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World Book Day! A writer on writing…

On UNESCO’s World Book Day, we remember the books that moved us, made us think, made us laugh, called us to action. Today, I would like to celebrate a favorite author by sharing her own words on the writing process. Click to hear Marta Maretich, Nigerian-born, American writer living in London whose nonfiction is widely published.

Marta was a contributor to Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, selected by National Geographic as one of the ten best travel books for 2016. Her fiction includes the shimmering story of the Venetian Republic in its final flowering, The Merchants of Light. 

To the great benefit of people who struggle to read, Marta applied her considerable skills to the Gemma Open Door Series. The Possibility of Lions is among our most popular titles, and The Bear Suit, recently released, introduces new readers to the classics. How does an author of such sophistication write for adults and young adults with low-level reading skills?  With insight, and grace, and respect.

A classic tale from a master teller… raaaaaar!

bear-suit“Don’t we all, secretly, want to transform? To be a bird in the sky, a fish in the river, a fox in the woods?”

Sharman Apt Russell, author and winner of 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing asks us this question as he describes a beautiful new book from Marta Maretich that was published this week. We are delighted to introduce The Bear Suit, “a wonderful and engaging story about being in nature and the wilds of the American West.”

In her extraordinary way, the author of The Merchants of Light and The Possibility of Lions gives new readers a story about transformation, redemption, and release. Rollo, a young man living in his mother’s house, is tired of humans. His dream is to escape to the Sierra Nevada mountains where he can live alone and be free of people. There’s just one problem with the scheme: Rollo’s very human, very hungry stomach. No matter how much food he carries in his backpack, Rollo eventually has to come back to the “messed-up, man-made world” or starve.

Then Rollo finds a dusty old bear suit in a costume shop. He’s got a plan! But what seems like the perfect solution at first will bring unexpected results and change Rollo’s life forever.

And you may have guessed, there is a story beneath the story. This is Ovid. This is Metamorphoses. Marta gives new readers their first look at the classics…and the transformation that humans have dreamed for centuries.

Put a book between those paws!

The dream of a literate America

“The richest nation on Earth has never allocated enough resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige our work justifies. We squander funds on highways, on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armament, but we pauperize education.”
While this sounds like a policy speech that could have been written yesterday, these are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in 1964 as he received the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers.

More chilling is Dr King’s admonition to educators and citizens, written 70 years ago –70 years!—to find the truth:

Martin Luther King USA Postage Stamp

Martin Luther King USA Postage Stamp

“To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” – Morehouse College, The Maroon Tiger, 1947
Dr. King’s insisted on a simple solution to eradicate poverty: its total abolition through the guaranteed income. While other efforts have made some progress, effective coordination rarely rises above political weakness. The essential pieces—a program for adequate and transformative housing, access to equal education, and support for fragile family relationships  that distort development—are subject to “the whims of legislative bodies.” Dr. King called for nothing short of the end of poverty. And he identified education as the battleground in that freedom struggle.

With literacy rates relatively unchanged in America over the intervening decades, it is hard to see the progress toward a more enlightened and informed society. Inequality in access to education widens. It is hard to maintain hope.

And yet, Dr. King’s acceptance speech for the 1964 Novel Peace Prize gives heart. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

In the beginning

As 2016 comes to a close, it is wise to reflect on the good things that happened this year amid so much sadness and loss in the world around us. The overwhelming kindness and support that welcomed our new nonprofit, Gemma Open Door for Literacy, reaffirmed my belief in the fundamental goodness of people. We honor the pioneers such as Ruth Johnson Colvin and ProLiteracy, New Island Press, and all of the librarians, volunteers, teachers, and mentors devoted to full literacy for all.

So many thanks are due to those who helped us continue our small role in the mission to help adults and young adults read. Generous friends and benefactors gave time, money, advice, and much-valued encouragement. Authors rose to the challenge of creating sophisticated stories at low reading levels that interest grown-ups. I am humbled and grateful, and commit to bigger things in 2017!

Treat Shop (1960) is the first hardcover book I ever owned.  A collection selected and edited by children’s literature experts Eleanor M. Johnson and Leland B. Jacobs, the charmingly-illustrated book presents stories and poems from Aesop and Grimm to Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss. When I take it down from the shelf in my study, I run a finger over my name—middle initial and all—on the inside cover, written in my mother’s hand. I am deeply grateful to her, my first teacher who first gave me the gift of books. And to all the teachers over the years who built on that foundation, I can’t imagine a life without you.

Remember those who taught you to read. Remember those who struggle to read. Remember your first book. Remember.


The young will inherit

lol-headerBy the age of 18, almost 90% of young adults regularly get their news from Facebook and other social media, according to a study by the Media Insight Project. That can’t surprise anyone, but it makes me a little nervous, especially given the dominance of false news. How can we process the vast amount of information flashed at us to make steady decisions about local affairs, insurance choices, personal finances…elections? How do young people figure out what’s true and what’s not? What to worry about and what to let slide?

To make considered opinions, it is important to read widely and then reflect. A passing glance at a phone is not enough to keep someone informed. If a young person struggles to read—or is a reluctant reader—all the more reason to believe that he or she is unable to fully participate in the decisions that determine our lives. 

And that doesn’t begin to address the anxiety young folks feel in a complex world. No matter what your response to recent elections, there is no avoiding the fact that Americans are stressed. The cycle was brutal and persistent, and, as we recognize with deep concern, divisive.

It made me think about so many young people across the globe who feel hopeless, scared, un-noticed each and every day. How would we know about their experience except by reading about them?

Where do we go to understand the implications of a change of government, to find a new way of looking at the world, to seek comfort in the evidence that the world goes on?

Not with a tweet, not with a post, rather with a news article, a story, a book. That is why we take our mission of full literacy for all adults so seriously…and you should, too.

Get a book in that kid’s hand.

About Gemma Open Doors

An innovative program of original works by some of our most beloved modern writers, originally designed in Ireland to promote adult literacy. These fresh stories showcase new writing from both best-selling authors and emerging voices.

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