Spotlight

Exhibit to Use Books to Help Children Make Sense of Hurricane María, Climate Change







I have many memories of the months we spent in darkness after Hurricane María, when we were trapped in the largest blackout in United States history and the second largest on record worldwide. Each day, as the sun started to slip out of the sky, we would race to prepare for long nights of solar lamps and candlelight, camp stoves and generators. Woven into the sound of evening preparations and generators starting up were also the sobs of my neighbors’ children, as they begged their mother, “por favor, mamá, no la noche.” After enduring those endless months without electricity, many Puerto Rican children still feel terror when the night comes and have learned to fear the rain.

As a professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, I am now leading a large-scale public humanities project with a group of student collaborators titled, “Mi María: Puerto Rico After the Hurricane.” The project uses biographical methodologies—with a special focus on oral history—situated within the contexts of critical disaster studies, environmental humanities, social justice, and climate justice to study the impacts of Hurricane María and its aftermath on the people of Puerto Rico. Through this academic research project, we seek to address children’s needs, in the hopes of beginning to allay some of the anxieties that have taken root in the aftermath of Hurricane María.

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with Voice of Witness (VOW)—a human rights nonprofit organization dedicated to amplifying unheard voices—and the Humanities Action Lab’s (HAL) Initiative on Climate and Environmental Justice, led by Columbia University, Rutgers University, and The New School. As the culmination of the project, we will publish a volume of oral histories of the hurricane and its aftermath in the VOW book series published by Haymarket Books, a social justice press in the United States, which will be accompanied by a curriculum that meets Common Core education standards.

By reading about characters involved in climate justice and saving the Earth, children can begin to cultivate a positive lifelong relationship with the environment.

We will also make a contribution to HAL’s international traveling exhibition, which will be based upon our collected oral histories and other, multimodal forms of auto/biographical expression used to narrate experiences of the hurricane: parranda and other song lyrics; radio broadcasts; photography; comics and graphic narratives; micro-narratives; podcasts, and more. The Puerto Rico segment of the exhibition will travel throughout the Puerto Rican archipelago, and a digital version of the entire international exhibition will be permanently held at Rutgers.

At the core of the larger research project is the work of approximately one hundred and fifty undergraduate students from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. Last semester, we trained approximately one hundred students in the ethical collection, transcription, translation, and editing of oral narratives. Currently, over fifty additional students are working to collect multimodal narratives for the HAL exhibition. Four of these students, Yarelis Marcial Acevedo, Adriana Montes Pacheco, Francheska Morales Garcia and Sharon M. Nieves Ferrer, comprise the Children’s Literature Team, and together with the help of team mentor, Melissa García Vega of the University of Puerto Rico, Aguadilla campus, and Joan Baker González of Mayagüez Children’s Library, we are developing a section of the HAL exhibition specifically geared toward the “María Generation” of children who have survived the hurricane and are mired in its aftermath.

The Children's Literature Team: Adriana Montes Pacheco, Sharon M. Nieves Ferrer, Francheska Morales Garcia, Yarelis Marcial Acevedo (from left to right)

This part of the exhibition is focused on using children’s literature to educate children about problems related to climate change. It will include approximately thirty English, Spanish and bilingual books related to different topics under the umbrella of climate change, including recycling and working together. Although the HAL exhibition is geared towards an adult audience, it is important to include a component that addresses climate and environmental justice with children.

We are interested in picture books, and will select books with engaging illustrations that help children connect with the issues in an impactful way. Illustrations not only help children understand books, but also help them become immersed in the story, something that is even more essential when teaching children about complex issues like climate justice. It is important for us to develop effective means of speaking with children, in order to mold their attitudes during childhood, the period when most of our beliefs are formed.

We will research, select, and oversee the purchase of the books. We also plan to ask for donations of additional relevant books that will be displayed in a small bookcase and available for children to read at the exhibition. Afterward, we will donate the collected books to the Biblioteca Juvenil de Mayagüez (Children's Library of Mayagüez) and host an activity on-site.

The main goals of our work are to assist children who lived through the hurricane. We will do this by engaging them in discussions about, and actions related to, climate justice; developing their interest in environmental protection; and instilling a sense of empathy for, and connection to, others. We will encourage children who see the physical exhibition or its digital version to recognize that they are fully capable of making a positive difference in their communities, no matter how young they are. By reading about characters involved in climate justice and saving the Earth, children can begin to cultivate a positive lifelong relationship with the environment. This project will not only serve as a means to educate children, but parents and educators too, including elementary school teachers and librarians in and outside of Puerto Rico who are looking for resources to help children learn about fragile ecosystems and what they can do to help protect them.

Our final idea for the exhibition is the creation of our own children’s picture book. This children's book, titled Maxy sobrevive al huracán/Mazy Survives the Hurricane, will be written in English and Spanish, and the illustrations will be done by one of our team members. The book will reflect children’s experience of the hurricane through the eyes of a puppy, Maxy.

We want to write the book from a puppy’s point of view so that all children can relate to the story, and also to ease some of the tension surrounding an experience as harrowing as a hurricane; hopefully child readers will come to believe that they, like the puppy, can find a way to deal with such a situation. Luckily, two social workers have agreed to read the draft of our book and provide feedback on how we can produce a thoughtful, effective book that will aid the children of Puerto Rico and other children who have gone through similar situations.

We believe that this part of the larger HAL exhibition is very important for the contributions it will make to children and for the resources it will provide for parents and teachers. We want to address the lasting psychological and emotional impact of the hurricane and its aftermath, and make a contribution to the island’s recovery by instilling in children a love for the environment and an understanding of the ways in which local and global decisions impact nature.

Visit the Facebook page of the Mi María: Puerto Rico After the Hurricane project at www.facebook.com/MiMariaPR and their website at www.mimariapr.org. To donate money or children's books to the project, contact Dr. Ricia Anne Chansky at ricia.chansky@upr.edu.




About the Authors

Dr. Ricia Anne Chansky is professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. She is co-editor of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and editor of the new Routledge Auto/Biography Studies book series. She is the author of recent and forthcoming essays on critical disaster studies, disaster pedagogy, climate and social justice, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, as well as on oral history, transnational and diasporic identity constructions, contested national identity, and gendered identity constructions. Yarelis Marcial Acevedo is studying English with a concentration in linguistics. Adriana Montes Pacheco is studying agricultural economics and wants to specialize in art. Francheska Morales García is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics. Sharon M. Nieves Ferrer is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in physics. Pictured above, they are all undergraduates at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus.




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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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