On the Road with Mary Beth Leatherdale promoting Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Refugees

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This fall, I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to hit the road with my new book Stormy Seas. As a writer and editor, I spend far too much time at the desk in my home office and far too little actually talking to my readers. So I was thrilled when I received an invitation to speak at The Kansas City Public Library in Missouri. In a year when the anti-immigration rhetoric in the US has been weighing heavily on my mind, I was eager to visit a community that wanted to learn more about refugees’ experiences.  However, my preconceptions about the population and perspectives in mid-sized American cities were quickly blown away. The students at North East High School who had recently immigrated to Kansas City from around the world had far more to teach me than I them.

 

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As part of the Authors@School program at the Kingston Writers Festival, I visited two schools. One, Sacred Heart, Batawa, was a small, rural school in a bucolic setting where I presented to 45 students from Grades 5-8. The other, St. Francis Assisi, was housed in a brand-new building in north Kingston designed to offer flexible learning spaces. With its giant, glass garage-doored learning studios, stylishly furnished commons areas, and spinning bikes for those in need of a “body break”, it seemed, at first glance, to have more in common with Google headquarters than the traditional elementary school I had just visited.  But once I started presenting to the 100 Grade 6-8 students and heard their thoughtful, insightful questions, I realized how much these students shared—in their empathy for the refugees and their interest in their situations as well as how the stories resonated with their own experiences. They were also very curious about the process of writing the book asking questions like “How long did it take?”, “How much money did you make?” and my favourite “What would you do differently if you could write it again?”

 

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My travels ended at The Vancouver Writers Festival. I had more than 200 kids in my first presentation at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island and they were amazing — attentive, excited about the book, and full of thoughtful questions like “How has writing this book changed you?”. I was especially delighted to have students asking to read Ruth, Phu, Jose, Najeeba and Mohamed's stories on stage. The next morning, I visited Tecumseh Elementary School. The class had many recent immigrants which made for really interesting conversation. Two girls who told me that after reading Stormy Seas they asked their parents about their experiences as Vietnamese boat people. Another, a girl whose father escaped from Cuba by boat asked me “How does it feel to tell other people’s stories?”—something I’ve been struggling with increasingly. In the afternoon, I joined Seeking Refuge author Irene Watts and illustrator Kathryn Shoemaker on a panel. After listening to their excellent presentation, I got up to present but YIKES my Powerpoint presentation would not come up. Luckily, the talented AV team got things working and I got to share the beautiful work of my talented designer/illustrator Eleanor Shakespeare. Her artwork is so powerful and integral to the book. It’s no surprise that her beautiful artwork was the inspiration for the festival poster. 

 

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Being on the road with Stormy Seas was wonderful fun, and I look forward to hitting the road for more conversations.

 

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