Write a Story; Change a Life
Children’s writers can impact poverty in Central America… and the massive migration of immigrants into the United States.
I know that’s a big statement! But when I took my simple book, written specifically for Honduran school children, to that country in 2015, I had no idea that I had stumbled on some foundational truths that can measurably change behavior, both in our southern neighbors and among the thousands of migrant children in the United States.
My education in children’s writing began eighteen years ago when I stepped into a bright blue, one-room mountain school with empty holes for windows. The urchins sat in rows on rough wooden benches, staring at me. I gazed around the room at simple math problems chalked on black paint spread over rough plaster walls. I saw no books or pictures.
Since then I have visited many Honduran schools. Middle-class city schools often have only a few reading books, and tens of thousands of rural schools don’t even have textbooks. That is why my humble book is revered among children and many teachers.
I wrote Principles That Make You Strong as a textbook to teach young ones the age-old principles that have been traditionally taught in our schools and have made America the country everyone wants to live. The book comprises true stories of real kids from different parts of the world, who learned to solve problems and reach goals by right behavior such as honesty, hard work, kindness and responsibility. My sister, Jeannie Gibson illustrated the book in drawings of black and white, which kids color and take home to decorate their barren walls. I have seen pictures still hanging there after six years!
Roberto Contreras, the man who founded Power Chicken
When I go into a Honduran school, the teacher explains that I am there to tell the class a story from the book I have written. Here, teachers are poorly paid and city classrooms crowded and often chaotic. There is little respect for adults. But in mountain schools the children stare at me with rapt attention. A story is a huge treat. A translator converts my words into Spanish:
“How many of you know a restaurant called Power Chicken?” I ask brightly. They don’t raise their hands. They are farmers’ children in a poor mountain village. Many have never traveled to the city or even seen a movie; they have no electricity.
“Well,” I tell them, “I have never tasted such good chicken as Power Chicken serves, anywhere in the United States.” This is astonishing news. Oh’s and ah’s come from the class.
“The man who founded Power Chicken is Roberto Contreras,” I continue, “and today he is a wealthy man and loves to help people. But he was not always wealthy. Roberto’s father died when he was just a baby. When he was small, he sold newspapers to help his mother buy food. After school he sold bananas, which meant he had to stay up late at night to do his homework. He never had a pair of shoes until he was thirteen.” Nods of understanding come from those who are barefoot.
“When he finished high school, Roberto went to work in a bank, and he worked so hard that his boss paid for him to take English classes. Knowing English is very important if you want to go into business.” The children listens intently. “Roberto worked hard. He was always honest. People knew they could trust him.”
“Roberto loved to cook, and he dreamed of opening his own restaurant. He saved his money carefully. When he opened Power Chicken, he served only the best food. Soon he earned enough money to open five restaurants! Now he builds homes for his workers. Everyone likes him so much that he even ran for mayor and was elected!”
“Do you have a dream of something you want to do when you grow up?” They’ve hardly imagined having a dream before, but I see a spark in their eyes. “Follow the example of Roberto Contreras!”
I tell them to study hard… but they have no books.
That’s why it is a delight to give their teacher the few character-building books in Spanish that I could bring on the plane. And that is why I love writing for them–stories to give them hope and a future. When they have no books at all, one book packs a ton of influence!
Before I leave, my Honduran teaching partner, Elin, hands the teacher my book–Principles That Make You Strong. The children in its pages are kids like Roberto, who overcame difficulties and learned to live successfully by following enduring principles such as fairness, hope, and initiative. These principles have become part of their school curriculum.
As of this month, this book is being taught as an academic subject in twenty-five schools. Elin instructs teachers how to teach the subjects to their students. He says that in classes where right principles have been taught, the teachers are encouraged, enthusiastically telling of students who show more respect. Their behavior is changing. Children are not littering, but throwing trash into barrels and, an unheard-of phenomenon, they return cell phones and money that others have lost.
Parents are so delighted with the results of this teaching that they also attend classes where Elin instructs them about these principles, so they can teach their own children. In the last year he has taught more than a thousand parents. Recently Elin met with 156 teachers who were new to the textbook. Teachers who have taught it before are pleading for more stories, more lessons.
Writers for elementary, high school and university age materials are in great demand.
Simple as it may seem to write character-building stories, the principles of life have seldom been systematically taught in poor countries such as Honduras. Where poverty and corruption abound, lying and stealing help a person survive, for the moment, at least. This is why Honduran teachers are thrilled to have tools that transform their students’ behavior from the inside out. Over and over we have seen a light go on in young minds when they begin to understand that behavior, just like the laws of gravity, also has rules. We know that children do not grasp these principles automatically. They must be taught day after day all through their childhood.
Authors who can write and/or illustrate, culturally-appropriate books that teach children the right way to live are desperately needed and welcomed in developing countries such as Honduras. Such books are also of inestimable value among the many immigrants in our own United States. Many adults who come to our country do not know how to read—even their own language. They learn as much about life from children’s books as their little ones.
Several of our American friends have said to us, “You don’t need to write new books. There are plenty of quality books for children already.”
Sadly, too many of our children’s books are value-free, written to entertain or teach kids reading skills. And they have not been translated into Spanish. They do not explain the right behavior we must master to live successfully. Just as playing the piano well or becoming a track star do not happen automatically, these life-skills “have to be drummed in their dear little ears…. They’ve got to be carefully taught and then practiced.” Why? Because respect, diligence, and courtesy go against their natural inclinations.
Many Hondurans would rather stay in their own country than migrate to the U.S.
Think about this. . . if enough of their own people began living by right principles, Honduran society would gradually grow safer and more hospitable. They value our help.
Are you an author or illustrator? Have you ever thought of writing for such a context? Do you have a noble story of everyday heroism just waiting to be written? I challenge you to write a book for children who may have come from a very poor country yet, who lives now right here in your city. Your story can help them succeed. It can plant in their hearts and minds a desire to read, and perhaps even to learn English. It can plant a dream that may take root and grow into reality. You could even have your book translated and taken to another country to be used there. Your words may be part of transforming a child’s future. Think about it.
Written By Charlene Potts
About Charly: Charlene (Charly) Potts and her husband, John, have visited Honduras nearly every year since 1997. In 2006 John founded an educational non-profit organization, Professionals to the World, to help developing countries to a better way of life. They were asked in 2009 by the Dean of Engineering in Tegucigalpa to write a textbook on ethics. The resulting book Values and Principles that Can Change the World is being taught in the eight national universities. You can find it on Amazon.com here: https://www.amazon.com/Values-Principles-that-Change-World-ebook/dp/B00BRN8YK2/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Values+and+Principles+that+Can+Change+the+World&qid=1558656070&s=books&sr=1-1-catcorr
Later Charlene wrote Principles that Make you Strong, and John wrote a book for boys and men called Meant for Greatness. Encouraged by this teaching, Honduras has developed the National Center for the Formation of Values at the University in Comayagua. Charly asks if any reader of this blog has a true story to tell about someone from another country who succeeded in life because of their adhering to life-principles of trustworthiness, honesty, hard work, kindness or helping others, please email her. And if you are not a writer, but would like someone to write it, you can correspond with Charly here: email@example.com
Charly has been a member of Pikes Peak Branch of the NLAPW since 2014.
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