Literary Safari—the New York City-based studio that produces print and digital children’s media with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion—has launched the #ArmMeWithBooks campaign, which seeks to address issues of gun violence in the U.S. The initiative kicked off on December 14, the sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., and will conclude on February 14, 2019, the first anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The campaign, which takes its name from teachers’ responses on social media to the Trump administration’s suggestion of arming educators with guns, is centered on the #ArmMeWithBooks Booklist, a free, downloadable collection of recommended titles—picture books, middle grade, and YA—selected by more than 50 children’s authors. Participants responded to the following question, “What is a must-read for children growing up in these challenging times of mass school shootings and lockdown drills?” The list also includes an original poem by 2018 Arnold Adoff Poetry Award-winner Nikki Grimes.
Sandhya Nankani, founder and publisher of Literary Safari, told PW, “The impetus was to create a toolkit for parents and children to come together and have meaningful conversations around the things happening in the news and in schools.” The parent of a nine-year-old girl, Nankani said, “It has been really interesting to see my daughter’s responses to lockdown drills. We send our children to school to feel safe, to grow and learn. What is the impact of this fear over time? How is that changing generations of children? What do they need more of?” Though she receives emergency protocol information from her daughter’s school, she said, “I wasn’t finding something that spoke to me—something I could use to engage my child.” The book list was created in hopes of filling that gap, by offering stories that highlight social and emotional themes such as empathy and resilience.
When called on to participate in the project, Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate (The One and Only Ivan) suggested the picture book Malala’s Magic Pencil by activist Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët. “It tells even the youngest reader that one courageous voice can bring hope to millions,” she said. Applegate told PW, “I hope #ArmMeWithBooks empowers young people to move the conversation about gun violence in a new direction. I can’t think of a more potent tool than books. Stories don’t just reveal truths and heal hearts. Stories change the world.”
Betsy Bird, collection development manager at Evanston Public Library in Ill., author, and blogger, also voiced her support of the campaign. “When I talk to other parents, they’re desperate for the books on this list. They’re desperate for books that can give them the words to discuss tough subjects. By the same token, they need stories of hope and joy. As we enter 2019, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that we’re feeling a little depleted on both counts. Booklists like this one are like a bolt of electricity to the senses. They help us but, more importantly, they’re going to help our kids make a better world in the years to come.” To that end, Bird recommended Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, saying, “The book I wanted to add would have to be a title that spoke to the times we live in right now. There’s only one book for children out there that’s talking about whiteness and privilege on a level that the very young can understand, and that’s this one.”
Author and Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle offered three recommendations for the #ArmMeWithBooks list, for readers of all ages: The Poet X by National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo; #NeverAgain by David and Lauren Hogg, two survivors of the Parkland shooting; and Dreamers by Caldecott Honor winner Yuyi Morales. Engle told PW, “As a poet, I hope young readers will learn to love language, and see how words of peace are more powerful than any violent weapons.”
This past summer, Literary Safari embarked on a storytelling venture of its own, in response to issues of gun reform. William H.G. Butler Middle School is a collaboratively written graphic novella published on Instagram. The 21-episode serial takes the shape of a fictional middle school’s summer social media feed, exploring the question: “What could schools look like in an America without gun reform?” The story was written and designed by Nankani along with Anjali Sakhrani, lead creative producer at Literary Safari, and the organization’s student interns, Casey McConville and Nakul Srinivas. The novella is also available on Medium. Nankani said, “As we were creating the story, it was interesting to see the posts that got the most interaction and feedback from teachers. Sometimes it wasn’t clear from the comments if readers thought it was real or fiction—it’s so close [to reality]. We found that storytelling is such a powerful doorway to explore difficult subjects for kids, parents, and teachers.”
Nankani described additional programs focused on gun reform that are currently in the works at Literary Safari. “We are building an #ArmMeWithGames list of digital and analog empathy games that are being recommended by leading game designers and educators.” The list is tentatively set for a February release, as a bookend to the #ArmMeWithBooks campaign. Nankani also spoke of possible collaborations with likeminded organizations: “We are currently exploring partnerships with gun violence prevention groups to create and distribute a free e-book that wraps our graphic novella around a discussion guide, book and games lists, and the research and news that inspired the novella. We are simultaneously seeking funding to create a print publication.”
So far, Nankani said, “We’ve been really heartened by the response to the campaign. We had to whittle down the number of book recommendations people sent. There’s momentum behind it.”