Friday, September 21, 2012

Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth on Hands Around the Library

"Once upon a time, not a long time ago..."

You might not think that any of the events of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring could possibly translate into a children's picture book. You'd be wrong.

I invited Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth to tell me the story behind the story of their beautiful new book, Hands Around the Library. The books recounts a true incident in which people came forward spontaneously to protect the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the glorious library that exists today at the location of that other ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt.

Karen wrote: 
I married an Egyptian who is passionate about his hometown of Alexandria, Egypt and we've visited fairly often. So when Susan was traveling to Egypt, I insisted she include Alexandria - and specifically the Alexandria Library (opened in 2002 as sort of a reincarnation of the ancient Library).  Susan of course does nothing in a small way. So she didn't just take a look at the library and leave, she met the children's librarian and established a friendship. She came home completely enthralled and decided we needed to collaborate on a book NOW.  NOW took more than a year, by the time we wrote a manuscript and revised it to meet the wishes of the publisher. We had planned a book about the ancient and modern libraries in Alexandria. The revolution happened while we were writing so we planned to have the protesters holding hands to protect the library as the culminating moment of the book.  The publisher wanted that event as the centerpiece of the book - and all of the other information became back matter.  But we are very pleased with the result - and so is Kirkus, which gave it a starred review and coined a phrase we think is perfect. "Freedom and libraries: an essential combination."
Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth
Here's Susan's take: notice how her words spill into each other. There's a collagist's mind at work. You can almost hear the cutting of the paper and fabric behind the illustration.

How Hands Around the Library Came to Be…Probably.
What starts a book? Inspirations? Epiphanies? Obligations? Assignments? Living? Longing? Schooling? Friends? Relatives? Desires? Ambitions? Needs for expressions? All of the above?

Why do I always know I MUST write and illustrate?? Because that's what I DO? Because that's all I've ever done? Because that's all I could possibly do? Because I love writing and illustrating so desperately even as I suffer and struggle and complain about doing it? Because I have a 32 page brain? All of the aboves??

And what about the why of any given book, specifically THIS BOOK? I'm going to try to figure this out…

1. For all my 17 leap-birthdays I've felt a fascination and appreciation and awe for Egyptian art and culture.

2. For all 16 of those birthdays I longed to visit Egypt. During those many years I tracked as much Egyptian art as I could find all over the world, outside of Egypt. And there is so much of it! I had seen and appreciated and loved enormous amounts of the real stuff long before I managed to see the REAL STUFF, i.e., the treasures of Egypt IN Egypt.

3. Finally, in 2009, I arrived in Egypt and IT DID NOT DISAPPOINT.

4. It was then that my dear friend and soon-to-be-collaborator, Karen Leggett Abouraya, literally FORCED me to include Alexandria in that itinerary. I thought it was a little ridiculous. I had gone to see the pyramids! The Sphinx! The Archaeological Museum in Cairo. Forget the rest, I thought. Who cares about ancient libraries that aren’t even there anymore? But Karen was relentless in her electioneering, and so I went to Alexandria.

5. Like the pyramids, THE LIBRARY DID NOT DISAPPOINT.  It was dazzling, awesome, inspiring, amazing. Fabulous, unbelievable, unimaginable, spectacular.

6. And, as does happen, to me, anyway, the vision made me desperate to write about it. And to pay homage to it visually.

7. And, because she was such an integral part of my experience even though she wasn't physically there with me for the epiphany, I really wanted to do this with Karen. And as it happened, she shared my vision and was happy to be part of the venture.

8. And then came the living history of events (the revolution and the touching reality that the protesting people loved their library and spontaneously decided to do WHAT THEY THEMSELVES WERE ABLE TO DO TO PROTECT IT), from whence we were presented with our story line.

9. And then came the visual imprints with serendipitous, delicious coincidences---like the appliqu├ęd designs from Egyptian street tents that I loved when I was there---that turned up in an original, in an especially gorgeous version, on the wall in Karen's house!

And those waving protest signs, all over the television reports of the revolution, suddenly appearing right before my eyes in New York City when a group of protesting American-Egyptian-Coptic-Christians gathered right where I was crossing the street, exactly when I was in the midst of sifting images to use for this book.

And the images from the extraordinary architecture of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina---from the 500 alphabets to the vastness of the internal space--- these certainly helped to start the whole process.

All of the above, and more, of course, led me to choose my papers and fabrics, and helped me to pick up my scissors at last.

10. And all this may really be the story of the story, at least my part of the story, of how Hands Around the Library came to be.

(Leap birthdays? Susan, that's for another time!)

If I might paraphrase the touching words of Dr. Ismail Serageldin, thank you, Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, for bringing this book forth into the journeys of children's lives.

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