Contemporary young activists offer first-person accounts of their trials and triumphs in I, Witness, a new middle-grade series from Norton Young Readers. Scheduled to debut on October 5 with two books, the series is coedited by author and publisher Dave Eggers; Amanda Uhle, publisher of McSweeney’s; writer and editor Zoë Ruiz; and Zainab Nasrati, vice chairperson for Ordskælv, a Danish nonprofit writing website and publishing house.
The inaugural I, Witness titles—Accused: My Story of Injustice by Adama Bah and Hurricane: My Story of Resilience by Salvador Gómez-Colón—chronicle very different challenges encountered and conquered by two intrepid teens. Bah, who as a child moved from Conakry, Guinea, to Harlem, writes about being falsely identified as a terrorist in the wake of 9/11, when discrimination against Muslim Americans escalated precipitously. In his book, Gómez-Colón documents the devastation that 2017’s Hurricane Maria wreaked on his native Puerto Rico when he was 15, and the humanitarian initiative he undertook in the cataclysmic storm’s aftermath.
The series’ third volume, due in spring 2022, is Courage: My Story of Persecution by Freshta Tori Jan, a young woman from an ethnic minority in Afghanistan whose persecution by the Taliban inspired her to become a community activist. The cover of her book is revealed here for the first time.
The majority of I, Witness releases will be penned by participants in the writing program at the International Congress of Youth Voices, an organization cofounded by Eggers and Uhle in 2015 to spotlight the words and work of teenage activists. The Congress hosted summit meetings attended by student delegates (nominated by nonprofit organizations around the world) in San Francisco in 2018 and San Juan in 2019.
Eggers explained that his 11-year tenure teaching a San Francisco high-school class called “The Best American Nonrequired Reading” helped plant a seed for the I, Witness series. “In the class, we read a wide smattering of contemporary literature, from comics to journalism to poetry, and then put together the eponymous compilation,” he said. “The students’ tastes were varied, but they were uniformly electrified by first-person accounts of recent social and political upheaval.”
Watching the reaction of his students to Adama Bah’s story underscored that fact for Eggers. “Her account of her wrongful arrest and incarceration on suspicion of terrorism hit them like a thunderclap,” he said. “Most of the students were very young when 9/11 occurred, so Adama’s story made the ensuing persecution of Muslim Americans incredibly vivid to them. What had been abstract became fully real, and provoked righteous outrage.”
The pervasive post-9/11 discrimination that Bah felt culminated in March 2005, at the age of 16, when she and her father were arrested by FBI agents, who suspected her of being a potential suicide bomber. She initially relayed her harrowing ordeal and its impact on her life in a 2016 film created by American Documentary, a nonprofit media arts organization, which caught Eggers’s interest.
When he asked Bah (who currently works in New York City as an advocate for immigration reform) if she was interested in writing a book, she recalled, “I didn’t feel ready to do that,” but changed her mind when Eggers later proposed that she share her story as an I, Witness book.
Bah soon discovered that recreating her teenage trauma was itself traumatic. “I realized that no one had ever told me how to heal, they just said things would get better,” she said. “I thought that in order to heal I had to forget. As I wrote, I began to remember things that I thought I had forgotten. It was kind of like watching a movie rewinding—I saw parts of my story that I didn’t remember seeing before. Accused was very painful to write, and I almost hit rock bottom. But it was very important to me not to show my two young children those emotions. They don’t know my story yet.”
Jumping In to Help
Soon after Hurricane Maria knocked out Puerto Rican communities’ access to clean water and electricity, Salvador Gómez-Colón decided to take action to supplement the efforts of nongovernmental organizations and larger global philanthropic groups. He launched a crowd-funding campaign called Light and Hope for Puerto Rico, which raised more than $100,000 and provided solar lamps and hand-operated washing machines to households in need.
“What began as a humanitarian grassroots initiative expanded beyond my expectations after it was picked up by major media,” he said. Eggers and Uhle tapped Gómez-Colón to be a delegate at the 2018 International Congress of Youth Voices summit in San Juan, and he was subsequently selected to write one of the debut I, Witness titles.
Now a first-year student at Yale, Gómez-Colón expressed hope that Hurricane convinces kids to “channel negative experiences to use them for positive purposes,” and to “never doubt your ability to create positive change no matter how young you are. My message is to do the best you can to act on your passions as early as possible—even at age 10.”
The author also emphasized the importance of grasping the urgency of climate change’s impact on individuals across the globe. “I hope readers understand that climate change affects us all—and appreciate that Puerto Rico, though it sometimes does not get much attention in the media or in conversation, is not far from the rest of America in terms of its location or ideals. As a young reader, I would have loved to read a book like Hurricane.”
Uhle was pleased that Norton Young Readers eagerly embraced the I, Witness series when agent Steve Malk proposed the project to publishing director Simon Boughton. “I knew that Norton would bring to the series exactly what we hoped for, by celebrating and honoring the unique perspectives of young people who are writing their own stories that readers can really see themselves in,” she said.
Similarly, Eggers praised the appeal of the books’ accessible and identifiable narratives. “Young readers are drawn to stories told by people like themselves, born into a similar era, speaking with a familiar voice,” he noted. “So Adama and Salvador’s viewpoints bring immediacy to recent historical events. After reading Salvador’s story, a 13-year-old told me it was as if their best friend lived through it, and was telling it to them, face to face. It helps that Salvador and Adama are wonderfully candid, vulnerable, and brilliant at remembering the most poignant and revealing details.”
I, Witness: Accused: My Story of Injustice by Adama Bah. Norton Young Readers, $16.95 Oct. 5 ISBN 978-1-3240-1663-2
I, Witness: My Story of Resilience by Salvador Gómez-Colón. Norton Young Readers, $16.95 Oct. 5 ISBN 978-1-3240-1665-6