Deloitte Delights!

This summer, we’re sprucing up our office space. Not to spoil the surprise, but we’re looking forward to some fall public events. We’ve gotten some help as we get our space in shape, including from a group of our friends at Deloitte making a difference:

The group from Deloitte starts their day in matching shirts that are free of paint splatters.







Teamwork gets our walls repainted!
















We love our new chalkboard wall!




Some donated furniture gets new life.


We look forward to sharing the final product of our office upgrade with you all!

Capstones: Our Student Anthologies

We hope you’ve had a chance to take a look at our latest student publications! We’re so lucky to have the help of a number of professional designers who volunteer their skills to help us get our signature student anthologies produced. Here’s some of their stories:

Iris Shih
Dragons Love International Food
Timeless Lessons

When English lit didn’t pan out (after Iris realized you have to not only read but write about what you read), Iris decided to study graphic design. She likes working with other people who have a problem to be solved or a message to convey instead of having to invent content herself. This makes design a good fit. As an avid, lifelong reader, books have always been her favorite thing to design because she gets to “curate the reader’s experience” and likens book design to “giving someone a tour as opposed to handing them a map.” In creating the student anthologies, she was careful not to let the design overshadow the content.

For Dragons Love International Food, the student work is about what makes each student and/or their culture special, so she tried to make each spread feel unique. For Timeless Lessons, she designed the cover like a composition notebook, framed each image, and gave it a plaque with the student’s name and story title to mimic an art gallery. This visual trick highlights the students’ artwork.

She attended the launch party for Dragons Love International Food, saying of the experience, “It was such a pleasure to review the whole process of meeting the author and finding inspiration, as well as handing each person a finished book. I loved that some of their family members came too—a number of parents seemed equally proud and excited to have the student work presented in such a professional way. Having been an avid reader since childhood, and because books have been a huge part of shaping my identity as a person, I love that there is a program that both gets kids excited about reading and inspires them to be creators themselves.”

A.K. Espada
I Made the Wrong Turn

Kate Espada’s primary work is in videography and video editing, but this incorporates design and illustration at times. In volunteering for Behind the Book, she was most excited about reading the stories and seeing the artwork (she said, that part of the process did not disappoint!) With I Made a Wrong Turn, she wanted the design to be fun but also wanted to let the students know their work was being taken seriously. This was her first (but not last) year as a Behind the Book designer and found that “giving kids the support and motivation to develop their voices while creating something from their imaginations is an incredibly powerful way to inspire them early in life, in a way that will stick with them forever.”

Tree Abraham
Stories From the Hood

Tree is a book designer from Canada who studied and worked in design in the United Kingdom before moving to New York a year ago. Book design, for her, is one of the best mediums for “sharing human narratives.” For Stories From the Hood, Tree played off “the dark content of the stories, the gritty concrete backgrounds, and spontaneous lines of the chalk paint” by using analogue processes. This means that she created patterns and type on the computer, printed them out, distressed the paper, and then layered and scanned them back into the computer. This process created a geometric effect reflective of ‘80s and ‘90s style.

Tree attended one of the classes for the book she worked on, and it reminded her of how important the arts and creative writing are in school, saying, “I think art can be very cathartic, and having a final book published helps honor and validate their experiences and hard work. With continuing cuts to art programs, organizations like Behind the Book are essential to help fill the gap.”

Ginnefine Jalloh
Don’t Cry Be Happy

Ginnefine is a graphic artist originally from the Bronx who is currently based in Northern Virginia. She studied graphic design at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, and is now pursuing a Masters in Publishing at The George Washington University. To complete the Behind the Book student anthology, she reviewed the students’ work and chose to focus on the fact that the book motivates readers to be happy; the layout was designed to reflect happiness. She came up with a color palette that blended with the student work and made it brighter and larger, so that the work is vividly highlighted and featured. For the cover, she wanted to create a scene with various “happy” elements from the students’ artwork rather than repeat images as seen in the book. We’re happy when we look at it, so it must be working!

This guest post was written by Klea Kalia, a rising junior at Barnard, who is spending her summer Behind the Book instead of on the beach!

The (Successful!) Plot to Keep Learning

We love watching students connect with books – and nothing is better than a whole class full of students coming together around an amazing book with a challenging topic.

Ms. Mapp’s 9th-grade class at the Collegiate Institute of Math & Science began their study of Patricia McCormick’s book The Plot To Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero like many other 9th-graders: a little wary of biography, but excited for an opportunity to meet the author nonetheless.

Lucky for them Patty McCormick is particularly adept at choosing interesting perspectives from which to explore history. The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a religious person and a pacifist who eventually decided that ridding the world of Hitler was the greater good, fueled discussion around the concept of whether (and when) violence is justified. After Patty’s visits, the students were captivated by the story and immersed in their Behind the Book program. Though they were already scheduled for two field trips – to the Bronx DA’s office and to the United Nations – they went one step further and asked to stage mock trials in their school library.

Over the course of three days, students took turns playing the roles of defense and prosecution attorneys. Patty visited the class once more for the trials, to watch as the students debated, defended, or denounced Bonhoeffer’s choices. Many argued their perspectives eloquently and passionately.



The trip to the UN was also a huge hit with the students. The Chair and Vice Chair of our Board of Directors, both attorneys, took the opportunity to chaperone. After the tour of the chambers one 9th-grader, Salsabeel, said “I was surprised at the diversity. Everyone is equal there.” While that may not be her personal, current experience of the world, the visual representation of equality that the UN puts forth is a strong motivator for students to continue to believe in its power and achievability.

Our Program Coordinator, Chris Fleming, was certain that the program was a success in her final class, when one student raised his hand to say, “This is the first time I knew a book by heart, cover to cover. And I know I’ll remember it – until at least the 11th grade.”

Photo credit for mock trial photos – Kelsey Dickey

Meet the Authors: From the Book to the Classroom

At Behind the Book, the key to our programs is bringing authors and their books into classrooms. The author workshops – those visits in which the author interacts with with the students – are opportunities for students to engage with the book on a deeper level. Authors bring their book to life in part through writing exercises and discussion of their own personal writing process. To give you a front-row-seat, we’ve compiled two videos spotlighting four separate author visits to kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Meet the Authors: Levis and Maldonado

In this video, author of Stuck with the Blooz, Caron Levis, leads a kindergarten class on how to help a friend in need. This is juxtaposed with Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays, leading a class of seventh-graders in a writing project about perception (and self-perception.)

Meet the Authors: Budhos and Ortiz

In this next video, author Raquel M. Ortiz, author of Sofi and the Magical, Musical Mural leads first-graders in a musical exercise with a handheld drum and author of Watched, Marina Budhos, leads a discussion with high school seniors about the book’s theme of identity and growing up in an age of surveillance.

And a special thank you to Brian Bonilla for filming and editing!

Start Your Day Right: Group Volunteering

Volunteers are a vital part of Behind the Book programs. Joining our Program Coordinators in the classroom, volunteers give kids the extra attention they need as they work on complex research and writing projects. This school year, we expanded our relationships with corporations seeking group volunteer opportunities during the workday. They provide us with much-needed assistance, while their team members have the opportunity to get out of the office and work with kids.

Elsevier recently sponsored their first corporate volunteer day with Behind the Book, working with first and second graders at PS 154 in Harlem. Heather Luciano, a Publisher at Elsevier and her office’s corporate social responsibility “Champion,” helped to coordinate this event. She is currently Behind the Book’s Young Executive Board co-chair, and wanted to share her experience volunteering in a classroom with her colleagues. Heather sees the two organizations as “the perfect marriage” and hopes to develop the relationship between Behind the Book and Elsevier through long-term volunteer commitments and funding opportunities.

Heather and the rest of the volunteer team from Elsevier helped Ms. Jay’s first and second grade class work on their writing, as they transferred research notes into full sentences. The program was centered around We Dig Worms! by Kevin McCloskey, a book that provides kids with information on how worms are important to gardens. Each student had chosen a “garden helper” (bee, worm, butterfly) to research, and then wrote informative essays. The class was thrilled to meet the new volunteers and a buzz of excitement filled the room as they wrote their ideas into full sentences.

Unza, one of Heather’s coworkers, is actually a PS 154 alum. From the moment she walked through the doors of the school, she was brought back to her childhood. After working with her student, she reflected on the experience of serving as a writing coach in her alma mater, noting a feeling of pride associated with the students’ enthusiasm. To Unza, the experience was a great opportunity to engage with students that sat where she once did, “I appreciate the values that the children are learning, not just the education but the complete experience of learning at this age.”  She was overwhelmed by how politely and appreciatively the students in the class were—a product of both the learning experience and our amazing Program Coordinator Myra’s ability to engage every student on a personal level.

Although our volunteers mostly focus on the development of the students’ writing ability, they can also learn from the experience of working with children.  As Unza reflected, it is exciting and infectious to see the enthusiasm of the students. Behind the Book’s own investment in the next generation would not be the same without the dedication and time of our volunteers.  We look forward to cultivating relationships with corporations and more group volunteer days to come.  As Heather noted: “the impact of this type of relationship is significant, both for us and for Behind the Book; we are both getting something great out of it if we leverage the relationship optimally.”

This guest blog post was written by Charlie Stephenson. Charlie just completed his Development Internship with Behind the Book.  He also recently graduated from Fordham University with a BA in English with a double minor in French and Sustainable Business.

This class and volunteer group was beautifully photographed by Karen Smul.


The Door To The Neighborhood – Bab El Hara

It was not just another Monday.  This Monday was special.  I volunteered for an organization called Behind The Book to translate from Arabic to English for an eight year old  boy from Syria. Disclaimer, I’m a busy mom and comedian so I rarely volunteer. In fact I always complain that I don’t get paid for housework, childcare, or comedy and I refuse to take on one more thing that does NOT pay. I only volunteered because I am obsessed with getting my kid to speak Arabic. As my friend Mariam says, I am held emotionally hostage to the task of transferring my language, and I’m failing. I wake up every day and tell myself that I will only speak to him in Arabic.  I think about this all the time but all my thinking is in English!

So when I heard about this opportunity to use my native language with a kid my son’s age, I jumped on it.  I took the subway from the Upper West Side to Harlem, about fifty blocks, and entered a different world.  At the entrance of the public elementary school, I met Myra, a beautiful woman of Mexican origin who works for Behind the Book. She took me along with the author Jake Perez to the second grade classroom. She introduced us to our boy, Tarek, a skinny little man with brown hair and eyes the color of good olive oil. As soon as I met him, I understood why Myra launched a social media campaign to find him a translator. Before he uttered a word, I could tell he was curious and hungry to learn. I sat next to him on the floor, and we got to know each other.  I was so happy to hear a kid answer me back in Arabic.  As Jake read, I translated every word.

Jake’s book is about a little girl named Coco who learns how to make a treasured family recipe, flan. In the process, Coco also learns about her Cuban heritage. When I explained to Tarek that the reason Jake decided to write this book is because he wanted to learn more about his culture, he asked the simplest of questions and I didn’t have an answer.  “Well, if he misses his culture, and there is NO war there, why doesn’t he just go back to his home in Cuba?” Then when Jake showed us on the map where Cuba is, Tarek noticed the proximity to the United States and he asked me: “Why doesn’t he establish a home there and go back and forth?” Such a grown up question from a kid.  My own eight year old  would never ask that.

I visited Tarek in his classroom four or five times. After every visit, he remained in my thoughts.  I got to know some of the other kids.  Out of twenty four kids, seven are refugees from Yemen, about a third.  As a mom, I could not help but compare this school which is supposed to be an “underprivileged school” to my son’s school which is a “private public school”.  Other than the fact that all the kids in Tarek’s classroom are brown and all the kids in my son’s school are white, there is no difference.  This school might have lower test scores but in my opinion, it scores higher on love, immigrant hunger, and other things you can’t quantify.  I immediately wanted to put my son with Tarek.  I was envious that my own kid was not that curious and didn’t have the empathy and maturity that Tarek had. I insisted on meeting his mother. I gave him my number. She called the same day. She invited us to lunch.

Zidane and I went to Tarek’s house in Harlem one Sunday afternoon. They had a huge spread. A biryani type dish, a salad, and a specific roux type regional dish S-houq which I had never had before, followed by two types of dessert. I brought them some donuts from Dough and as soon as I saw her spread I felt silly and pretentious.  I immediately remembered my childhood, how my mom’s distant cousins would come to visit from America.  We would go all out and slaughter a lamb and they would bring us something silly like a tiny box of cookies from Trader Joe’s.  The lamb would side eye the cookies on the dining table.

As soon as I met his mom and sister, I noticed their accents were unlike Tarek’s, they sounded like they were from Yemen.  I asked:  it may be that you guys are not from Syria?  The sister moved Tarek in front of her, put her arms on his shoulders and asked him:  “did you tell them we are Syrian?”.  The cutest most mischievous smile gave his lie away.  Apparently, while they were waiting in Yemen to get their entry documents to America, he had spent an entire school year watching a very popular Syrian show Bab El Hara. He perfected the accent.  He was immediately worried that I would stop working with him.  I reassured him by letting him know how amused I was.  I thought to myself:  this kid is really smart, at such an early age, he learned to take advantage of the oppression olympics.  He realized that being Syrian got you way more attention than being Yemeni.  

While we were there, an accident happened. Tarek was so excited that he fell and hurt his eye lid. Blood was gushing. It left a deep wound. I could see the bone. I knew the mother and sister did not speak any English. I quickly looked up an Urgent Care nearby. I naively thought they would take their insurance. That’s where I took my son when he hurt his eye in the same place last summer, so I figured it would be ok. I was wrong. When we got there and they saw their insurance, they promptly sent us to to the ER. It was such a long ordeal. I stayed as long as possible. Luckily, we found a nurse who spoke Arabic and so after that, I left her in charge.

Zidane and I got on the subway home from Harlem. He started complaining that it was the worst playdate ever. I patiently tried to explain to him that everything would have gone smoothly if the Urgent Care had accepted their insurance. Try explaining America’s healthcare system to an eight year old. My husband is an artist and Creative Director in advertising and so we are blessed to have great insurance.  Tarek’s dad works for a grocery store seven days a week. Not only does Tarek barely see his dad, he has to go the Emergency room if he needs a doctor at odd hours. How do you teach kids that with their advantage comes a responsibility? There is no system in America to teach that. Community service here is something you have to do when you get in trouble with the law.

I got an idea to create an afterschool peer to peer homework and play space for new immigrants and first generation kids to integrate and learn from each other. Tarek and Zidane would not just learn languages from each other, they would get different perspectives.

This volunteer experience was not only extremely gratifying but it taught me a lot.  I went back recently for Tarek’s publishing party and met some of the moms.  One mom said to me:  “I want to write my story”.  I encouraged her to take a workshop, gave her my number and promised to take her to a Moth story slam.  Behind The Book inspired not only the kids but the moms as well.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi , author of Americanah says “there is danger of the single story”.  Behind The Book is inspiring kids to write their own multiple stories.

We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have Suzie Afridi as a volunteer in our classroom workshops, and are honored to have her guest blog about her experience! 

May Reading at KGB

The different faces of war, loss, love, and art across geographies and generations: join us to hear the masterful works of Elliot Ackerman, Alia Malek, and Ellen Umansky. We’ll be at KGB Bar in the East Village on Thursday, May 11.

Elliot Ackerman’s highly anticipated second novel, Dark at the Crossing, is a timely story of stunning humanity and tension: a contemporary love story set on the Turkish border with Syria.  The novel follows the crossed paths of an Iraqi-born interpreter for a Special Forces unit who travels to the Turkish border with Syria in hopes of joining the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime and two Syrian refugees who fled their homeland, but with hope their daughter remains alive in Syria.  Both a former White House Fellow and Marine, Elliot is the also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Green on Blue.  He is based out of Istanbul, where he has covered the Syrian Civil War since 2013.  His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories.  He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.

Dark at the Crossing is every bit as taut and harrowing as the place it depicts, a region where fifteen years of relentless war play out in filthy refugee camps and upscale shopping malls.  Elliot Ackerman has written a brilliant, admirably merciless novel of broken lives, broken places, and good intentions gone awry.” – Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk & Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

Alia Malek’s acclaimed narrative nonfiction book, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria, is a profound personal journey from when the author returns to her family home to Damascus at the Arab Spring’s hopeful start.  Restoring her family’s home as the country comes apart, she learns how to speak the coded language of oppression that exists in a dictatorship, while privately confronting her own fears about Syria’s future and ultimately delivering an unforgettable portrait of the Syria that is being erased.  A journalist and civil rights lawyer, she is the author of A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives and editor of Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustices and EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees.  Her reportage has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, The Nation, McSweeney’s, Guernica, and other publications.  Her reporting from Syria earned her the Marie Colvin Award in November 2013.  She was a Senior Writer at Al Jazeera America, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute, and in residence at the MacDowell Colony.  In November 2016, she was honored with the 12th annual Hiett Prize in the Humanities.

“In THE HOME THAT WAS OUR COUNTRY, Alia Malek masterfully weaves together the personal and the political, and in so doing creates an unforgettable portrait of modern Syria in all its complexities and tragedies. Malek renders multiple generations of family, friends and neighbors vividly but unsentimentally, and what emerges is a portrait of a great people held back by tyranny. As Syria suffers through its darkest days, she reminds us of the humans behind the statistics. Completely engrossing and lucid, the book explains Syria’s devolution better than anything I’ve read.” — Dave Eggers

Ellen Umansky’s deeply humane and engrossing debut novel, The Fortunate Ones, travels from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.  Tracing the fate of a missing painting by famed expressionist Chaim Soutine, the novel connects the lives of Rose, a refugee who escaped the Holocaust as a young girl on the Kindertransport to England, and Lizzie, a lawyer whose father just died, and their mutual search for meaning in tragedy.  Ellen has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp.  She has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker, The Forward, and Tablet.  She grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

“Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Adversity Meets Diversity

How Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar helped students write about conflict and become their own hero.

When I first met the 5th grade students at PS 98, they were eagerly engaged in a conversation with the visiting author, Yangsook Choi. The writer asked the students why their favorite book was their favorite. Their answers were not too different than my own would have been: themes of friendship, family, mystery and humor were among the most popular choices. The author then asked for student volunteers to read their own original stories aloud to the class. The children were very excited to share their works and when they had finished, they accepted feedback from their classmates as well as Choi. Some students were told to add more detail, while others were asked to hold back some. The author encouraged the students to make sure their conflicts were pronounced enough so that it would make the story more exciting and relatable.

Choi herself is no newcomer to storytelling, as she has written and published over 10 children’s books. One of the most influential, The Name Jar, features a girl named Unhei who is leaving her home in Korea to come to America for the first time. She is anxious about starting school. Unhei wants the children to like and accept her so she decides not to tell them her name, thinking that they won’t be able to pronounce it. Throughout the week she tries out more “Americanized” names such as Suzy or Amanda, suggested by the other students. However, by the end of the story Unhei realizes that although different, her name is special and unique to her and her culture. She tells her class her real name and helps them to pronounce it.

Working it Out
Choi also talked about her own process of writing and how it took her many, many times to rewrite and publish The Name Jar. She discussed the importance of story boards and how to use them to organize their stories and future works. Choi emphasized the need to create a conflict with many levels so that it is not easily solved. When the problem reaches a peak, the character must decide to solve the problem and then come up with the solution.

After reading The Name Jar, students created their own short story about a character who goes through their own adversity, as Unhei did. Many children decided to draw on their own life experiences as inspiration for their stories. Others created works dreamed up by their imaginations. While one student’s story was about a surgery that she had undergone, another’s was about a group of friends that get sucked into a video game.

Putting it All Together
Once they completed the first draft of their stories, the students participated in an art workshop. Each student received three blank puzzle pieces to use to illustrate their work. On the first puzzle piece, they drew a portrait of their main character and were therefore forced to think about what their protagonist is like: their looks, attitude, mood and hobbies. For example, one student drew her character sleeping because as she said, it’s their favorite activity to do (can’t argue with that). Another student informed me, “My character isn’t smiling because she’s happy. She’s being sarcastic.” On the second puzzle piece, the students were to draw a symbol of the conflict in their story.

The students picked up on the idea of symbols quite quickly. Soon they were drawing pictures of bad report cards, hospital signs, and pregnant bellies to signify the conflict in their stories. For their final puzzle piece, the children drew the resolution to their works. One girl’s story was about someone being bullied by another student. She ended the story with (and drew a picture of) the student tutoring the bully and the two of them becoming friends. When the students were finished with their puzzle pieces, they were put together with everyone else’s in the class to form one giant mural that was hung up outside their classroom. The buzz amongst the children who were so excited to see their completed mural hung up was contagious.

Importance of Diversity
I was very happy to see that The Name Jar was chosen for the 5th grade class to read because I believe that it is extremely important for students to read diverse books. Even more important for children this young is for them to understand that they can be the heroes of their own stories.

One small moment that really struck me: when the students were coloring in their puzzle pieces, several kids told me that they couldn’t find a marker that matched their skin color exactly. It doesn’t seem like a very important moment but it stuck with me long after I left the classroom for a few reasons. For one, I was very excited to see that the children were featuring themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. However, the moment as a whole seemed symbolic of the world around us. As I looked across the room for different colors and found only a pale whitish pink colored marker, I, maybe dramatically, felt the weight of the under-representation of minorities in the world – in media like books and movies, as well in government and executive positions.

The work that Behind the Book does goes way beyond improving literacy skills in low-income school districts. They allow children to see themselves in the world that they are so frequently erased from. When Behind the Book brings diverse authors and books to schools that discuss different cultures, languages, and ways of life, it allows students to feel that their own identification is valid – just as Unhei does at the end of The Name Jar. In addition, it creates an open discussion for topics that students are not familiar with but grow to learn about and appreciate. When students, especially at a young age, are taught to accept rather than reject people who are different them, the world becomes a much more peaceful place.

This guest blog was written by Kelly Schmaeling, a rising junior at Hunter College majoring in Media Studies. Kelly visited a number of workshops to get a truly substantial understanding of this Behind the Book program.