A Donated Library: Books for Refugee Children

Children’s books paired with passionate book people are a potent combination. On April 27th of 2017, I was reminded just how potent.

A few months ago, I was chatting with my neighbor on our driveway. She shared a few frustrations regarding processes at her work in an organization which helps place refugee families in the greater Seattle area. These families have run from war, famine, or natural disasters–sometimes more than one. They come to the World Relief offices and spend hours filling out paperwork as they are processed. If they have small children, their kids have to wait patiently, often for hours.

Since I’ve stepped away from the classroom to focus on my family and my writing, I’ve gotten to spend time getting to  know my local booksellers, librarians, authors and illustrators. I knew my cadre of book people would have good suggestions for books to potentially entertain these kids. Why not set up a small collection of books at their office? The idea of an waiting room library was born.

Nothing makes a librarian or bookseller happier than being asked about books to fill a specific need. I also asked for suggestions on social media. Not only did the book community have ideas, they also wanted to donate books. The books, we thought, should be for kids who may or may not read English and they should see themselves reflected in those books. The families are from countries like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Moldova, Russia, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and many others.

When Independent Bookstore day came (called Seattle SEABookstore Day in Seattle proper) most of our northwest indie bookshops get in on the action. One county librarian said she’d help by purchasing books created by our nearby authors and illustrators. This way she could support the locals as well as local business. All of this while helping a cause in which she believed. By the end of the week I had a stack of excellent titles.

At the recent LA SCBWI conference, I was fortunate to hear the executive editor of Salaam Reads speak. I approached her after and told her it was nice to have a publishing imprint where I knew I could find appropriate, quality books with Muslim characters for families and friends (including the refugee center). When I told her of my idea she said she’d be happy to send a box of books for the center, too.

The project hasn’t finished by any means. Since setting up the library to great success, other books have called out to me too. I recently came across Kadir Nelson’s beautifully illustrated Blue Sky White Stars, which I bought for the library. Also, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls may be appropriate, as well, with its rich collection of inspiring women from around the world.

I received a card from my neighbor soon after. “Could you send this pic of our staff to say thank you to all the wonderful people in the children’s literature community? The kids absolutely love the books. Honestly I don’t know who loves them more the kids or staff! I’ve caught several staff reading the books together, as well as parents! Many blessings be upon you.”

The children receive the gift of empowerment and entertainment through books carefully selected by generous professionals.

I’ve been informed a local foster care facility has a library in constant need of graphic novels. I think I can predict the response I’ll get when I ask for some help finding titles.


While mild-mannered in public, behind closed doors MARK HOLTZEN has been known to groove to his diverse collection of music, cook and garden with moderate skill and make weird faces at his children and students. You also might find him inhaling handfuls of popcorn, struggling to learn new guitar chords or riding one of his bikes through Seattle. Currently on a teaching hiatus after years in an elementary classroom–including science at a gifted K-8 school–he writes essays, middle grade novels and is working to create more regional history for kids. He continues to be amazed and thankful (mostly) for the universe and its inhabitants daily. His debut picture book was A TICKET TO THE PENNANT with Sasquatch Books. Find him at his blogTwitterInstagram or Facebook.


My Community – An Evolution

When I left my third grade teaching position of sixteen years, I knew I was leaving behind something important – my community. In a classroom, community presses in on you whether you want it or not. Students hover around you like bees. You’re injected into the personal lives of families participating in crippling family events and decisions. For an introvert this intensity leads to exhaustion. But the constant interactions also create a rich life. A school is a place strong and complex, and as an educator you’re at the center. Mine was filled with kind, intelligent colleagues, packs of dedicated students and their families. We all shared a living history. And I was going to leave it all to stay home, do more grocery shopping and write kid’s books?

When my wife and I decided I’d take a more central role for our family, I knew there were serious changes ahead. I’d contemplated them for years, and they terrified me. I was leaving my second home.

As fond as I am of words, it’s people and my relationships with them that give my writing meaning. Though I often hide from people, I do like them. My interpersonal interactions inform my thoughts. I’m not as much of a fan when they’re collected into a large mass, but put me in a corner one on one for a chat (if they’re not totally annoying) and I’m all in.

I was faced with a coming void. How was I going to fill it?

Not very well it turns out.

My first few weeks of a student-free school year were freeing, but overwhelming. I pinged off the walls. Clean counter. Put on music. Make coffee? Had coffee already. Read a book? Nah. Waste of precious writing time. Make coffee after all. Should write. Whoa. Didn’t need that coffee. Repeat. I knew immediately I needed to establish routines before I spun down the too-many-options vortex. I also knew I needed to build a new community.

While teaching, I crammed my writing life into the nooks and crannies of the day. I spoke to colleagues about ongoing novels in the faculty room. One year, while on vacation in local islands, I spoke with a historian seeking a potential plot for an early book. I shared ideas with my students. I was getting my feet wet.

For the next middle grade novel, I interviewed a classical pianist and a piano tuner. A piano moving company let me watch them work. I started to take myself more seriously. Early interactions and projects were a necessary part of my path, but writing was still a side project. An intriguing hobby.

With my new career move, my writing world had to stand on its own. Meeting others who tinkered with words in their quiet spaces felt like a necessary progression. I had attended writing conferences, but I attended more. I had taken classes with our local nonprofit writing organizations, but I signed up for more. I wrote more essays and articles, and with positive responses I became more confident in my abilities. This influenced how I interacted with my growing tribe. I mustered up enough bravery to share “good news” at our local chapter SCBWI meetings.

I had an early writing group that eventually dissolved, but it was an important step in realizing I wanted to take the kidlit craft seriously. An online writing conference led to my current critique group (Winged Pen!). Dedicated all, many agented, some published, some soon to be – we’re all making our way down the path as a tight knit, supportive clan. We raise each other up wherever we are on our personal journeys.

Now that my first traditionally published book is out, my feelers are out in new ways. Sharing my own journey informs students, teachers and readers along their own path, whether it involves writing or not. The museums that helped me with research have invited me for events. Via social media, I compliment other artists whose work I’ve admired. Those interactions have led to online friendships. Facebook has become a sea of connections to librarians, booksellers and former families where we share inspiration, laughs and frustration.

Through my efforts I’m discovering and forming a new collective. I’m filling the void. Through risk and effort, I’ve built a foundation for myself. Whether my next book is good, or whether or not it sells (The egg of doubt is still nestled comfortably in my craw. My craw sits just beneath my sternum) the professional friendships I’ve nurtured will be there for me.

How we spend our days is how we live our life, local educator and writer William Kenower has said. Or insert any cliché you’d like: journey not destination, smell flowers, time passes quickly, etc. Bottom line, if I chose the path I may as well make it a pleasant one. And book people are pleasant (though often grumbly).

Gabrielle Bates, a local poet and MFA student, recently shared this advice her father had given her when faced with a choice:

“He told me to figure out which choice would take the most courage, and then do that.”

She said it’s been some of the best advice she’s ever received.

I’ll be over here in my musty detached garage creating art, building community and reaping this life path of its abundant frustrations and charms. What will you do?

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.42.50 AMMark Holtzen was an elementary teacher for sixteen years. Now on a “hiatus,” he’s writing middle grade novels, picture books and essays. His picture book, A Ticket to the Pennant, is out in world gathering up its own community. You can read more about him on his website, Facebook or Twitter. If you’re interested in historical ties to his picture book or just like old baseball photos you can catch a few on Pinterest.