Patricia Newman | The Children’s Book Review | August 24, 1018
The idea for Neema’s Reason to Smile took root because of a happy accident. In 2011, one of my critique group partners introduced me to Donna Rosenblum, a high school librarian searching for an author to write a story about equal access to education. I’d been a teacher, volunteered in my kids’ schools, and wrote nonfiction. The idea seemed like a good fit so I agreed to speak to Donna.
At the time Donna was also a member of the board of directors of Reason2Smile, a nonprofit organization founded by Keela Dates Grimmette. Donna looped Keela into the conversation, and the three of us chatted—Donna from Long Island, Keela from Lake Placid, New York, and me at my kitchen table in Sacramento. I listened to their story and scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad.
During the course of my writing career many people have said, “You should write a book about [fill in the blank].” More often than not I politely decline. The idea may be perfectly fine, but I have to be passionate about it to make it work. The process from idea to book takes an enormous amount of time and energy, researching, writing, revising, working with an editor, and then selling it through public speaking and author visits. The commitment could quite literally last a lifetime. Even though I’d agreed to hear Donna and Keela’s pitch, I wasn’t optimistic.
They spoke about children in Kenya who cannot afford to attend school. Although public school is free, supplies and uniforms are not. They told me about kids orphaned because of AIDS and abused by caregivers. They painted stark pictures of children sold into prostitution to feed their families. But woven throughout these grim realities was a thread of hope.
That hope is Christine Mwende, a Kenyan nurse affectionately known as Teacher Madam. Christine collects the poor, the orphaned, the used and abused and educates them at her school staffed with native instructors. She calls the school Jambo Jipya, which means “something new” in Swahili. With great patience and the approval of tribal leaders, Christine populates it with kids who never before attended school.
Donna and Keela went on to tell me about Reason2Smile, the nonprofit organization that supports the school. After a study abroad stint at Jambo Jipya, Keela started Reason2Smile to continue supporting the students she’d met. After Keela stepped down, Donna assumed the role of Executive Director. To date, the organization has built new classrooms, remains the sole financial support of the orphans in the Reason2Smile Children’s Home, sponsors several Jambo Jipya graduates to attend university, and performs community outreach to schools in the US.
I felt an instant connection to Donna and Keela, and their passion for their mission was contagious. I don’t remember how long we spoke but I was hooked. In 2018, Neema’s Reason to Smile became a reality and part of the proceeds are donated to Reason2Smile.
The story is a work of fiction, but it is based on the lives of Jambo Jipypa students. One line in the story says, “Teacher Madam weaves a bright future of lessons and books and two meals a day,” and that’s exactly what happens at Christine’s school. The grace, perseverance, and inner strength of the Jambo Jipya students continue to impress me, and my main character possesses those same qualities. Neema, whose name means “grace” in Swahili, is a composite of several Jambo Jipya girls with hopes and dreams for their futures. A spread at the back of the book features some of these dreams.
As kids read Neema’sReason to Smile, I hope they appreciate that the heart of a lion beats not only inside Neema, but inside the Jambo Jipya students who inspired her.
Written by Patricia Newman
Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Publisher’s Synopsis: What’s in your dream basket?
Neema’s is full of big dreams, like becoming a scientist, an inventor, or a teacher.
Neema’s Reason to Smile is the story of Neema, a young Kenyan girl who dreams of one day being able to afford to go to school. Slowly, and with great purpose, Neema makes a plan to save money in her dream basket and make her dream come true. One day, a mysterious young girl skips down the street wearing a red skirt and white shirt. Soon, she guides Neema all the way to a new school.
Ages 5-6 | Publisher: Lightswitch Learning | June 1, 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-1682655849
About the Author
Patricia Newman’s books inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Additional titles such as Sea Otter Heroes; Eavesdropping on Elephants; and Zoo Scientists to the Rescue empower readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, her books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Educators describe her author visits as “phenomenal,” “fantastic,” “mesmerizing,” “passionate,” and “inspirational.” Visit her at www.patriciamnewman.com.
Headers image is of Jambo Jipya students Manasee, Shadrack, and Mark.
The article Kenyan Students Inspire Neema’s Reason to Smile was written by Patricia Newman, author of Neema’s Reason to Smile. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Africa, Diversity, Dream Big Books, Kenya, and Picture Book.