President Obama Calls for Empowering Girls in Kenya

As readers of A Girl Called Problem know, one of the central challenges faced by thirteen-year-old Shida in the novel is a traditional belief by some in her village that girls should not attend school. Even one of the teachers at her school holds this belief and makes it difficult for Shida and her female cousins to be there. In my author’s note at the end of the book, I discuss how access to education continues to be a major challenge for many girls in East Africa and other parts of the world. The good news is that many development organizations and leaders are beginning to understand the power of educating girls.

President Barack Obama with his Kenyan family (photo credit:

President Barack Obama with his Kenyan family (photo credit:

Among those leaders is President Obama. This week, he dedicated a good portion of his speech in Kenya (a day’s drive from where A Girl Called Problem is set in the Mwanza region of Tanzania) to talking about the importance of educating and empowering girls and women. Here’s what he had to say:

Well, so around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women and treating them differently, and not giving them the same opportunities, and husbands beating their wives, and children not being sent to school. Those are traditions. Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. They need to change. They’re holding you back.

He continued:

Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximize their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports center: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.

As the first Kenyan-American president, Obama is in a good position to offer this critique, and, citing the United State’s reexamination of the confederate flag, he was quick to point out that all societies have bad traditions that hold them back.

Shida would have been standing up and clapping throughout his speech!

Here’s the full speech. For the section where Obama focuses on girls, listen to minutes 27-33.


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Picture Book Pairings for A Girl Called Problem

I love reading picture books and am a strong believer that young children shouldn’t be the only beneficiaries of this great body of literature. I know some wonderful teachers who will sometimes use picture books to introduce new topics to their older learners–just impress your teens or tweens that though the protagonists may be a bit young, picture books are a great window into unfamiliar topics, cultures, and perspectives, not to mention they often feature fabulous art.

When I was down in Boston in April, the wonderful Ms. JB at Boston Collegiate recommended Rehema’s Journey: A Visit in Tanzania, which she used this year to introduce A Girl Called Problem to her fifth grade class.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.29.09 PMRehema’s Journey is the story of a Tanzanian girl, living in the Pare Mountains, who at the age of nine makes her first trip to Tanzania’s famous Ngorongoro Crater with her father, a guide in the game parks. Full of pictures, the book gives readers a glimpse of everything from Rehema’s chores washing dishes under a banana tree, to the special miswaki sticks she uses to clean her teeth, to the amazing animals she sees on her safari. I highly recommend it as a compliment to A Girl Called Problem.

Other picture books worth considering (these come more broadly from East Africa):

Though published in the 1970s, this Caldecott Honored book is still a good introduction to Swahili.

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A story about generosity (something I learned a lot about while in Tanzania), but this time set in neighboring Kenya. The name Panya is unfortunate–it means “Rat” in Swahili–but otherwise a good read.

Set in Malawi (just south of Tanzania), this is a great book about the resourcefulness of young people.

Set in Malawi (just south of Tanzania), this is a great book about the resourcefulness of young people.

As one picture book will remind you, "Africa Is Not a Country," and I am straying far from East Africa by including this book from South Africa, but please indulge me as "The Herd Boy" is a great story about a boy who takes on big responsibilities at a young age and who also dreams big (much like my character, Shida).

As one picture book will remind you, “Africa Is Not a Country,” and I am straying far from East Africa by including this book from South Africa, but please indulge me as “The Herd Boy” is a great story about a boy who takes on big responsibilities at a young age and who also dreams big (much like my character, Shida).

Happy reading!

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Author visits!

IMG_3878I had such a wonderful set of visits last week. First stop on my tour was a day with 5th graders at the wonderful Boston Collegiate Charter School.


Photo credit: Ms. JB, Boston Collegiate


Photo credit: Ms. JB, Boston Collegiate

What an inspiring school community they have: ever-present, encouraging, extremely hard-working teachers; and a curious, enthusiastic and wonderfully diverse student body. The reading teachers there clearly do a phenomenal job, because the kids asked such insightful, thoughtful questions.

This mural in the front entry-way summed up the place.

IMG_3876Would that every child could attend a school like Boston Collegiate Charter School!

Next stop on my tour was Cape Elizabeth Middle School, where few of the 7th graders I met with had read A Girl Called Problem, but all of them had been studying African history, both pre- and post-colonial. What a treat it was to visit with students who had a sense of the diversity within the continent of Africa and a nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by African nations just after independence. A Girl Called Problem proved to be a perfect tie-in to their curriculum.

IMG_3883And on the final day of my visits, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting with young readers and a gymnasium full of wonderfully accomplished authors, including Ashley Bryan, Maria Testa, Mary Cerullo, Terry Farish, CB Anderson, Sarah Thomson, and Ellen Booraem at the Cape Author Fest.

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Book Tour Time!

I’m looking forward to a fun week! Thursday, I’ll spend the day with students at Boston Collegiate Charter School who have recently finished reading A Girl Called Problem. Visiting with students who have already read the book is always so rewarding. Thanks to Ms. JnBaptiste, teacher extraordinaire, for organizing the visit!

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Photo taken by Ms. JnBaptiste of some of her students reading A Girl Called Problem.

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On Friday, I’ll head north to Cape Elizabeth Middle School to visit with students who have been studying Africa. I’m looking forward to sharing pictures and stories from Tanzania to make the continent (or at least the Tanzanian portion of Africa) come alive for these kids.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.05.05 AMSaturday, I’m honored to join 70 other authors, including Ashley Bryan, Chris Van Dussen, and Tanya Lee Stone, at the Cape Author Fest. If you are in the Portland, ME, area, come  join us between 10am-2pm on Saturday!

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Authors who will be at the Cape Author Fest.

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Universal Preschool Access


President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga. AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

In both his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses, President Obama called for universal preschool access. His focus on early childhood education and care comes in response to a national emergency: the United States ranks 28th internationally in preschool access; childcare now costs more than college for some families; and yet the quality of care in the majority of American preschools and daycares ranks abysmally low.

“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives,” Obama said in his 2013 address. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

Today Obama is holding a summit on early childhood education. As part of the summit, he will announce the release of $1 billion dollars in funding to support early childhood programs, and the beginning of the “Invest in Us” public awareness campaign.

Limited access to high quality preschools impacts children, persistent class divisions in the United States, the quality of life and marriages of working parents, and gender inequity in the workplace. My current project, a parenting memoir entitled Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate: A Meditation on Motherhood with An Indian Twist emerges from this crisis. In 2007 when my first son was born, my husband and I were living in the East Bay of California. I taught community college and he was a graduate student. We were comfortable living within our very limited means until we were pregnant and were faced with the prohibitive costs of quality daycare in our area. Because of our income, we had two choices: upping my work hours so that we could afford to send our son to a depressing daycare just down the road from the neighborhood liquor shop; or having me trade in my beloved teaching job for state-subsidized, full-time motherhood.


Me, my husband, and our one-year-old son Liam in Tamil Nadu, India, where we spent the first two years of Liam’s life, in part to avoid the prohibitive costs of American daycare.

We settled on a third, albeit unconventional, option: we outsourced the exorbitant cost of raising a baby in America and we moved to India where we could afford to hire a part-time nanny and where I could take afternoons off to bond with our child. The memoir is about those two years with a baby in India, as well as my research into the history and attitudes that have shaped America’s systemic failure to support young families.

Though India proved to be a good home for our family in those first two years, I applaud President Obama for his current efforts and look forward to a day when the prospect of an American family moving around the globe in order to afford raising their child truly is an absurdity.

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Girl Power: The Key to Change

This is a guest post I wrote for the wonderful middle-grade blog, From the Mixed Up Files of…Middle Grade Authors, to celebrate the U.N.’s International Day of the Girl:

International Day of the Girl

October 11th marks an exciting day for young people. It’s the third annual United Nations International Day of the Girl, and it’s not just the UN that is celebrating girls. Increasingly, development organizations around the world are learning that if you want to fight injustice or poverty in communities that are struggling, don’t waste your time trying to enact change with local government, or even with adults in general. Instead, empower the girls in those communities. Provide them with access to quality education and healthcare, and before you know it, those same girls will be paying their privilege forward, making life for everyone better.

unA Girl Called Problem

GCP cover high resThis notion that girls are one of the most powerful forces for change in the world makes for a pretty compelling story, a story which is increasingly popping up in middle-grade literature. I’m the author of one such novel. A Girl Called Problem is set in late 1960s Tanzania, right after that country achieved its independence from Britain. The main character, Shida, is a spunky, 13-year-old girl. Shida has dreams of attending school and becoming a healer, but she also faces some pretty formidable odds: her father is dead; her mother is so depressed people label her a “witch”; everyone reminds Shida that no girl has ever grown up to be a medicine man; oh, and her name translated from Swahili literally means “Problem.” To make matters worse, when Shida starts going to school, fellow villagers and even one teacher say girls shouldn’t be there. These naysayers go so far as to blame girl students for cursing their village and causing the death of a child. Fortunately Shida isn’t a kid who easily gives up, and when the village is on the brink of collapse, Shida and another girl student prove critical to their community’s survival.

Although A Girl Called Problem is quite simply a coming-of-age mystery about an unyielding kid, it is also a celebration of exactly what the U.N. is honoring on October 11th: the world waking up to the notion that when girls are empowered to learn and lead, everyone benefits.

Other Books and Videos to Celebrate

International Day of the Girl

Because many of the challenges faced by girls around the world involve them having their childhoods eclipsed through early marriage and sexual violence, books about girls facing and overcoming injustice tend to be for the young adult audience (Sold by Patricia Cormick, for example). Nevertheless, there remain a number of other great resources for middle-grade readers.


  • The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is the story of an eleven-year-old girl in Afghanistan who, under Taliban rule, is forbidden to go to the market, attend school, or even play outside. When her father is hauled off for having a foreign education, Parvana is forced to disguise herself as a boy and to take on the task of breadwinner for the family.breadwinner
  • Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal is the story of a fifth-grade girl and poetess who is forced to skip school when her alcohol-abusing father walks out, her family moves into a motel, and her now-desperate-for-work mother needs her to stay home to watch her little brother. It’s a good reminder that kids in developed countries face challenges that keep them away from school, too.
  • Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter is a picture book based on a true story of a girl in Uganda who longs to go to school, but whose family doesn’t have the money for schools fees. Then her family receives a goat, and with the milk and the bits of income that follow, good health and even Beatrice’s dream of going to school come true.


  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Youth Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick is the inspiring story of the world’s youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Encouraged to stand up for her belief that all children should have the right to attend school, Malala was shot in the head while riding home on a bus after school but, as we all know, even that shot didn’t stop her.malala
  • Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins profiles six women, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, who became important scientists, writers and teachers. The book describes how they were sometimes discouraged from pursuing their interests, but how they persevered and went on to play an important role in how we think of the natural world today.
  • Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is the tale of a brave young woman who in the 1940s leaves her Inuit village for a residential school to pursue her dream of learning to read. There she is relentlessly harassed by a nun, but she manages to stand up for herself.


  • Consolata’s Day is a couple-minute video a Tanzanian friend and I produced to give Western kids a sense of what it’s like to be a girl in Tanzania today.
  • Girl Rising is a powerful, feature-length profile of nine courageous girls living in the developing world who face tremendous challenges to pursue their dreams.
  • The Clock is Ticking is a moving three-minute video that succinctly sums up the challenges girls face in many parts of the world. Its producers also manage the website Girl Effect, which is a great resource for learning about the critical role girls can play in ending poverty.

Let’s Celebrate

So on October 11th, help us celebrate girls everywhere: delve into an inspiring story or video about girls facing insurmountable odds, write a letter, make a donation, grab the hand of a girl you know who could use a little encouragement, and celebrate the power of girls to transform our world.

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Obama’s Summit on Working Families

Today, President Obama is holding a summit to encourage employers to adopt family-friendly policies. This discussion is long overdue. As Obama pointed out in his weekly address: “Only three countries in the world report that they don’t offer paid maternity leave – three – and the United States is one of them. It’s time to change that.”

Image Image: CSM.

I fully agree with the President that it’s time to change our paid family leave allowances, but that’s just the beginning. The United States is also behind much of the developed world in its failure to provide high-quality, affordable childcare to its youngest citizens, as well as legal protections, including proportional pay and benefits, for part-time workers, who often happen to be parents (and more often moms).

Much has changed in the last fifty years for American families. In 1975, 34 percent of women with children under the age of three worked outside the home. By 2010, that number had nearly doubled. And, yet, virtually no legislation has passed to reflect this massive social transformation. Discussions around working moms in this country tend to focus on the individual and how she simply must strive to work harder–set the alarm for 4 a.m., do lunges while folding laundry, embrace the Crock Pot–rather than our systemic failure to support modern families.

Image Image: Real Simple.

My current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir set in India. Though at first glance, it might appear an unlikely candidate for addressing the issues and politics surrounding the modern American family, in essence it is just that. My husband and I moved to India with our son, shortly after his birth, in part because we couldn’t figure out how to afford raising a child in the U.S. on our limited income. India might seem a questionable choice of location for a new baby. But I can tell you what we discovered there: a beautiful home at the top of some cloud-scraped mountains; a Tamil nanny, who was a veritable Mary Poppins; and the head-space to see how crazy American parenting has become. With this fresh perspective, I embarked on two years of research, trying to figure out why American parents manically run like hamsters in exercise wheels, rarely looking up to ask, “Hey, now, why isn’t my government looking to give me a hand?”

The result is a story, peopled with a collicky, screaming baby; alcohol-abusing boatmen babysitters; a raving, holy-man sadhu prone to dishing out child-rearing advice; and some expat, Swedish parents who thought it perfectly normal to receive 13 months of paid leave for every child they brought into the world. My hope is that the memoir will entertain, but also that it will lead parents to look up and start demanding that America catch up with the rest of the world in supporting its families.

Ideally in a decade our president will commit a week, not a single day, to working families. If we’re smart, she’ll also be demanding that the change come in the form of federal legislation, rather than voluntary employer concessions.

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