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.
All over the US, kids are going back to school, and it got me to thinking back to school in my life, and Rebeka’s life, what it looked like and how it ultimately brought us together. As I anticipate the launch of Her Own Two Feet, preparing for the party in October and participating in podcasts and blog posts and various interviews, it has given me the chance to look at Rebeka’s story through different lenses. The “school lens” is a pretty fascinating one.
If Rebeka hadn’t gone to school through a sponsorship with Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM), it’s quite possible we never would have met, and Rebeka’s feet would never have been turned. I can’t imagine life without photos like this one, those knee-high polka-dotted socks on this beautiful girl’s turned feet, sitting in my living room.
And if I hadn’t gone to graduate school, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t be writing this post about my upcoming book right now. About 20 years after I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I decided I wanted to get an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from a college I had heard about from tons of talented writers. Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) has quite the reputation, and with Kathi Appelt and Cynthia Leitich Smith and so many other phenomenal teachers, it was perfect.
One of the most important things I learned was how to reimagine a project again and again, each time approaching it with confidence. This was helpful a few years after graduation as I reimagined Her Own Two Feet from a picture book to a narrative nonfiction middle grade. The first time I wrote nonfiction work (in the form of critical essays) since I graduated from UT was at VCFA, and it helped me gain a voice in something other than my fiction “safe spot.” Graduating from VCFA changed my writing life and set me on a new trajectory in my career.
In Rwanda, school isn’t free and many rural families can’t afford to send their kids. Charles Mugisha started ANLM after the genocide in 1994 to help get orphaned and impoverished kids in school, and today they sponsor over 10,000 kids. Rebeka got sponsored in 2011 and started attending school at age nine, just a few weeks before Clay first met her.
Clay was in Rwanda to teach a small business seminar through our partnership with ANLM. If Rebeka hadn’t been in school through ANLM, Clay wouldn’t have met her while going out to meet sponsored kids.
When Rebeka came to live with us while having surgeries on her feet, she had only been in school a few months. In Austin, she received a different kind of schooling. The one on one time with me and a private tutor twice a week leapfrogged Rebeka from not knowing the sounds letters make or how to count to twenty to becoming fluent in English, reading short beginning readers, and performing addition and subtraction equations.
This summer I got to see Rebeka in action in her classroom as we filmed the video I’ll be showing at school visits. Her school is a beautiful, colorful place. Outdoor murals educate as well as decorate, and the cafeteria is just as loud and filled with energy as the cafeterias I remember when I was a kid.
New Life Academy is such a good place for Rebeka to learn and grow. This November she’ll be taking national exams. Students take them after 6th, 9th and 12th grade and their scores determine their future schooling. Rebeka can’t be in Austin for our book’s release because she’ll be preparing for this most important exam.
I can’t talk about our story without talking about school. It had unanticipated consequences, as I imagine it always does. I cannot wait to share Rebeka’s story with school kids, and encourage them to be “strong like butterflies” because sometimes “chance comes once.” If that doesn’t make sense, you will understand once you read the book, coming out in just a few weeks on October 1st!
When I arrived at Rebeka’s school in Rwanda, someone got her out of class. Like one of those dramatic movie moments, we spied each other across the campus and it was all smiles and teary eyes as we hurried to hug.
While Rebeka knew I was coming, she didn’t know when, and wasn’t exactly sure why. We walked and talked and I explained that I had arrived with a microphone, a video camera, and the talented Serrah, a Rwandan videographer with Africa New Life. We gathered quite a crowd!
I also arrived with questions from ten curious American kids who each read an advanced copy of our book. Our goal was to produce a video that can be shown at presentations, so that even when Rebeka can’t be present, her voice will still be heard. And her giggle. I really wanted to make sure we captured her giggle.
I thought maybe Rebeka would be nervous about being filmed, which turned out to be a ridiculous concern. Rebeka was confident and poised as we found the perfect spot to set up, threaded a microphone under her shirt and clipped it to her collar. She answered questions easily, in fluent English that sounds better than the day she left Austin. She made us laugh, and she answered with honesty and grace, even for the hard questions. Then she took us on a little tour of her school where we saw the cafeteria, her dorm, and met some of her friends.
The next day we drove to her home. It’s a two and a half hour ride past green fields, cars and busses and trucks and motorcycles, past men pushing bicycles loaded down with sloshing water jugs or long bundles of reeds, women in brightly colored dresses, and children. Some were playing, some fetching water, others walking to and from school. When we arrived at Rebeka’s home, she introduced us to her family and showed us their goats and the lake where her father used to fish. I’ve got it all on film, and I’ll show it at the debut launch party (October 19th, 2PM, Bookpeople) and at school visits and presentations.
Before we left, we took a look at the new store her parents built in front of their home. About two years ago, before Scholastic bought our book, her family started forming bricks from red dirt and baking them in the sun. Today, the store is finished. In addition to generating income for her family, it provides much needed goods for the community.
“I’ll bring some books next time for the new store,” I said as we prepared to leave, imagining the green spines on the shelf beside the soap and lotions and flipflops. The translator, Jovan, shook his head and smiled a sad smile. “Most could not read it,” he said, and my heart sank a little. The majority of adults who live near Rebeka are illiterate.
But that is changing. Sponsorship organizations like Africa New Life help thousands of kids each year afford school fees and the Rwandan government has identified education as key to the country’s success. According to the Global Partnership for Education:
“Rwanda considers education a critical investment for the country’s future growth and development. This is evidenced by the increased share of the national budget allocated to the education sector.”
On October 1st, HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK will be on shelves across America. Having a book on the shelf with my name on the cover is one of my dreams come true, and our book is all about Rebeka’s dream coming true. Now I have another dream, that someday there will be book clubs on both sides of the ocean.
This post was originally titled Peace and Freedom, because I got Frida’s name wrong. Across a crowded dinner table, in a noisy room, spoken with that beautiful Rwandan accent, it was easy to mistake “Frida” for “Freedom.” I was at a dinner in Rwanda hosted by ANLM (Africa New Life Ministries), where I would hear the stories of young men and women who had been sponsored when they were younger. My co-author, Rebeka, is a sponsored student. I know sponsorship makes a huge difference in a child’s life, and I couldn’t wait to hear more inspiring stories.
Honestly, the writer in me was disappointed to discover Frida’s real name wasn’t Freedom. Freedom would have been perfect for a Fourth of July post! And not only is the fourth a celebration of independence in the US, this year the fourth also marks Liberation Day in Rwanda, the 25th anniversary of liberation from the genocide against the Tutsi minority in 1994. There is much to celebrate in both America and Rwanda. Like Frida.
Photo by Esther Havens (www. estherhavens.com)
At dinner, she was wearing glasses like me. She was quick-witted with excellent English, obviously intelligent and probably mischievous. Frida works as a pharmacist now, and her hope is to someday go back to school to become a therapist. She also expressed an interest in writing. We were kindred spirits, two bespectacled women across the table, talking fast and sharing stories. Her younger sister sat to my left.
Photo by Esther Havens (www. estherhavens.com)
Peace. Wearing dangling gold earrings and a black leather jacket, she works as a lab technician at the new Dream Center Hospital. As we ate she jotted in her journal, notes to herself about the story she would share after dinner. Peace and Freedom lost their father a few months before Peace was born. Their mother died shortly after Peace’s birth, and so it was just the six children, alone. Peace’s eyes filled with tears as she told us about those hard times. With no family to support them, the older siblings looked out for the younger ones to find food and try to provide. School was an expense they couldn’t afford.
When both Peace and Frida got sponsors for their schooling, the trajectory of their lives changed. They were not only allowed, but encouraged, to dream about their futures. They were able to graduate from high school and attend college. Now they are changing their world for others as they both work in the medical profession. It was a joy and a privilege to hear Peace and Frida’s story, and others who gathered that night. ANLM hopes to encourage many more people to sponsor children through this campaign. You can read more stories like Peace and Frida’s here.
Children like Gatesi Queen are one of many awaiting sponsorship so she can make it through high school, and beyond.
For my recent trip to Rwanda, I came to film Rebeka so I can create a video to share with people once our book releases. I left with so much more than footage. Peace and Frida’s stories were an unexpected gift, two more bridges across the ocean. Our stories connect us. My hope and prayer is that HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK will be yet another bridge for many readers to connect with Rwanda. Student sponsorship is another way that can happen. Letters and pictures will be sent back and forth as you get to know your child, and a new story begins.
left to right-Warren, Amelia, Vera, Gia, Olivia and Natalie (not pictured Claire, Sophie, Stewart and Aliyah)
I recently hosted a special book club at my house for kids between the ages of 9 and 13 (except me, but we won’t talk about that). It was special because the book we read was HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK. It was a major thrill to see our book in real reader’s hands!! But this wasn’t just for thrills. I had assigned these kids an important task.
Aliyah reading HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK
I asked each kid to come up with questions for Rebeka and videoed them, so I can show Rebeka when I’m in Rwanda.
On June 19th I fly to Rwanda. In addition to answering her reader’s questions, Rebeka will also give a tour of her school and her home and introduce her family and friends. A little backstory: to have questions about the book we needed readers, and we wanted young ones. In what I can only call a miracle, within 24 hours of hatching the idea I had ten ready and willing kids, and my publisher was able to get me a few more advanced reader copies (thank you Scholastic!). A months later, my readers brought their unique perspectives and curiosity and notes to my dining room table. (I had a few who came early or late or couldn’t make it to our meeting, so I got their questions separately.)
starting on left side of table-Warren, Natalie, Gia, Meredith, Vera, Amelia, and Olivia (not pictured Claire, Sophie, Stewart and Aliyah)
Of course we had snacks, as every proper book club should. In addition to cupcakes with sprinkles, we had some treats reminiscent of Rwanda: guacamole (avocados in Rwanda are amazing!!), mangoes and orange Fanta.
Vera is touching Rebeka’s shoe as other readers look on and snacks wait to be consumed.
The kids got to see Rebeka’s shoe. They touched the black rubber sole made from tires, the same shoe that once supported the calloused top of Rebeka’s foot. It was sweet to see how Rebeka became a little more real to them. The goal is to bring a little of Rebeka to every school visit or book party, even if she can’t be there in person. I am so grateful to all of my readers, and I can’t wait to show people our video next fall! Stay tuned for Book Club Part Two (my time with Rebeka in Rwanda) and Book Club Part Three (when I share Rebeka’s responses with our readers).
left to right, top to bottom: Olivia, Amelia, Gia, Natalie, Aliyah, Vera, Warren, Sophie and Stewart (Claire not pictured)
And here’s Claire! (with my sister, nope that isn’t me :-))
Benji, Nate, Meredith and Alayna at Dayglow concert, BYX Island Party
I had no idea six months ago that I would travel with Alayna and Benji to see Nate play guitar and sing on stage, in a band, in front of hundreds of people.
Dayglow playing at BYX Island Party
Or that I would leave a beach with green sand on the big island of Hawaii to ride on the back of a rickety pickup truck with my sister-in-law and eleven strangers.
And I had no idea, after I signed my contract with Scholastic, what was in store for me. Following are just a few of the surprises I never anticipated.
I’m taking myself more seriously. I always felt like once I had that contract in hand, there would be this giant shift from unpublished to published, from writer to author. That did happen, but I didn’t realize that feeling would continue to grow. There’s something about updating my website, ordering bookmarks and writing my first proposal for a conference, that adds another layer of legitimacy on top of the book contract. It also adds a lot of fun, excitement and gratification.
I am stretched. It takes a different kind of writing muscle and a new level of confidence to write a proposal for the NCSS conference and a two-minute pitch for librarians I’ll meet at the Speed Dating Meet and Greet at TLA. My writing minutes, minutes that were once solely on my work in progress, are sometimes going towards marketing and promotional copy and school visit presentations. Honestly, I’m discovering that HER OWN TWO FEET is still a work in progress, just as much as the new manuscript I gave to my agent recently. The writing I do on its behalf now may be just as important as the writing that happened when crafting the story.
I am getting to know the story better. As I write proposals and librarian pitches, this story that Rebeka and I worked on for over a year, and pitched, and sold, is becoming even more clear to me. I recently heard Kate DiCamillo say, “I usually don’t find out what (my) book is about until I start to go out and talk to readers” (heard on the excellent podcast, The Yarn, #81). I am finding I know more about myself, and this book, as I try to explain it to others. I’m certain I will learn even more once it’s officially released and kids start reading it.
Meredith talking to a group of writer from the Badgerdog Living Well Workshop
I am humbled. I have so many generous published friends who have offered to go to lunch or grab coffee or hop on the phone and answer my questions. They are looking out for me. They read my ARC. They give me tips and share their own experiences and tell cautionary tales and they don’t have to. They are busy people who speak at schools and conferences and work under tight deadlines and have a wide network of people to keep up with, and yet they take time to talk to me. Totally humbled and gobsmacked.
Meredith Davis and Kathi Appelt
I see more of Rebeka! I’ve gotten pictures and videos I never would have gotten if our book wasn’t being published. There was the moment she first saw the cover.
Jeri Brock shows Rebeka the ARC
The moment she saw the president of her country, Paul Kagame, holding our book with her beautiful smile front and center on the cover.
Rebeka holding phone with picture of Meredith and President Paul Kagame
And there was an impromptu early morning phone call to say “hi” as she filmed a short video for Scholastic. Such a thrill!
All of this makes me look forward to the next six months before the book comes out with great anticipation. I don’t know what I’ll learn, or where I’ll find myself, but I can’t wait to find out!
Rebeka and I know a little about waiting. We waited for the day she would come to America. We waited for her feet to heal from surgeries. And five years later, we waited for a book contract. Now we are excited to give the world a peek at the result of our hard work and waiting-the cover for our debut middle grade book HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK by Meredith Davis and Rebeka Uwitonze!
One of the best parts about waiting is feeling anticipation build. We’ll have to wait a little longer to hold the book in our hands, to read the story of Rebeka’s childhood growing up in Rwanda, her time in America, and her return to her life back in Rwanda, walking on her turned-straight-feet. The book features over seventy photographs and twenty-five chapters chronicling Rebeka’s story. We can’t wait to share it with you! It will be published by Scholastic, and released October 1.
The design team at Scholastic did a fantastic job designing this eye-catching cover. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
The cover incorporates the bright yellow, blue and green colors of the Rwandan flag, colors that pop off the shelf, catching the eye and demanding attention.
Rebeka is front and center, sporting her famous smile, while wearing two casts filled with signatures. It shows her tenacious spirit, a girl who plays hard despite hardship.
The title, which was decided after many weeks of brainstorming with Scholastic and my agent, captures Rebeka’s independence as well as the literal meaning that this book is all about how she learns to walk on her own two feet.
Our names, right at the top. I could not be more excited to be partnering with Rebeka to tell her story. It is an honor and a privilege.
That headband. Rebeka loved wearing them as her shaved hair grew out, and that big, bright daisy makes me almost as happy as seeing Rebeka’s beautiful smile.
Each time someone shares the news about HER OWN TWO FEET, they become part of Rebeka’s story, spreading her message of resilience and hope even farther. We invite you to partner with us! Share this post to build anticipation, and when the big day comes on October 1, 2019, we hope you will celebrate with us again!
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.