Two years ago I wanted to write a book, but about what?
The idea of writing a book had always been cooking up in the back of my brain, but I had never known where or when to start.
Around the same time I was thinking about this, a family friend introduced me to La Escuelita, a bilingual preschool program that serves hispanic children in the Lake Norman Area. Since my mom is a hispanic immigrant, I was able to draw from her experiance, and realized how important programs like these are on a communal level. I immediately wanted to attach myself to the program. I began volunteering—cooking, reading, and playing with the children, whatever I could do. It made me want to do something more, but what?
I could write a children’s book, I thought.
A bi-lingual children’s book that parents and children could enjoy together, maybe. It could enhancing each reader's understanding of English and Spanish. Just maybe, I could write a book where children could continue to hear their native language of Spanish, while also learning English alongside their families.
It made sense. A children’s book played into my loves – writing and art. That being said, I really had no idea what I was getting into when I approached my soon-to-be publisher Leslie Rindoks, and all the subsequent work for the book that would follow.
But eventually, after months of trial and error, the story of a silly-looking bird named Ozzie emerged. His story is that of an immigrant. Ozzie, who is all alone in a strange place, isn’t able to communicate his need for food, water, or even friendship. His story centers around the importance of communication, empathy for one another, and perhaps even helps the reader understand the immigrant experience. In many ways, my hopes for this project is to reflect the hardships of that experience, a process I've seen many children in the La Escuelita program and my mother endure. Additionally, this book can help those who haven't experienced the immigrant process themselves, in hopes of relating better to those who do. And on a larger scale, the root of this theme - being an outsider - remains universal, and I hope this book can provide a feeling of understanding for anyone that feels like outsiders themselves.
100% of profit from this book will go to La Escuelita. If you are interested in learning more about La Escuelita, please visit their website: www.escuelitasanalban.org.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. What inspired you to write Ozzie and the Island?
The idea for Ozzie and the Island came from a number of places. It predominately stemmed from the immigrant experience, a story I’ve heard from many of the children of La Escuelita and my mother herself. Looking at confusion, the loneliness and the difficulties that entails the life of an immigrant really informed the book’s plot. My hope is in understanding Ozzie’s story, readers can empathize with those who experienced these issues first hand, something I think is very important and topical at the moment. And on another scale, the root theme of being an outsider remains universal, and I hope this book can provide a feeling of understanding for anyone that feels like outsiders themselves. Truthfully, I have to thank my publisher and editor Leslie Rindoks for what the story has become. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to construct and refine the story into what it is today.
2. You have worked with La Escuelita for many years. Can you give us some background about the program?
There are a number of La Escuelita schools in the North Carolina region, but the one I’m involved with (La Escuelita Alban) has been in operation since about 2013. It started with a single classroom and a single donor, and has grown since to several classrooms, lots of students, and hundreds of donors. These schools were formed to fill the need to put Hispanic children on a level playing field when they enter kindergarten, and to help them overcome language and cultural barriers that can prevent them from success in school. My family and I got involved with the program in around 2014.
3. What have you enjoyed most about your time spent volunteering with La Escuelita?
I enjoy seeing the progress the children make within the program. It’s a really moving thing to see. Within the context of a school year, many of the kids enter the program tentative of the materials and learning at large. However, by the end of a given year, these children transform into energetic, curious students ready to learn as much as they can. The joy these kids develop for learning is something I find deeply moving, as I know it’s something that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
4. Your mother emigrated to this country. Did stories of her experience help shape this book?
Absolutely. Like you said, my mother is an immigrant to this country. She came from Colombia, South America in 1986. Her challenges, as someone who came into the US without speaking any English, deeply influenced what story I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell it. Aside from strict story line, it also served as the motivator for why I got involved with La Escuelita in the first place. All my life my mother has told me her stories; the trials of entering an all-American high school, the way people treated her as a foreigner, among countless other things - and I think that’s given me deep empathy for those who experience similar lives. So when La Escuelita first popped up, and I saw how it was going to help the lives of children who are often in the same position as my mother was, I immediately attached myself to the program. Everything subsequent to that choice of getting involved - the book, the sales going toward the program, my volunteering efforts - have been about serving that immigrant community; not only because my mother has given me a deeper understanding of their issues, because I’ve also learned through my mother’s successes that there’s so much potential for good, successful lives for these folks.
5. The book is written in both English and Spanish. Is it difficult for you to write in Spanish?
It was hard at times, but I think the real hard part was getting the English storyline written. Once I had revised the storyline to the place it is now, translating it was no big deal, especially with the help of my mother and Spanish teachers.
6. You illustrated this book as well. Which was more challenging – the art or writing the story?
I think both were challenging in different ways. As far as illustrations go, the hardest parts were developing a personal sense of style and logistically getting all the paintings to meet my standards. While writing a children’s book may seem easy, it’s deceptively complex; you have to be so economic with your word choice. The refining and cutting down of the story to a clear, succinct story was a difficulty, but it was a process I loved to do as well.
7. Proceeds from this book will benefit La Escuelita. Why do you feel it is important to support this organization?
This organization provides a number of benefits to the Hispanic community in the Lake Norman area and the whole North Carolina community at large. Unfortunately, while many Latino children are bright as can be, many are born into a life that sets them at a disadvantage to their non-Hispanic counterparts. Whether it be an unfamiliarity with English as a language or even an unfamiliarity with American teaching styles, studies show that many of these children enter kindergarten unprepared, which sets them up for lower graduation rates throughout the rest of their academic career and a lower quality of life overall.
This program aims to cut the head of the snake off that whole process. Through the curriculum, it allows these children to enter kindergarten prepared and excited. Not only that, but in helping these children, it helps the local classrooms as a whole because every student goes in on the same level. This whole process ultimately gives the children involved a chance at a better life through education. What I also think is great about this program is how direct one’s impact can be. With this program, one can directly impact the lives of children in our community right now, moreover children who need help. There are a lot of different ways to get involved. One can buy a copy of Ozzie and the Island (as 100% of the proceeds go to La Escuelita). It's available on Amazon, my personal website (ameliakwyatt.com), and local bookstores including Davidson’s Main Street Books. You can donate directly to the charity online and even can donate some time volunteering at the program (visit their website http://escuelitasanalban.org/en/home/). Particularly now, it’s important to let your Hispanic neighbors they are welcome in the American community. This is a fantastic way to make that gesture, and help make a better society for moving forward.