All Photos Mark Mattos unless otherwise noted
I’m Your Neighbor Books is a Portland-based nonprofit that was founded in 2012 by a group of children’s book professionals and immigrant leaders. The nonprofit offers a number of programs, including Welcoming Libraries, Rapid Response Book Boxes, and book awards, and is a founding partner of Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival. The goal of I’m Your Neighbor Books is to use literature to combat anti-immigrant sentiment, build the welcoming skills of long-term Americans, and create spaces where immigrant and first, second, and third generation American families feel like they truly belong.
New Arrival Book Project
To soften the trauma and cultural isolation of children who have just arrived in Maine, I’m Your Neighbor Books – together with Catholic Charities of Maine Refugee and Immigration Services – gives books to refugee children as soon as they arrive in Maine through their New Arrival Book Project. In August, bags of books were delivered to Maine families from DR Congo, Somalia, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Syria, and Iraq. Printed on each bag was “Books became our home,” a quote from a picture book by Mexican immigrant artist and author Yuyi Morales. Funded by Unum and Martin’s Point Health Care, all involved hope the project serves as a national model to extend a welcome and build belonging.
The I’m Your Neighbor book awards were established in 2022 to celebrate five exemplary children’s books each year that represent the first-, second-, and third-generation experiences of refugee, asylum-seeking, and immigrant families. The five awards are the New Arrival Book Award; the New Generation Book Award; the Community Book Award; the Social Action Book Award; Reader’s Choice Book Award. Criteria for all books that receive one of the five awards: a book starts conversations about modern immigration, refutes false narratives about communities of color, creates emotional connections to a diversity of voices, shares the joy and strength of children and families, builds the cultural competency of all readers, and lays the groundwork for cross-cultural communication. The 2023 announcements will take place the first week of November.
Rapid Response Book Boxes
Racist or other traumatic events can hit a community hard, as can a lack of housing. I’m Your Neighbor Books delivers books to combat false narratives and to give comfort. With funding help from Maine Community Foundation and Portland Food Co-op, the Rapid Response Book Box program placed 444 books in the Portland Expo Center in 2023. The books were all set within African communities in the U.S. or Africa. Some were in French or Portuguese. The most popular book proved to be When Stars Are Scattered, a graphic novel memoir of a Somali man’s childhood in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. It was so popular that before fresh copies could be delivered, the copies at the Expo were pried apart to enable sections to be shared. Since 2021, Rapid Response Book Boxes have also been sent to communities across the country where families from Afghanistan, Asia, Haiti, Muslim countries, and Ukraine were suffering the effects of discrimination, dislocation, persecution, trauma, or violence. The books provide true narratives to support immigrants and first-through-third generation Americans when hurtful and false narratives arise.
I’m Your Neighbor Books created their Welcoming Libraries program in 2017 to share books that celebrate contemporary multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual immigrant communities with schools and libraries. Each Welcoming Library includes 30 different books, which are primarily picture books, hand-selected to reflect the particular demographics of a receiving community. The picture book format combines the power of visual art with that of literature to provide an immersive experience that allows English language learners of different ages access to the stories.
The Welcoming Libraries are designed to be shared in schools and libraries, and rotate from place to place after a month. School districts and libraries either purchase a collection to be an ongoing shared resource for their community or borrow the library for free for a month. Each book in the collection is accompanied by a set of discussion questions embedded on the back endpapers. Several of the questions provide a cultural framework to provide discussion leaders with up-to-date language and information that has been approved by the community depicted in the book. Educators say that the discussion questions increase their comfort in sharing a book outside of their culture and experience.
In fall 2021, I’m Your Neighbor Books added the Welcoming Library: Stack Collection, a curated collection of 100-500 kindergarten through 12th-grade books, and launching this fall is the Welcoming Library: Cart Collection, a library cart with 30 picture books and 30 novels for permanent use within a school building.
Interview with Kirsten Cappy
Jean Hakuzimana sat down with Executive Director Kirsten Cappy in her office to discuss I’m Your Neighbor Books.
JH: I know this work is something you’re truly passionate about, and that you believe books can help change the world for the better.
KC: Yes, I personally can’t do anything to change quotas. I cannot open borders or expand immigration policy. But I think that our perceptions of who is welcomed and who feels like they truly belong in America can shift. For the long-term community, I really think that those shifts happen when we form relationships. But we are not always lucky enough to have face-to-face, cross-cultural relationships. We can, though, start with reading. Stories change our perceptions of ourselves and each other. Our main projects use children’s picture books to change those perceptions. We find that illustrated books work with all ages and all English language abilities, and that the 10 minutes someone spends with the story of a family on the page can really change what they know and what they feel. I truly see these reading experiences having a long-term effect on what happens at the border, with immigration policy, and how we build cities where immigrants belong.
JH: Could you describe what it was like to share stories with the children living in the Expo this summer?
KC: Walking into the Expo was a heartbreak. With row after row of beds and no privacy, it was shelter, but not a home. Every time I went in to fill the book cart, kids ran up and started filling their arms with new books chattering away in Lingala, French, and Portuguese. Any avid reader will tell you that they can get lost in a book. These children needed some moments while living in that loud, impersonal space to get lost. By including books set in Africa or here in the African immigrant community, our hope was that lost space would also be a place where they found a piece of home.
JH: How are schools teaching about immigration these days?
KC: In America, we like to tell the Ellis Island story, the classic story of Europeans crossing the ocean and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. That’s usually how we teach immigration in most U.S. schools – we teach that one single story. I’m Your Neighbor Books is putting multicultural, multiracial, and modern immigration book collections into schools that say “No, immigration is no longer a single story. It is many stories.”
JH: Please talk about your work with schools.
KC: One thing that we hear again and again from teachers is they feel like they have not been trained to talk about race and culture. Because of that, there’s a lot of fear that they’re going to get those conversations wrong. And sometimes that can stop an educator from including works from a culture with which she is unfamiliar. So each book we put into classrooms has a set of discussion questions that break down the barriers to cultural conversations. Teachers have said to us again and again that they are more willing to read our books in the classrooms because of the materials we’ve prepared. All of my work in the coming year is to expand those materials to strengthen our support for teachers using the ideas and input of immigrant parents.
JH: Do you have books that are written by community members telling the stories of their own communities?
KC: Over the last couple of years we’ve seen amazing books emerge from the Vietnamese and Cambodian communities. Those are communities that have been here since the 1970s and 1980s. We’re not yet getting children’s books about Rwandan, Burundian, or DRC families because those communities are still newer to Maine. The books we have by new immigrant community members are often collaborations with writers from the long-term community. For
example, we often share the beautiful graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered. It is a memoir of two Somali boys growing up in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Written by Omar Mohammed, it was co-produced by a leading graphic novel artist. Some new independent publishers are facilitating the publishing of new immigrant voices. For example, the nonprofit Green Card Voices is producing bilingual immigrant memoirs. We highly recommend Our Stories Carried Us Here,a collection of first-person stories told and illustrated by immigrants and refugees.