Author Interview With Civil Rights Activist Doreen Rappaport

To continue our mini-blog series over MLK’s 50th anniversary of “I Have A Dream,” today, we are featuring a quick Q&A with author and civil rights activist Doreen Rappaport. A writer of many critically acclaimed children’s books, such as Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr., she is best known for books that celebrate multiculturalism and the stories of those she calls the ‘not-yet-celebrated.’
doreen rappaport
Having recently used her book, Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller, as the inspiration for our program at CS 21, in which students learned how to write their own biographies of beloved figures in history, we feel fortunate today to have the opportunity to share a little bit more about Doreen Rappaport, and the experiences in her life that prompted her desire to empower children through history.
helen's big world

                              (Student reading biography to Mrs. Rappaport)

1.) In 1965, you went to McComb, Mississippi to teach in a Freedom School. Are there any prominent memories you have which explain this shift in your life?

It wasn’t a shift in my life. It was a natural progression from my background. I am Jewish. Before I went to Mississippi, I was very aware of anti-Semitism, not just Hitler’s campaign and extermination of the Jews, but of prejudice in the United States against Jews and other minority groups, including women. My father felt it necessary to change his name when he tried to break into the music field, thinking that Rappaport was too Jewish. And at that time, he was probably right. I also had been teaching music in junior high schools in a variety of communities and was beginning to learn more of the “real” history of the United States. In McComb, I did voter registration. We went to visit people in their homes. We visited sharecropper shacks. I remember being welcomed in a black home, talking to the man and woman about going down to register at the courthouse, and being aware that I was asking them to risk everything–possibly losing their rental parcel of agricultural land and their lodgings– by doing this. I also knew their home could be shot into. They might be shot. The fragility of their lives versus the ease of my life was overwhelming.

2.) On your website, you say: “I want to write stories that empower kids to know that other people empowered themselves.”

Can you tell us about a time when you felt that a student truly took the message to heart?

A kindergarten girl raised her hand after we had been discussing my book, Martin’s Big Words. She asked, “If he’s called Martin Luther King, why isn’t his wife called Coretta Scott Queen.” It was not only a delicious comment by a five year old, but it sparked a conversation on women’s equality with men, and those kindergarten girls had lots to say about what they were going to do “when they grew up.”

With the publication of my book, Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, I have received many emails from Jewish children thanking me for writing this book and uncovering these “heroes.” They didn’t know that there was so much resistance by Jews during the Holocaust and they felt proud to learn this.

3.) Out of all the books you have published, and had the ability to share with the youth in America, which has been the one that has stuck out the most to you in terms of meaning and content?

I don’t have a favorite book. I am proud of all of these books. When I go into predominantly black communities,I feel great when kids respond to my black trilogy, tracing black resistance from the kidnappings in Africa through the monumental modern civil rights movement. I see the pride that the children take in learning about slave resistance, about Ida B. Wells refusing to move from her seat, facing down the train conductor, and being so vehement, she had to be carried off the train. I see children respond to the Montgomery bus boycott realizing that kids their age, and YOUNGER, walked to school and church and their friends’ houses for over a year in all kinds of weather. Eleanor Roosevelt’s struggle in overcoming not just her unhappy childhood but the limited vision presented to her as a woman in the early 20th century reminds me of my own struggle in the 50s and 60s to wrest free from destructive stereotypes of how women should behave.

Thanks again to Ms. Rappaport for sharing with all of us a little more about the person behind her many books. We are grateful to her not only for her continued support and participation in our programs, but also for providing books that continue to help BtB achieve our mission. For more information about Doreen Rappaport, check her out on her website.

Books We Love: Pitch Black

Happy Tuesday everyone,

Today’s post is about a book I picked up last week from the shelves of Behind the Book:

Pitch Black Cover

I read through Pitch Black last week on my train ride home. Awestruck and in dismay, I’ve wondered ever since what it means to live ostracized from the rest of society, alone and in the dark. Pitch Black answers this as it tells the story of the two authors’ – Anthony Horton and Youme Landowne– uncanny friendship.  Landowne, a Brooklyn-based artist, met Horton, a street artist and member of the underground “mole” community, on the platform of a subway stop one day. Both admiring the same piece of art, Horton asked Landowne if she was an artist. “Isn’t everyone?” she replied. From there the two struck up conversation and spent an entire afternoon on the train.

Riding Subway

After inquiring over both his art ability, and life in the tunnels, Horton took Landowne to his underground home, where he spent his time creating murals of people he’d met in his journey, of isolation, and of himself. Upon viewing his art, she asked if he’d like to collaborate with her in sharing his story, thus leading to the creation of Pitch Black.

Depicted through tone appropriate B&W illustrations, Pitch Black is a graphic novel showcasing Horton’s life. From his parents’ abandonment, to the tragic flaws of the social service system, to his eventual dissent into the tunnels, these illustrations coupled with their tiny blocks of dialogue show with haunting substance the ways in which people become lost to society.

I was asked by two nearby passengers what the graphics were telling. Inching closer, the three of us flipped through the images until we reached our perspective stops, a contemplative quietness lingering between us.

There is something raw about each of the graphics in this book. Knowing that each represent Horton’s actual life adds a touch of humanity, and a continuous nagging in the back of your mind that forces you to think about those living in the shadows of society.

He shares, in what is ultimately the most beautiful graphic in the book, the rules of living underground:

Anthony Horton
These depictions leave you feeling shaken, if not squirmy. But that, I think, is the point of his story. While Horton cannot force us to understand what we as the reader have not lived, he and Landowne do a great job of painting us a picture to this lifestyle. The dialogue short and crisp, the story illustrations speak for themselves and tell with remarkable clarity and sadness of what it means to be truly in “pitch black.”

Behind the Book reached out to Landowne last year and brought her to an Eighth Grade classroom at IS 76. Using Horton’s murals for inspiration and his style as a model, students created Black & White poster-sized graphics with their own life rules. At the end of the program, Landowne had the students stand in a circle, silently holding up their artwork, and take three minutes to observe the work of their peers. Initially giggly and unsure, the class eventually quieted as they began to absorb the significance of each other’s art, allowing this project’s meaning to really sink in. Below are a few photos from one of the days Landowne visited the classroom:




(Landowne, pictured to the left, along with Behind the Book teaching artist Sara Reynolds, to the right)

A great source of inspiration to the students in classroom IS 76, Behind the Book was happy to work with Landowne, and looks forward to finding other authors with her knack for self-expression. For more information on our programs, feel free to check out our website at

CHAH Senior Jose and the Supernatural

Many of our older students, like many young adult readers, are very into the supernatural. They read all sorts of stories about vampires and werewolves, and their interactions – romantic or otherwise – with those unequipped with fangs and super strength.

It’s no different for CHAH senior Jose. As you read last week, Jose is one student who has taken his experience at Behind the Book to the next level. In addition to making the most out of his time in the program, he has expanded his experience by writing in his free time. During our interview with him last Monday, Jose spoke quite a bit about the reasons behind his preference for the supernatural.

“Everything around me is boring,” he explained. “So, in my stories, I try to create a new society, one where everyone has something cool or different about them. Which usually ends up being different superpowers.”

Last week’s excerpt, taken from Jose short story “World of Truix,” is a great example of his efforts to make each of his characters unique. However, in this week’s excerpt, from the story Jose considers to be his crowning achievement as of yet, he has taken his combined passion for writing and his love of the supernatural  to the next level – and written a short story about vampires living in a society of werewolves. Cleverly entitled, “Were the Last,” the story follows the vampiric leader, Neroy, who is sieged by werewolves on the eve of his crowning as leader of the vampires. You can read an excerpt of his work below.

I remember that day perfectly. It was the day before my crowning as lord.

“I can’t wait for tomorrow. I’m going to be the best lord there has ever been,” I said.

“Yah yah yah, we all know that you’re going to be the best lord but I want to see whats going to happen when the wolves attack. What will you do then?” said my advisor Renox.

“I will lead our people and kill them all. I will send them into the abyss that they all crawled out of years ago.”

“Yah, if it was that easy we would have killed them all a long time ago. Plus there are way to many of them to kill, my idea is to keep them as pets. A couple dogs to fetch our food and drinks.” said Renox

“Ha-ha if that’s the case then I want a Rizzer since I eat a lot.”

That day; I remember it so perfectly. My happy, innocent face. I didn’t expect anything to happen that day, but that night my life would change forever.

 It was about midnight when I was awakened. RAWWR! They battle cries of wolves were coming from all over the place. The cries weren’t the usual ones though, they sounded more united. As if they were fighting as one.

Representing Us All

by Jenna Danoy, Social Media Marketing Intern

We recently came across an NPR story that hit close to home. It discussed the striking lack of diversity in children’s book characters – something that, as many of you know, Behind the Book has strived to combat in its ten years of working with New York City schools in low-income areas.

This alarming disparity between the diversity of our public schools and its reflection in children’s literature points to a very important problem: students of color are not able to see themselves in the books they read, and are being taught that white characters are more likable, successful, and likely to accomplish their dreams than are characters (or real people) of color.

Not only can these lessons discourage students of color from reading, but they can also discourage students of color from believing  adults when they say, “Anyone is capable of achieving their dreams.”

At Behind the Book, we enable our students to see their own ability to do great things by exposing them to stories in which characters who look like them, and live in places like they do, go on incredible journeys and learn big things about themselves. And we prove to them that they are capable of producing their own unique works by guiding them through the process of writing their stories, from the initial brainstorming stage to the final publishing stage.

Check out some places where we’ve talked about women authors, and suggested awesome reads with characters of color. You can also always take a look at our Goodreads page, where we’ve recommended dozens of books by authors of color.

The Importance of Reading – A Lesson from Judith Butler

by Jenna Danoy, Social Media Marketing Intern

This year, we’ve seen a pretty outstanding crop of college commencement speakers – ranging from author Toni Morrison to President Barack Obama to the Dalai Lama. Every one of them has delivered some piece of incredible advice – but one speaker’s words stuck with us in particular.

Post-structuralist philosopher, feminist scholar, and queer theorist Judith Butler gave the 2013 commencement address at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. While her work stretches far beyond the realm of what Behind the Book teaches, we found her words to be very much related to our mission statement. (You can listen to the speech here.)

As Butler states in her speech, we read with the hope that “we [will] lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.” She goes on to say that, through reading, we become better people, more aware of our effect on the world and its effect on us. Reading is a means by which millions upon millions of people can learn more, be more, and think more, and through those processes we can achieve more.

While Butler’s statements sweep far and wide, and are generally geared toward an older audience, we agree with her sentiments. In fact, Behind the Book’s main goal, as you all know, is to empower kids to be passionate about reading, to want to read as much as they can, and to give them access to as many books as possible.

Eventually, we hope that our students will become scholars and educators, and people with vast and powerful critical thinking skills. We hope our students will take advantage of their chances to read, to learn, and to analyze. And, above all, we hope that they will carry their love of reading throughout their lives.

Because Judith Butler is right. Every time you pick up a book, you enter a new world. You are faced with new challenges, other people’s desires, other-worldly societies. Even if what you’re reading is classified as “realistic fiction,” it’s still fiction. Each time you pick up that book, you are still entering a new world, and that ability to transition from your world to the world in your book is invaluable.

Reading teaches you how to adapt. Reading teaches you how to put yourself in others’ shoes. And, above all, reading teaches you to be tolerant, and to think before you judge. All of these skills are immensely important to learn – particularly in today’s society, in which everyone seems quick to pass judgment and cut themselves off from a whole world they could have explored.

As we embark on the second half of our tenth year, we reflect on the hundreds and hundreds of students we have reached, and we are proud to know that we have, in some capacity, taught them how important reading really is.