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5 Questions With... Doug Abrams (DESMOND AND THE VERY MEAN WORD)

by Doug Abrams
January 18, 2013
Doug Abrams was Desmond Tutu’s co-author for GOD HAS A DREAM and for his children’s books, GOD’S DREAM and DESMOND AND THE VERY MEAN WORD. He was also the editor of Tutu’s CHILDREN OF GOD STORYBOOK BIBLE and MADE FOR GOODNESS. Abrams is the founder of Idea Architects, a book and media company that works with visionary authors to create a wiser, healthier, and more just world. Previously he was a senior editor at HarperCollins. His novels THE LOST DIARY OF DON JUAN and EYE OF THE WHALE have been published in more than thirty languages.

You co-wrote the recently released DESMOND AND THE VERY MEAN WORD (Candlewick, 2012), with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Previously, you’ve worked with several other influential spiritual leaders and activists. What is it like to collaborate with such esteemed individuals?

It is quite a privilege to spend time with, learn from, and create with someone like Archbishop Tutu. It requires a kind of creative communion that is a rare and profound gift. The Arch—as his friends call him—is one of the truly great moral leaders of our time. He was a hero of mine when I was in college—the anti-Apartheid struggle was the Vietnam of our generation. It is a deeply rewarding experience to meet someone who is even more extraordinary and more inspiring in person than from afar. This is often not the case, but it is with the Arch.

He’s also much shorter than one would think.

DESMOND AND THE VERY MEAN WORD (illustrated by A.G. Ford) is based on an event when a group of boys hurl a racial epithet at a young Tutu. The story emphasizes forgiveness over retaliation, which is a core principle of the Archbishop’s mission. How challenging was it to convey the concept of Ubuntu in the picture book format?

Wonderful question. I’ve written all kinds of books for all different ages, and there is nothing harder to write than picture books. It is like writing a sonnet. Every word matters and every word must be just right. One cannot assume anything when writing for children and one must really crawl into the thought world of young children.

At the same time, children understand Ubuntu—that we are deeply connected to one another—which is why it is so hurtful to be left out or excluded. So, yes, it was difficult in form—we must have gone through three dozen drafts—but easy in conveying the content.

Early reaction to the book has been mixed; KIRKUS praised it for delivering a “thought-provoking lesson for young readers on the destructiveness of bullying and racism,” while PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY questioned the book’s lack of historical context. What was behind the decision to limit references to apartheid in this South Africa-set story?

Ah, reviews. It’s always easier to critique than to create, and I say this as an editor who gets paid to critique. Our decision was to make this a universal story about forgiveness and bullying, which KIRKUS understood. The goal of this book is not to teach children about a racist system in a far away country from an era before they were born.

At the same time, everything in the story is completely accurate to the time and place (we worked very hard with the Arch to make sure that the houses and the clothes and every detail) was historically accurate.

At the end of the day, all children have experienced their own “mean word” and this story allows them to discover how to deal with their hurt, and shame, and anger. Our goal was not information but identification, and this is what we are hearing from young readers, who ultimately are the most important reviewers!

The tag line on your website is “Fact based fiction for a wiser, healthier, and more just world.” What role can children’s literature play in affecting positive change?

Children are the pivot point of history. The messages and images and ideas we give to our children determine the world that will come to pass. This is why teachers, and librarians, and children’s literature are so important. Archbishop Tutu loves to meet with and connect with young people; nothing energizes him more. I think this is because they are full of life, hope, and possibility.

I think that children’s literature can channel that life in positive directions. I had dyslexia growing up and so books were for many years a locked room, but when I found the key, I discovered the treasure inside. Our responsibility is to make sure that every book a child opens is a treasure.

After publishing the ecological thriller, EYE OF THE WHALE, you became involved with raising awareness about pollution and marine life. How have you maintained that, and what other causes have inspired your more recent books?

The books I write are always inspired by a question that I need to answer and an issue that I care deeply about. EYE OF THE WHALE was inspired by two questions: “Is there hope for our planet?” and “Is there something in our nature that is stronger than ignorance, fear, and greed?”

It was quite amazing to discover from the biologists that there is. I did learn a great deal about pollution and the challenges that all of us face in this watery world. I have had the opportunity to support a number of environmental charities that are doing great work, like the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I’ve also been very passionate about a group called Free the Slaves who is trying to end contemporary slavery, and more recently a group called the Equal Justice Initiative, which is working to transform the criminal justice system into a less racially biased and ultimately a more healing and forgiving place.

To come back to DESMOND, perhaps when we give children a story of forgiveness and how deal with pain and anger, we may be altering the whole course of their life. This is the power of children’s literature.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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