“Me, Witness” makes world events visceral for young readers


When Salvador Gomez-Colon was 15 and lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island. Gomez-Colon says hurricanes are a part of life in Puerto Rico, but Maria was different.

“I have never been so scared as I was then in my life,” he says.

Gomez-Colon gives a detailed account in his book Hurricane: my story of resilience, one of the first books of the I testify series.

The living room, my bedroom and my mother’s bedroom were flooded. The air conditioning unit was on the floor. He had just come out because of the change in air pressure when the hurricane hit. We threw clothes on the living room vents as the water flowed inside. As we were trying to keep more water out of the rooms the building started to sway.

“We have to get out of here,” my mother said.

We felt the whole building shake.

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, an island-wide blackout and a contaminated water supply. Gomez-Colon noticed that people were wearing dirty and wet clothes after crossing the flooded area to shop. To help cope with the public health crisis and constant darkness, he created a foundation that raised funds to give families solar-powered lights and hand-cranked washing machines. He was invited to join the International Congress of Youth Voices, co-founded by best-selling author Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s editor Amanda Uhle. Then they asked him if he would like to get involved in another of their projects.

“I was like, ‘Sure, sure, why not?'” Recalls Gomez-Colon. “And we did a bunch of interviews and… I still didn’t know what was going on.”

What was happening was the first phase of what became I testify.

To capture a “visceral” tone, a story begins with a conversation

“It starts with oral history,” says Dave Eggers.

Eggers, whose books include A heartbreaking work of astonishing genius and A hologram for the king, has been helping children write for years through 826 Valencia, a non-profit organization he co-founded in 2002. He hopes the I testify The series will help young readers understand world events that might otherwise seem abstract.

Writing The process begins with oral interviews with the young survivors, “then this transcript, which can take several hours, is changed into a linear narrative,” says Eggers.

After checking the facts and rationalizing, he says, the end result “has that kind of visceral, first-person sound,” I’m telling you a person-to-person story “rather than laborious prose … which can sometimes result if we said, “Go write your book and take two years to do it,” or whatever. “

How the “I, Witness” series is different from “I Survived”

Some children, parents or teachers might think I testify looks a lot like I survived, a popular children’s series that also chronicles events and disasters from a child’s perspective. The difference is that the I survived the books are historical fiction and all written by the same person (Lauren Tarshis). Eggers says he loves these books and doesn’t try to compete with them. He thinks there is plenty of room for more personal stories for children.

“Children are especially drawn to first-person stories where the protagonist is roughly the same age as them. It always has been,” he says.

Writing about trauma helps both readers and writers

For the author Adama Bah, the writer I testify was cathartic. Accused: My story of injustice is a detailed account of Bah’s life after the September 11 attacks. Like many Muslims, she and her family have faced a wave of racism and discrimination.

When she was 16, FBI agents broke into her family’s apartment in East Harlem.

They leafed through papers, threw stuff everywhere, shouted, talked to each other. They were like a destructive storm in our apartment. I heard them yelling at my mother, who didn’t speak much English. They took her to the kitchen shouting, “We are going to kick you and your whole family out!”

Bah and his father were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. She spent weeks in a juvenile detention center. After her father’s expulsion, she dropped out of school to support her family.

When Eggers and Uhle asked her if she wanted to tell her story, Bah says she was reluctant, even though she had been the subject of a documentary before.

“In writing this book, I had to address a lot of memories that I wanted to delete and memories that I didn’t want to open, especially now that I am a mother,” she says.

But she also thought the process might help her heal: “When you go through trauma, you think the best way to heal is to forget about it. address that, ”she said.

Bah hope that children in difficulty will read Accused.

“Even if you have stories of kids who have had traumatic experiences, it normally targets an older audience,” she says. “So it’s good for me to target young people and [help them] understand, listen, you are going to experience traumatic situations. Make sure you reach out and get some help. “

The next book of the I testify is from Freshta Tori Jan, a young woman who grew up in Afghanistan. As a member of an ethnic minority, his family has been persecuted by the Taliban. Courage: my story of persecution can be pre-ordered now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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