An interview with I’m Your Neighbor’s co-founder Kirsten Cappy and AudioFile Magazine‘s editor and founder Robin Whitten.
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, two amazing guests talk about The Welcoming Library, an initiative that sparks conversations on immigration through the reading of picture books.
The Welcoming Library is a program led by the non-profit organization I’m Your Neighbor Books, so I talk with Kirsten Cappy, who co-founded I’m Your Neighbor Books in 2012. She brings 20 years of experience using children’s books and the companion tools she creates to increase curiosity, empathy, and cultural competency. Kirsten was named one of the Boston Globe’s Everyday Heroes for her work on The Welcoming Library.
I first learned about I’m Your Neighbor Books and their signature project, The Welcoming Library, from our friends at AudioFile Magazine. Each month on The Children’s Book Review, we feature a curated list of the best new audiobooks for kids, as selected by the editors at AudioFile. These lists are constantly blowing us away with the inclusion of incredible stories, diverse characters, and fantastic casts of voices and music. So, when the AudioFile team mentioned they are now a proud supporter of The Welcoming Library, I knew I wanted to learn more about it and share it with you today.
So also joining us for this conversation today is AudioFile Magazine‘s editor and founder Robin Whitten. Robin is passionate about audiobooks and the magic of the listening experience. She started AudioFile 27 years ago and is an avid audiobook listener.
So here we go! We’re going o jump right on in so we can all learn about this fabulous project.
Listen to the Interview
- About The Welcoming Library and the importance of sharing stories of immigration
- AudioFile Magazine‘s partnership with The Welcoming Library
- The Wonder audiobook format
- Survey statistics on reading stories of immigration
- The items you’ll find in The Welcoming Library kit
- A discussion on the picture books featuring the experience of immigrants
- How to obtain a Welcoming Library kit
- How to donate to I’m Your Neighbor Books
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Well, hello! Welcome to The Growing Reader’s Podcast. I am so excited to have both you, Kirsten, and Robin, here to talk about something that I think is incredible. And it’s the I’m Your Neighbor Books’ Welcoming Library and the inclusion of audiobooks thanks to Audio File Magazine. So, I want to start at the very beginning. Kirsten, will you just tell us all what is the Welcoming Library and why it felt important for you to create it?
Kirsten Cappy: Yeah, thank you. The Welcoming Library we call a pop-up community conversation on immigration. Right.
So, what does that look like? It is two crates that arrive at a school or library—bright red. Inside one of those crates is this Tinker Toy wooden block creation, which, when all magically put together, makes a book display. And on top of that book display, it says Read to Welcome, Read to Belong, and it says, I’m Your Neighbor in ten different languages. So that’s one crate.
You open up the second crate and there are picture books set in the new arrival, new American community, all with discussion questions in the back so that no one needs to worry about reading aloud, say, a Sudanese American picture book without knowing anyone in the Sudanese community or not knowing if questions will come up that they don’t know how to answer. So, there’s discussion questions that lead anyone, whether an individual reader or a teacher or a librarian or a parent, through a discussion.
So those two crates in The Welcoming Library display full of books that represents modern, multiracial, multicultural migration since the Vietnam War. So, no Ellis Island titles, all brand-new migration stories that come to you for a period of 4 to 6 weeks. And in that time, you have the chance to invite the new American community into your library, have a community conversation, bring your teachers in to talk about how you’re going to use these books in the classroom. It is simply a tool. There’s no curriculum that comes with it. It is open for people to read and experience new arrival stories and see where the conversation goes.
It really came together in 2017. So, before 2017, I’m Your Neighbor Books was trying to draw attention to all of the emergence of new arrival and new American literature. Right. And in 2001, when I first moved to Portland, Maine, which is a refugee resettlement city, and I was doing work in schools. I had Somali students, Cambodian students, Iraqi students, and there were no books that represented their lives, not for them to see themselves and not for their classmates to see their rich lives.
So, I’ve been collecting these titles for a long time, and we were just a book blog doing local events. It’s a group of immigrant leaders, librarians, authors who were all volunteering on this project. But when the Muslim ban hit in 2017, a lot of racist language about immigrants was flowing. All of us sat down and said, we have to do more. We can’t just talk about these titles. We need to find a way to get them into every community in America so we can have new language to talk about immigration.
So, at my kitchen table we devise this project and now it’s touring from 50 different communities in the US and Canada.
Bianca Schulze: That’s amazing. Oh, my gosh. Well, first, I’m just so grateful that there are so many of you volunteering to such an important need for our country. So just a big thank you. And I just, you know, anybody that dedicates their time to raising good humans is a friend of mine.
Well, Robin, I have a question for you. So obviously, this is a, you know, a great group of people, a great organization. How did you first hear of I’m Your Neighbor’s Welcoming Library? And I’d love to know what your motivations were behind having AudioFile Magazine become a supporter of the project.
Robin Whitten: Well, thank you, Bianca. It’s interesting because Kirsten and I have been talking about audiobooks for a very long time. Even before I’m Your Neighbor Books, we were sharing our passion for audiobooks. And so, as I’m Your Neighbor Books and then The Welcoming Library developed, I was keeping an eye on what was happening. And being interested in the picture books, but also because AudioFile is all about audiobooks, I wanted to figure out how we would get audiobooks into this collection and how we would possibly have audiobooks in The Welcoming Library.
And so, the first thing that we created was a curated list of audiobook recommendations for titles that are in the bigger I’m Your Neighbor Books collection that have an audiobook version. Not all of them. I mean, there are a couple of hundred and there aren’t audiobook versions of all of them. But we figured out which ones that were available as audiobooks and created that curated list.
Bianca Schulze: For anybody that’s listening right now. The reason I know Robin from AudioFile magazine is because AudioFile magazine puts together great lists on The Children’s Book Review each month.
I obviously want to go more into the boxes, but I am an avid audiobook listener, because I read a lot of children’s books for work, I tend to do my adult book listening in audiobook format. So, I just want to know, Robin, what is it about audiobooks that you love so much?
Robbin Whitten: Well, I think that audiobooks let us hear storytelling in its most essential form. Someone is actually speaking a story to us and telling us that story. And we resonate with our emotions and our intellect but also our emotions to that storytelling.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, well said. So, this makes sense too. So, when kids are sitting there reading these great books in The Welcoming Library kits and now, they’ll have the opportunity to experience and to listen, and I think that’s so wonderful.
So, I loved reading some of the statistics listed on the I’m Your Neighbor Books site about the impact that these kits are having on readers. So, I’m just going to read a couple of those stats right now. And it says 100% of The Welcoming Library readers surveyed indicated a positive response to immigration, with 66.7% saying: Reading this book reinforced my feeling that immigrants should be welcomed in my community and 41.7% saying, I feel inspired by this book and project to find a way to be actively welcoming in my community.
Kirsten, do you want to speak to those stats that you’ve got listed on the site there?
Kirsten Cappy: Yeah, and I think it even in a way speaks to audio. One stat that we didn’t put up there was that 96% of the readers that were surveyed said that they saw their own families in the books. And now that’s a figure from early on when we were piloting the program all over the state of Maine.
And what was so exciting about that number was that I would guess that probably 89% of those kids were not seeing a cultural or racial similarity between their family and the family represented in the books.
They were just seeing mothers and fathers and siblings and sibling rivalry. Right, and friendships being made. So, they saw themselves in those books, even though those books did not represent them culturally. So that’s incredibly exciting.
And when audio steps in, like the reason it works, right, and the reason we’re using picture books is that immersive experience are with a family in both images and story for a good ten, 12, 15 minutes. And you know, you fall in sync with that. And when that is an audio experience and that audio is authentically voiced, you’re not only getting the cadence of the story as the author wrote it, but you’re getting the cadence of the community. You’re hearing the richness of voice.
I think about Dreamers, Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers, which is part of this collection and the narrator bringing the voice of the Mexican-American community into the class for all the Latina girls in those classrooms, just it’s a really exciting opportunity for more immersion and more building of identity.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, and I love how you phrased it that they’re authentically voiced. And I just love the whole own voices movement that’s now finally taking place in the children’s book world, where not only our, you know, we’re getting these great stories on immigrations, but they’re actually written by immigrants, whether they’re first, second or third generation. And then, as you said, these audiobooks are getting voiced authentically.
Kirsten Cappy: And there are pieces you pick up. I just listened to American as Paneer Pie and as a reader, I’m not going to say the names, you know, I’m not going to say the names aloud. I’m not going to hear that richness. There are so many things that I’ve learned how to say by listening to new arrival and new American audiobooks.
Robin Whitten: What Kirsten says. You learn so much because you hear these voices that represent the cultures that the stories are about. And it’s very fun because we have talked to some of the narrators who have done the audiobook and they have their own stories, what they bring to that recording and what they are thinking when they’re doing the recording. And it’s really, I mean, it’s such a such a rich experience for everyone in the process.
Bianca Schulze: All right, so why don’t we break down exactly what is in the box? I know we kind of addressed that at the beginning here, but let’s like really kind of get down into it. So, let’s begin with talking through the actual 30 physical picture books that come in the box. Is that like a variety that happens? Are they mixed like you don’t know what sets going to come in each box, how does that work?
Kirsten Cappy: So, it begins with an approach from a school or library. They’ve heard about The Welcoming Library project. They want to try it out or they want to commit to one of these traveling collections. And then we start having a conversation about community: who’s in your town, who’s in your city? What’s the makeup of your state’s Immigrant and new American population? What are the new generations right in your community? And then we build the 30 books based on who’s actually there.
Conversely, like, we just sent a Welcoming Library to a community in Kentucky. And I had that conversation with the head of the library, and she said, we have absolutely no new immigrants, even in our county, which is exactly why I want The Welcoming Library, because we need to understand the richness of this country, even though we don’t have any of that richness here.
So, we have a broad collection of books that represent different communities, and then we just go through, and we pick a collection. So almost every touring Welcoming Library is a little bit different. And its books you’ve, you know, you’ve heard of and that are on a lot of library shelves like Dreamers or A Different Pond, which got a Caldecott honor or Watercress, which just won every award under the sun.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. So beautiful.
Kirsten Cappy: Right. So, we have Watercress, but we also have lesser-known titles like My Day with Gong Gong, which is a beautiful story about a young Canadian girl who doesn’t speak Cantonese. And she’s dropped off with her grandfather, who only speaks Cantonese. And he takes her for this long day in Chinatown, where everything is completely maddening to her, and she feels completely unseen by her grandfather and everybody around her who is telling her she’s adorable in Cantonese. But she—in the end—you find out love is its own language, and he doesn’t need to understand her language. She doesn’t need to understand his. They understand each other, they’re family.
So, the collection is rich. It is all 1970s forward. So, it’s from Vietnam. So probably our earliest set book is Wishes, which is about the Vietnamese leaving the country and it goes right up to titles that could be happening today. A book that we love is—and Robin loves is—Story Boat, which is from Tundra Books in Canada. And that book could be Ukrainian families coming across the Polish border. It could be Syrian families coming into Europe, it could be Afghan crossing into Pakistan or into Iran. Or it is a title that is open to all interpretations.
Robin Whitten: It could also be 100 years ago. Or it could be this week. Which makes it so interesting.
Kirstin Cappy: Yeah, it could be the Jewish diaspora. The illustrator, Rashin Kheiriyeh, was a child refugee from Iran and she brings all of that to the table.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. I feel like a lot of these immigration stories are just really quite transcendent.
I’d really love to know how the audiobook portion works. Robin, do you want to talk to us a little bit about that? And you know, AudioFile made a really generous donation to I’m Your Neighbor Books to make this happen, and I feel like you’re the right person to walk us through it.
Robin Whitten: Well, we had quite a time figuring out how to get audiobooks into these little two crates, because—
Kirsten Cappy: We did. But as most everyone who has encountered audiobooks in schools and libraries knows, it’s the player and the whole technology of how you listen to an audiobook—there’s always something broken or not charged or missing something. And this has been a challenge for a long time. And when Kirsten and I discovered the Wonder book format, which is essentially a picture book with an extra cover onto which a player, one of those thin, thin players is attached, I mean, firmly attached, can’t take it off. And all the play buttons are right there so that as you open the picture book on the front page and the front cover, the player is right inside, and you can push play and you’re listening to the audiobook as you go through the rest of the picture book.
Bianca Schulze: That’s amazing. I actually feel really sad that I did not know about this technology, so it’s incredible.
Robin Whitten: But we were pretty excited because it will take a set of headphones into the little player. It can be charged with an ordinary charging cable, so it isn’t something so unique. You can never find it once you’ve taken it away from the audiobook. And these things are really pretty much indestructible. In fact, there’s someone on the AudioFile staff who as a librarian was tasked with trying to destroy one and was unable to. So, they’re definitely school worthy.
Bianca Schulze: I would have liked to have seen a little video of that, trying to see how durable it is. And, because we at our house love to listen to books with CD here and my son has a CD player in his bedroom. And sometimes you get a book from the library, and you go to put the CD in and it’s scratched and it’s jumping. And so, this technology would avoid that, too.
Robin Whitten: Absolutely. And, you know, it has the versions with page signals. And I think the version without the page signals. Is that right Kirsten?
Kirsten Cappy: Correct, yes.
Robin Whitten: So, once you start through it and then you want to listen to it again, it can be switched into that other mode so that it’s just the continuous recording. I mean they are wonderful because they’re just a little bit fatter than the regular picture book in hardcover.
Bianca Schulze: So neat. I’m so glad you were able to find something that worked.
All right. So, here’s a question. You’ve already mentioned a couple of books that could come in a kit, could be in the collection. But I want to ask each of you just to name a book or audiobook that comes up off the top of your head, the first one that you love and why you love it.
Robin Whitten: Okay, so who do you want to go first?
Bianca Schulze: Let’s see. Why don’t you go first, Kirsten?
Kirsten Cappy: I would say I’m New Here and Someone New Here which are paired picture books. They’re really fascinating because they’re three different stories, three different voices in the first one and then three companion voices in the second. They’re picture books that are interlinked. So, it’s the same time period, same classroom, three kids arriving and three long term kids trying to make connections across culture.
So, with the two books and these two audiobooks, you get six authentic voices that are interweaving that story together, not only in each book, but between these two books. And it’s an astonishing, unique experience to have those authentically sourced voices playing that wonderful interplay of community.
Bianca Schulze: All right, Robin, how about you?
Robin Whitten: Well, this is not fair because we didn’t compare notes, but I was going to pick those two.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, I love it.
Robin Whitten: But I have a backup.
But I also want to say that one of the narrators who is on both of I’m New Here and Someone New Here, Ramon de Ocampo, is one of AudioFile’s golden voices and narrators. So, we had him talk about doing this and he just gave the most heartfelt few comments about this is an experience he knows. And so, he was able to say, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been there as a new person, a new student in a classroom or meeting new friends. And it just really resonated with me.
And I would say that probably the other favorite of mine is Freedom Soup, which is Tami Charles, and it’s read by Bahni Turpin, who is another great narrator, also an AudioFile Golden Voice. There’s so much musicality in that story. And I don’t know, I, I have never read it without hearing it sort of at the same time. So, I don’t know, would I have given the story as much musical sense as Bahni Turpin does when she reads it? To me, it’s hard to say, but I mean, there is music, but it’s also in her speech patterns.
Bianca Schulze: I always love, on top of the voices, the music and the sound effects that come with those full cast recordings, they just add so much richness.
Kirsten Cappy: Mm hmm.
Bianca Schulze: So. All right, I feel like we’ve covered the books. We’ve covered the why we have the kit. So, I’m just curious, is there, like, if you open up and it’s like a pop-up box, are there any other little like tools or fun stuff that we should know are in these kits?
Kirsten Cappy: Oh yeah. So again, I think the biggest piece that makes this really unique is when you turn to those back endpapers, there is a full sticker that’s placed right into the back with 6 to 10 discussion questions. So, there’s those. But when you open up the box, if you happen to be the host of a Welcoming Library, you pop it open and there’s a sheet on the top that says welcome, and you scan the QR code, and it opens up an online tool kit. And that tool kit has read aloud ideas. It has programming ideas for public libraries or for an after-school program. It has lesson plans that have been developed by the creators or the publishers or us. So, there’s a whole richness once it arrives that you can dive into.
And what’s so exciting is we’re working every day to make that richer. We just started a partnership with an organization called In Her Presence, which is a program that supports immigrant women who have just come to this country, helping them with English, helping them with cultural issues, and embracing them as whole families. So, we’re going to start working with this group of mothers to make those discussion questions richer.
And this is the piece I’m really excited about, is to create cultural competency guides for as many of the books as we can. So, you can say if you want to know more about the Sudanese community, let’s hear from here from a Sudanese mom. So, I’m really excited that that piece is coming.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s neat. I mean, I feel like I’ve said it here, just talking with authors and illustrators on the podcast. Some of my favorite books are just the books that prompt discussion. But sometimes, you know, books can be on a topic that is maybe foreign to you, maybe like the school you said in Kentucky, where they don’t have any immigrants. And so maybe because it’s not part of your natural conversation every day, maybe you don’t know how to start that conversation or how to have that conversation. Right? Your students ask the question. So, I just think that’s incredible that they can just at the back of the book, voila, like there’s all this information. That’s incredible.
So, let’s talk a little bit more about who your audience is and who the target reader group is. In my mind, it’s everybody. But I’m wondering, is it primarily just schools and libraries that take your kits. Or?
Kirsten Cappy: That’s the majority of the audience. So many have been bought by state library systems. For example, Connecticut just bought four Welcoming libraries that can be borrowed by any public library or public school in the state of Connecticut. Right. Or a district will borrow it and move it from school to school. But it’s also been bought by community groups and faith groups to tour or to be permanently set up. There’s one right around the corner from us and this amazing organization that supports the psychological well-being of new arrivals called Gateway Community Center. And they have that Welcoming Library as a permanent borrowing tool.
And, you know, it is for all ages. Well, we do work with early readers and chapter books and middle grade and why the Welcoming Library is always going to be picture books, because I love the way adults experience picture books. And one of the exciting things is when it goes to a public library. We tell the public library, don’t put it in the children’s section, put it in the front of the library or near the circulation desk, because people just are curious. Right. And an adult will walk up and pull a book off the shelf and spend 12 minutes with a family. And just that 12 minutes, they’ve really gained crucial cultural information. And so, it’s for all ages.
Bianca Schulze: I live in the county of Broomfield in Colorado, and our councilwoman, Heidi Henkel, is incredible. She actually helps some Afghan refugees come here. And so now we actually have quite a few Afghan refugee families. And I just recently read about a Ukrainian mother and daughter who have landed here. I mean, their trip to get here is incredible.
And I just—now I’m feeling like I need to reach out to my library and see if they already have a kit. And if not, they need one. Because our town has a lot of refugees and a lot of immigrants, and I just oh, my gosh, I’m like, I’m so glad that you’re on here today sharing this with everybody. And I hope everybody that’s listening is going to reach out to their local libraries and schools to find out if they have one. Because, I mean, what a great, great asset for any community.
All right. So, on that topic, how does one get hold of one of these kids if they want to? Can they borrow a kit? Do they buy a kit? Like how does this work?
Kirsten Cappy: There’s really three ways. If you go to our website, there’s a bar, a Welcoming Library, and you will see a list of states and communities that have Welcoming Libraries to loan. If you don’t see your community, you can partner with us to write a grant to put one together and make sure that one is touring your county, your state, your faith groups, your schools. Right. So, we help with that grant process, and we’ve never had a no to any grant across the country.
In fact, it got a little bottled up last summer because people were applying for multiple grants to make sure they got a Welcoming Library grant and they got all of the grants. So, it’s like, well, we don’t need one, we need five. Oh, okay. So, we’re helping with that.
And what’s really exciting coming this fall, we will now have free and national touring, Welcoming Libraries that will actually leave our offices, go anywhere in the country that someone wants to host it for six weeks. They will unpack it, use it, and then send it back to us.
And that was made possible—and I think you will appreciate this—that was made possible by the author, Phillip Hoose, who you might know for the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice? He got the National Book Award for Claudette Colvin. He’s part of the I’m Your Neighbor Books broader community. And he helped raise $60,000 this past year to make sure that we can now open up access to The Welcoming Library to anybody in the country that wants to borrow them.
Bianca Schulze: Okay. I just want to be clear that inside I’m like clapping and shouting, but I just don’t want to hurt anybody’s ears. But that’s amazing.
Well, so that brings me to another question here. So, what if there’s somebody who did want to donate or somebody, you know, who wanted to be involved? What can they do? And if somebody did donate money, I’m assuming that money is just used strictly for running the organization and getting the books out there.
Kirsten Cappy: Thank you for that question. There is a donate button on imyourneighborbooks.org. And right now, there are three different opportunities there. One is to help match AudioFile’s $15,000 donation to put more audiobooks into the Welcoming Libraries into schools and public libraries. There’s an opportunity to further support these free and touring collections, the fundraiser that Phillip Hoose kicked off. And there’s an opportunity to support what we call rapid response book boxes, which are helping specific communities when they are threatened with falsehoods. And we will swoop in with collections of picture books and novels to sort of reset the conversation about who belongs in that community.
Bianca Schulze: I love that. Oh, my gosh.
Well, before we go, is there anything else that either you, Kirsten, or Robin, think that our listeners need to hear? Do you think we’ve covered it?
Robin Whitten: Well, I can just say that we feel that The Welcoming Library is truly a visionary project and that AudioFile is so delighted to be a small part of it and maybe hopefully be a catalyst to have more audiobooks within the collections.
Kirsten Cappy: And you know, I want to say that Robin has just been such a mentor to me on how you build community around literature, around children’s literature. And I think to everyone else I would say to be creative in what you read, even if you’re an adult without children, to take out picture books that are set outside of your community, read novels, listen to audiobooks that don’t represent your experience. It makes you a richer kind of person.
Bianca Schulze: That’s beautiful. Well, I just want to say that for everybody listening, I’m your neighbor. AudioFile is your neighbor and I’m Your Neighbor Books is 100% your neighbor. I mean, I’m still processing everything you’ve said. I’m so glad I’ve learned about your organization, and I hope that our listeners have enjoyed hearing it too because I do think it’s a much-needed asset in our world. And so, I’m grateful for both of you for being here and sharing all of this with us.
Robin Whitten: Thank you.
Kirsten Cappy: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for your brilliance and all you do for children’s literature.
Visit The Welcoming Library website: https://imyourneighborbooks.org/welcoming-library/
The Welcoming Library audiobooks list: https://www.audiofilemagazine.com/lists/welcoming-audiobooks/
AudioFile Magazine on the audiobooks in the project: https://www.audiofilemagazine.com/articles/listen-to-welcome-listen-to-belong/