SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, have just published their Summer Bulletin, featuring a Success Story by Hollis.
Read the complete article:
Hollis Kurman on ‘Hello! A Counting Book of Kindnesses’ / ‘Counting Kindness’
I was a little late to the party. Not only did it take me a couple of decades finally to ‘get serious’ about writing children’s stories and trying to get my stories made into books, but it also took me a while to discover that SCBWI was the best kept secret everyone in the children’s book world but me seemed to know about.
From my first workshop in Amsterdam, an Agent Day back in 2015, SCBWI has been Kidlit manna. It has bolstered my writer’s journey every step of the way with craft, community, and confidence. And as a bonus, it has helped me learn the rules of this game, which must be mastered before they can be artfully broken.
Writing for children was something I had been doing on the side, but that’s not how anything worth doing gets done. The invaluable SCBWI workshops, conferences, and critiques gave me not only the tools but also the resilience to keep at it. As my sister-in-law calls it, ‘buoyancy in a sea of rejection.’ All these years of writing, learning, editing, submitting, failing, wailing, more writing, more learning, and more editing. And then something worked.
Given my human rights background and family immigration history, I had always wanted to write stories for and about refugee-, and immigrant- children. Their stories can be difficult to tell. But children need to understand that although the world is not always safe or fair, they should see that it is not hopeless. To believe that they can make a difference, even at a young age. Children also need to see characters who are like themselves and characters who are different, including refugee children, in the books they read – and to recognize and rejoice in their common humanity. Lastly, the refugee problem is enormous and growing. We all will be confronted with their plight, no matter where we live. Children, especially, need an accessible, inviting framework for understanding and discussing the situation.
My goal for this book was to find the kindness and hope, and even a bit of adventure, in the turmoil – while keeping it true. When I started writing it, there were hardly any children’s books about refugees – certainly not for children so young. And the few books that I found were very dark. I showed them to a Syrian refugee artist friend (Yara Saïd), who shook her head, saying, ‘We already know about the horrors.’ I told her that I wanted to write a story through a more hopeful, inclusive, lens. Looking back, it was as Namrata Tripathi (Kokila) described during the Editors’ Panel at this year’s SCBWI Summer Spectacular, explaining how books are both ‘creative and destructive’. Sometimes we must challenge or replace stubborn tropes to get to higher ground.
Then one night I woke up with the idea for a counting book. Everything clicked into place, condensing the refugee journey into a 1-10 story: 1 boat, 2 hands, 3 meals…, 7 days of their first week… The next morning, I showed Yara the PowerPoint presentation I had made to illustrate it (I cannot draw!). My Counting Book of Kindnesses gave her goosebumps and brought tears to her eyes. I knew that I was onto something but wasn’t sure how to take the next step.
Enter SCBWI again. I had signed up for a workshop and manuscript critique with the venerable Rosemary Wells, but I had sent her a different manuscript. Rosemary wasted no time in telling me that ‘anybody could have written that story’ and challenged me to show her the story that only I could have written. When I told her about my Kindness manuscript, she jumped at it. ‘That’s the story I want to see. Send me that story!’ So I did. Rosemary’s enthusiasm not only gave me courage, but she also later wrote an endorsement of my book.
I then took the unusual step of reaching out to Amnesty International and heard back immediately from Nicky Parker, who runs their Books division. She asked to see the manuscript. Amnesty apparently had been looking for years for this kind of book and was very excited about it. The only catch was that Amnesty doesn’t actually publish books, so I would have to find a publisher. From their recommended list of ‘ethical publishers’, I was immediately drawn to Otter-Barry Books in the UK – and luckily Janetta Otter-Barry felt the same about my book. The good news got even better when Barroux quickly agreed to come on board as illustrator. Barroux’s illustrations have brought this book to life with a warmth and spare emotional poetry that I had never imagined. He is a magician.
By the time I got to the 2019 Bologna Book Fair for my book’s preview, and the SCBWI Europolitan in Zürich a few weeks later, I was on my way. Fast forward: The book is being published in 8 countries and 5 languages in 2020-21, with Italy up next and other markets in the pipeline. International reviews have been both thrilling and heartwarming. I am honored, too, that the book has been nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2021 in the UK; won a Northern Lights Award 2020 in the US; and has been included in recommended lists of multicultural and anti-racist books, most recently on Amnesty’s list of Books to Inspire Activism. It was also just selected by the UNO/UNHCR in Germany to promote tolerance for refugees as part of their Advent campaign. One of my favorite reactions so far, though, was from a book blogger’s 9 year-old twins, who wrote and illustrated their own ‘counting book of kindnesses’ inspired by my book. As the Dutch would say, hier doen we het voor, or ‘this is what we do it for.’ This is why we write for children.
As for SCBWI, I still learn so much with every event I attend, in person or virtually. My notebooks are peppered with asterisks, exclamation points and post-its, joyful little signposts of future guidance. And, I hope, future books!
I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. And now, with support and inspiration from SCBWI along the way, I am also finally an author.
Hollis Kurman is a children’s book author and poet. Her début picture book is ‘Hello! A Counting Book of Kindnesses’ (UK, Otter-Barry Books) / ‘Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children’ (US, Charlesbridge), illustrated by Barroux and endorsed by Amnesty International. She is also in the Board of Trustees of Save the Children NL, co-founder of the Human Rights Watch NL Committee and member of the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Global Advisory Council; Board member of the Fulbright Commission NL; and Chairperson of the Ivy Circle. She is currently unagented and is seeking representation. Hollis, a native New Yorker, lives in Amsterdam and can be found online at https://holliskurman.com ; Instagram at holliskurman_writer; and Twitter @HollisKurman.