It’s a rare picture book that not only educates children about a serious issue, but also shows them how they can make a difference. The collaboration that will lead to The Water Princess, forthcoming from Putnam in spring 2016, unites a cast of children’s book veterans – and some unlikely partners – in a project that began with the real-life story of one African girl’s quest for clean drinking water, and will end with the digging of a well to serve that girl’s friends and neighbors.
It all started last spring, when Peter H. Reynolds (The Dot, The Museum) met model and activist Georgie Badiel at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. Between panel presentations that tackled a variety of women’s issues, the Burkina Faso–born model, who won the title of Miss Africa in 2004, told Reynolds her own story, which she related to PW in an interview.
“In the village where I grew up, we used to walk miles and miles to go get clean water, carrying bowls,” she said. “During the dry season, water didn’t come from the school faucet; since everyone was thirsty, I sometimes couldn’t even buy anything to drink.”
As a child, she continued, she thought the walks to the river were normal; she even enjoyed them. She didn’t realize that she was growing up in one of the poorest countries in the world. Only once she left home to pursue her modeling career, first in Paris and then in New York, did she realize how accessible safe water was, for some. During a visit home in 2009, she watched, heartbroken, as her very pregnant sister rose at 2 a.m. to begin the two-hour walk for water. “I saw how much she struggled,” said Badiel. “I left knowing that I had to find a way to help.”
Badiel told Reynolds that she’d always envisioned sharing her story as a children’s book, she told Reynolds: “I said, ‘I want you to let children around the world know that other children are struggling for something so basic. Children care – they always think about giving back, helping.” That was why, she said, she wanted the funds from a book’s sale to underwrite a project that would bring water to kids in Burkina Faso.
“Getting any story published—and published well—is close to a miracle,” said Reynolds. “Helping fund clean water wells in Africa from the book’s proceeds seemed an equally tall order.” Fortunately for Badiel, he added, “I am a dreamer, but also a doer: ‘There must be a way....’ is a constant refrain in my thinking.”
So Reynolds suggested that Badiel meet with his Museum collaborator, author Susan Verde. “It was this wonderful, magical connection,” said Verde of that first encounter, at a Manhattan café. “Her story was so moving that I just began to write, and among the three of us we came up with this incredible story in the hopes that we could do something to help.”
The trio put together a proposal for a book called The Water Princess, which Reynolds’s agent, Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties, read with great interest. “I was so moved by the honesty with which Georgie told her story,” said McGhee. “We all know how easy it is to forget where we came from.” Any advance the book received would be divided in three – among Reynolds, Verde, and Badiel; the latter’s portion would directly fund the establishment of a well in Burkina Faso.
McGhee, like Reynolds, had assumed that selling the book would be the toughest part of the project; she was surprised by how daunting the search for a charitable partner turned out to be. “I figured that if I wrote a check, or you wrote a check, and we found a charity that dealt with the issue of water, that they would be able to carry out our wishes,” she explained.
A Fitting Partner
Verde, who led the search for an organization that would work in Burkina Faso, finally connected the group with an Ontario, Canada–based foundation called Ryan’s Well. Appropriately, the charity was started by a child: in 1999, then-seven-year-old Ryan Hreljac petitioned his parents for money after his first-grade class discussed the need for safe drinking water in the developing world. (The organization has now implemented more than 800 water projects in 30 countries, benefiting more than 800,000 people.)
Once a meeting between Badiel and Hreljac cemented the partnership, details about the organization were folded into The Water Princess proposal. “It’s not easy working in Burkina Faso,” said Jane Baird, the executive director of Ryan’s Well, which is now finalizing plans for a well installation project near Badiel’s village. “It’s more effort, and sometimes more expensive, but that’s a niche for us.”
When the proposal reached Jennifer Besser, v-p and publisher at Putnam, Besser’s initial thought was: “This is something we can really run with.” Upon meeting with the team, she said, “I saw such an inspiring degree of passion and dedication for the project – I think that’s what the book has the power to be too.” She purchased world rights this past month, and ensured that the portion of the advance going to Ryan’s Well was available on signing.
Which meant, said McGhee, that “we’d be able to fund the project from the get-go.” Now, just three weeks later, they’re already off and running: Badiel is planning a trip to Burkina Faso this spring when, if all goes according to plan, she’ll preside over the well’s groundbreaking, perhaps joined by Verde and other members of their team. As the release of The Water Princess is scheduled for spring 2016, the book will also include documentation of the digging of the well and the delivery of clean water to the village’s children and their families.
“While Peter is drawing, the water will be brought in,” says McGhee, marveling that publishing a picture book takes longer than does the project of bringing clean water to an entire village. “We’ll have photographs in the back of the book and video documentation; we’ll probably have a Web site.” The hope is that the book can serve as an entry point for an education and awareness campaign that can reach schoolchildren and motivate them to get involved.
“When my kids met Georgie, [the issue of clean water] became real to them,” said Verde. “Now they’re so interested. My eight-year-old daughter came to me with a handful of pennies, saying, ‘I’m going to collect all the money I find in my coat pocket and send it to Burkina Faso.’”
Badiel stressed that while her story will be captured in The Water Princess, it is really the story of millions of children. “My goal was always to see a change in these children’s lives,” she said, “but the fact that it’s happening is a dream come true.”