Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the May 2020 edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can read here and sign up for here.
My two-question Q&A this month is with Meredith Davis and Rebeka Uwitonze, co-authors of the narrative nonfiction middle grade title Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk, which was published last fall by Scholastic. The book’s honors include an NAACP Image Award.
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, “Mixing Davis’s third-person narrative and Uwitonze’s first-person introspection (via letters to her sister), interspersed with endearing photographs, the authors sensitively convey Uwitonze’s wealth of strength through adversity and the familial love — from both her own family and her American host family — that helped her navigate her experience.”
Here’s Meredith reading the first chapter of the book:
I’m giving away one copy of Her Own Two Feet to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on May 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Rebeka Uwitonze and Meredith Davis.
Chris: Creating Her Own Two Feet together was not as simple as sitting side-by-side at a coffee shop or emailing a file back and forth. At the back of the book, you have a description of the process involved — which included transatlantic travel, interviews, translations, and audio recording of a draft of the manuscript — and it seems as if that experience could be a book in itself.
Do either of you have a favorite memory from that experience — from your time spent working together as co-writers and collaborators?
Meredith: Wow, it is hard to pick just one! One of my very favorite memories happened on my second trip to Rwanda.
On this trip, I brought CDs with a recording of the book translated into Kinyarwanda so that Rebeka’s family, who don’t speak English, could hear it and make suggestions and edits if needed. We got to their home in Bugesera, sat on the benches and chairs in their small living room, and I set the portable CD player on their coffee table.
I didn’t realize that they had recently strung electricity to Rebeka’s village. Her dad, always all smiles and full of energy, took the CD and popped it into their CD player. He turned up the volume, and all of a sudden the air was filled with the words of our book, in Kinyarwanda. It was so loud the sound traveled out the open door and window, past the kids who had gathered to say hi, and down the red dirt road.
My first reaction? Fear. What if they didn’t like it? It was absolutely quiet except for Cyusa Lionel’s voice (the young man who translated the book from English to Kinyarwanda) reading the book. I watched their faces, and then I saw smiles. Relief. Then joy. They liked it!
I saw Rebeka’s mother later that week, and she said they had listened to it three times. I will never forget that moment sitting in Rebeka’s home and hearing our book in their beautiful language, a moment that never would have happened if Rebeka and I hadn’t taken the leap to write her story down.
Rebeka: For me, what I remember, is when Meredith’s friend, Jeri, brought the copy of the book to Rwanda and I was surprised because I was feeling that I could not write even a book when were so far away from each other.
I saw it, and I was so happy because I knew my life will not be forgotten. I would be able to share it with everybody and they would be encouraged about my story. That’s when it really felt real.
A few months later, Meredith came again so we could film some interviews. We were at the genocide memorial in Kigali, sitting in the courtyard. We were taking some videos with her phone, and talking about the book, and Skittles, and whether we wanted to go to the moon or Disneyland.
I was thinking how our book would be out very quickly, and I’m going to be able to share it with all the people. We had fun because we were seeing each other, hanging out, traveling around, sometimes working on the book, and sometimes just being silly.
Chris: Now that readers have had a chance to respond to the book, and now that audiences have gotten to meet the two of you in person, I’m curious to know what they have been curious about. What questions from them have made the biggest impressions on you?
Rebeka: One question I remember being asked a lot is, “How long did it take for you to start walking after your feet were turned?”
I can’t remember exactly because it took a long time. It didn’t happen right away. Bit by bit, my feet stopped hurting and I could walk farther. I think kids keep asking me this because they think that immediately after surgery, I would start walking.
Sometimes healing takes a long time. Some kids are surprised by this answer. Sometimes when you have some problems, you must be patient and practice a lot. This question is the one I like because at the end of it, I encourage children to be patient when they have problems.
Meredith: One of the questions we get a lot is about how much pain Rebeka felt. It begins with, “How bad did it hurt when you . . .” and they might be asking about when Rebeka taught herself to walk on the tops of her feet, or when she had surgery, or when she had to push on her scars and learn how to walk on the bottoms of her feet.
What I love about the question is the concern behind it. Kids really connect with Rebeka’s story, and their compassion for her is evident. They wince when she answers that it hurt a lot. Their eyes get wide when she says it took months to be able to walk again on the bottoms of her feet.
Questions about pain allow us to connect with readers on an emotional level, whether they are remembering their own moments of dealing with pain or sympathizing with how Rebeka felt. Connecting with readers’ hearts has been a real joy.
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