This spring, the Bank Street School for Children welcomed children’s book author Emma Otheguy as its 2019 Dorothy Carter Writer-in-Residence. Dorothy Carter was Bank Street College’s first African American faculty member and a noted children’s book author. The five year old Writer-in-Residence program is funded through an endowed chair created by the Center for Children’s Literature, which also chooses the writer every year. Three of the five Writers-in-Residence have received Newbery awards.
Emma Otheguy is the author of the bilingual picture book Martí’s Song for Freedom: Martí y sus versos por la libertad, and much to the excitement of the 9/10s, her new book Silver Meadows Summer was published during her time with them at Bank Street. She has two other books planned for 2020, including A Sled for Gabo, which is the first of two picture books planned with Atheneum, and her contribution to Adam Gidwitz’s The Unicorn Rescue Society series.
Emma Otheguy has been a writer from the get-go. “I always loved writing. I went to a school that really supported freedom in reading and writing. We had journaling time every day starting in Kindergarten. We had time to read and write every day. It wasn’t forced. Now that I see how kids in many schools –not Bank Street!– do not have enough time to read and write, I’m grateful for that time.”
“I grew up bilingual and traveling to different parts of Latin America. When I was the age of the 9/10s, we spent a semester in Uruguay. In the summer, we would visit my grandmother in Puerto Rico, and then there was our family’s connection to Cuba. There was a rich and complex cultural dimension that I had by being connected to Latin America and then by being a Latinx person and having an experience that was shaped by that identity and by the way that the identity and community has evolved over the course of my life. It was interesting talking to the 9/10s about this because we discussed how the relationship between the US and Latin America has evolved in terms of what it means to be a Latina in the US today.
I went in with a plan. I was going to tell them a little about Latin America so they knew where it was. But, if the students were interested in more than that and I knew I had to give them the space to explore.”
Usually, when I work with nine and ten year olds, just knowing where Latin America is on a map is a lot of information. The 9/10s already knew it so we had more time to have some in-depth conversations. What’s different about Bank Street students is that they are much more comfortable guiding the conversation themselves, rather than being more passive participants. They shaped the conversation, which I appreciated because, on the one hand, I hadn’t necessarily thought about how I was going to talk about Communism with these students. On the other hand I really appreciated that they were really interested and asked a lot of questions.
Emma opened the 9/10s writing workshop with an easy challenge. List your senses and list any groups of communities to which you belong and feel strongly identified. We know the five senses. There were more than five groups that our 9/10s belong to including Greek American, Mom’s side of the family, Art, Egyptian, German, Jewish, Sports.
Emma described her process for beginning Silver Meadow Summer. “I chose to write about my father’s side of the family. They left Cuba and went to Puerto Rico. I spent every summer there. The book contains a lot of the sensory details you find in Puerto Rico: the sound of cars on the road, the little frogs called coquis, the blue and white tiles, the fountain with goldfish, the feel of the wind on the main character’s skin, and the humidity.”
A bigger challenge was forthcoming. “Write a story based on your group.” It could take any literary form: poetry, prose, article, for example; and it could take on the physical form of the students’ choice.
Fast forward to the 9/10s share with their parents. The students presented their work after spending time with Emma for several writing periods. Posters, collages, books, magazines, and three dimensional structures were abundant. Students wrote about their groups: the ballet world, acting, skiing, being a New York City kid, cultural background, sports, just to start.
The share ended, but no one in the room was ready to leave.