed Rebeka’s cast and played with her when she was in Austin. She is one of my daughter’s best friends, and so dear to our family. I am so proud of her and her work. It means so much to me that she was the one who captured all the circle collisions. Thank you Courtney. Ndagakunda.
Writing this book together, Rebeka and I got to reflect on some of our favorite memories. A lot of those involved her time with Kate. Rebeka and Kate first met in September, 2012. Rebeka had left Rwanda less than two months before to stay with us in Austin, Texas while she had surgeries on her feet. She’d been lonely since the kids started school, eagerly waiting each afternoon for Alayna, Nate and Benji to come home again. Sometimes their friends came, too, but she had yet to make a friend of her very own.
Our home backs up to the football field at our kid’s school. Rebeka had a cast on her left leg and couldn’t walk, so we carried her to the stands to experience her first Friday Night Lights Texas football game. She got her face painted by some cheerleaders before the game, and she was ready for some fun.
I got a bag of Skittles, her favorite, and we chewed the fruity goodness side by side as the football players ran onto the field and the game got started. I soon realized Rebeka wasn’t watching the field. She was watching all the kids running around behind the bleachers.
“I go?” she asked, tilting up her chin and pleading with her eyes.
It was all wildness and chaos behind the bleachers. Kids ran back and forth playing tag and throwing balls. It looked like Rebeka could get hurt down there.
“We should let her,” Clay said. “I’ll get a blanket and hang out with her.” But once he spread out the blanket, Rebeka insisted she was fine and he should go back to the bleachers. She did this all with her eyes, a few nods, and the few English words she’d picked up.
I glanced back every now and then. Rebeka on her blanket was like a little island in a stream. A few kids stopped to say hi but soon went back to their games, until Kate. Kate was Rebeka’s age, and her family adopted a boy from Rwanda. Maybe she first noticed Rebeka’s dark skin, so much like her little brother’s, but my guess is the first thing she noticed was Rebeka’s smile.
Kate stayed on that blanket for hours, and somehow they found a way to communicate. They made funny faces, Kate tickled Rebeka and she tickled Kate back, and they roared with laughter.
We didn’t carry Rebeka in until the lights on the field turned off. Rebeka had found her friend. Kate kept coming back to our house to play with Rebeka in the following months. They painted their nails, Kate helped her “ride” a bike, they had a lemonade stand and sleepovers.
When it came time for Rebeka to learn how to walk again on her turned straight feet, the goal was to walk to Kate’s house. It was almost exactly a mile away, and it took months to do it. The night it finally happened Kate ran inside and grabbed a roll of toilet paper. We stretched it across the street and Rebeka crossed her toilet paper finish line to the tune of much cheering. Kate was so proud of her friend!
It was hard to say goodbye when Rebeka flew back home in June of 2013. Years passed. The girls grew up on either side of the ocean. And then, in June of 2019 at the same time I traveled to Rwanda to make the video for book presentations, Kate traveled to Rwanda with her mom and little brother and these two sweet friends got to see each other again!
They sat next to each other on the bus on the way to Rebeka’s school and debated which color they’d be if they were a Skittle, and if they’d rather go to the moon or Disney. They talked about old times, and new times, as the Rwandan countryside slipped by out the bus window. At Rebeka’s school, they held hands going up the stairs and walked all over campus until finally, it was time to say goodbye.
It was hard, just like it was before, but the sweet was worth the hard. There is a line at the end of our book, when Rebeka is talking to her little sister Medea and she says, “Life is hard, like the pit of a mango, but it is sweet too, sweet as mango juice.” Two girls who seemed very different, connected on a blanket behind the bleachers and started a friendship that will weather the years and the miles. It is very sweet.
I love sharing stories like Rebeka’s in Her Own Two Feet. That’s what this blog is all about. My stories. Other people’s stories. Writing stories for children. Once upon a time I told the story of our family traveling around the world for nine and a half months. You can find those here at Faces in the Street.