I’m giving a TED TALK!

I’m giving a TED talk! For TedX Beacon Street in Boston. Here’s the information on the live stream:

Title: CAN A CHILDREN’S BOOK CHANGE THE WORLD?

Saturday, Nov. 14 2:00pm EST

www.tedxbeaconstreet.com

So excited! Hope lots of you will ‘join’ me online.


Torn?

1969 was the first year I was a Cubs fan.

I hope that at least a few people reading this understand the sheer weight of that seemingly simple sentence. In August of 1969, the Cubs were in first place by NINE games. They finished the season in second–eight games behind. Obviously it wasn’t quite mathematically impossible, but they had to lose a LOT of games to achieve such dire numbers.

The team that overtook them was the New York Mets.

A few smatterings of memory from those childhood years:

–Jack Brickhouse: “Santo-Kessinger-Beckert-Banks, the infield third to first.”

–Ernie Banks: “The Cubs will shine in ’69.”

–Billy Williams, uniform number 26. Randy Hundley, 9. Ferguson Jenkins, 31.

–Glenn Beckert (18, second base), hardest man to strike out in the National League.

That’s all from memory; I didn’t look any of it up. I was an ardent Cubs fan into the ’80s, when I lived for several years in Europe, in the days before cable and internet. For game 5 of the NL playoffs in 1984, I assiduously avoided looking at the International Herald Tribune for the result. The next day, I went to an American bar in London, where they had arranged for a videotape of the game to be overnighted to them from the states.

I watched the game there. I remember being intensely annoyed by a Padres fan a few bar stools down, who kept saying, “17 years! 17 years we’ve been waiting….”

Just shut UP, would you? For the Cubs, it had been FORTY years since their last postseason appearance.

They lost.

In 1985, I had a baby boy. A few years later, my husband got a job in Manhattan, and we moved back to the U.S., to Brooklyn. I picked Brooklyn because of Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. We did all of our apartment-hunting there; I refused to consider living anywhere else.

My son got interested in baseball, and became a rabid fan.

A Mets fan.

What’s a mother to do? Well, this mother plonked herself down on the couch next to that little boy and began watching Mets games with him, explaining the infield-fly rule, the double-switch, the suicide squeeze. Mother-love trumps all: I never thought it would happen, and it didn’t happen overnight, but eventually I became a Mets fan too.

During the ’90s, the Braves were the Mets’ nemeses. When my son was about eight, I told him about the ’69 season, and how much I had HATED the Mets back then. With a look of utter horror, he said, “You mean, it’s like if I had a kid, and he was a BRAVES fan?” I said yes. After a moment of contemplation, he said, “Wow. You must really love me.”

Being a fan of a baseball team is about the dailiness of a long season. For more than twenty years now, I’ve followed the Mets every single day–the way I followed the Cubs as a child. On television mostly, but sometimes radio. Staying up late for the left-coast games. Watching sports news for recaps of the rare games I miss.

Several people who know my baseball history have said to me, “Cubs vs Mets in the playoffs! So you’ll be happy no matter who wins, right?”

If the Cubs win, I’ll salute and applaud Cubs’ fans everywhere–including my nine-year-old self.

I will also be heartbroken.

If the Mets win, I’ll be ecstatic . . . with a pang for Cubs’ fans everywhere, including my nine-year-old self.

That is not at all the same as being happy no matter who wins.


Dear Meg…

Imagine yourself as a child reader. In almost every single book you read, the main character is a BOY. Boy after boy after boy. You search and search and finally, you find one that stars a girl. She’s feeble and helpless and her story is about how she manages to get a BOY to help her.

Wouldn’t you say, “This is ridiculous! We need stories about girls! ALL KINDS of girls, girls in the fullness of their humanity!” (Okay, maybe if you were a child reader, you wouldn’t say that last phrase–but you’d feel it.)

And then someone you respect and admire says, “Don’t be silly. There are girls in the newspapers and on TV. Just go look at them there. Literature is to expand the mind. You have to have the imagination to put yourself into boy shoes.”

Well, yes. And girls and women have done this–have had to do this–for centuries, and it is indeed mind-expanding. But as a female reader, I am grateful for books like yours that feature strong, quirky girls. And other books about misfit girls, improbable girls, brave and crazy women.

No, I take that back: Grateful isn’t quite the correct word. I *am* grateful, but I also have the RIGHT to expect such books. Because one of literature’s most important functions is to reflect the world, and the world is full of people who are not boys.

When I say that we need diverse books, that is what I mean. We need books that show people in the fullness of their humanity. ALL KINDS of people. EVERY kind of person. Including queer black boys.

Not on tv or in the papers. In BOOKS. In literature. In art that lasts and matters.

Humbly but firmly,

Linda Sue


From the outside

I don’t know of a single good fiction writer who doesn’t write outside their own experience. Period.

But here’s the thing: Not all ‘outsides’ are created equal.

(For purposes of this piece, I’m going to use race/skin color. Swap out the terms and it applies to many other minority cultures.)

Minorities live in the dominant culture—by definition, right? I am a member of a minority culture (Asian-American) who lives in the dominant culture (white American). I exist in more than one culture. The dominant culture IS my culture; I’m part of it, I’ve lived in it my whole life. When I create middle-class American characters, I’m writing from inside the culture, not outside. I even know the largely white experience of not having to think about my skin color (rare, but it does happen), which means I can and do write white characters.

The reverse is seldom true.

If you are white, when you write a character who is a person of color, you are almost always writing from outside that culture—by definition.

Ergo: It is easier / more authentic / more natural (pick one) for me to create white middle-class characters than it is for you (theoretical white dominant-culture person) to create a character of color. Sorry, that’s the way it breaks. Because once again, I’m not writing from ‘outside my culture’. You are.

So the plain truth of it is that you have a lot more work to do. Hard work. And here’s the next thing: Research is necessary, but not enough.

It’s not enough to do the google/wiki thing. Or to watch lots of videos and documentaries and listen to lots of podcasts. It’s not enough to go to the library and read dozens of books and articles. Research is vital. It is no substitute for experience.

Here are a couple of examples of writers finding their way into another culture via experience. Debby Dahl Edwardson is a white American who writes Inupiat characters. She has lived in an Inupiat community for most of her adult life. She’s married to an Inupiat man. She has half-Inupiat children. Like me, she exists in more than one culture, and that’s where she’s coming from when she writes her amazing and memorable characters.

Okay, you say, but I can’t move to Alaska and marry an Inupiat. Fair enough. Look to James Rumford, then. White American, from Hawaii, author, illustrator, linguist, storyteller. He has written (or written and illustrated) picture books set in at least a dozen international cultures.

Before James writes a story set in another culture, he studies the language. As in, for years. He is now fluent in several languages (including Chinese and Arabic!), and conversant in several more. He wrote a book in Brazilian Portuguese that won awards in Brazil.

Both Edwardson and Rumsford have respect and passion for the cultures their characters come from, and they’ve put in the time to prove it. That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about. It ain’t no wiki. And all of the above applies in essence if not in degree to secondary characters as well as protagonists: The token, flat secondary character is nothing but a superficial nod at inclusion.

Respect. Passion. And most of all, time. If you, theoretical white dominant-culture person, want to write believable and valuable characters of color, start by investing in those three things.


Response to a Twitter post

Ruh-roh.

A couple days ago, I read a post on Twitter in which a writer mentioned that he deliberately did not specify his characters’ race/ethnicity because he wanted all readers to be able to identify with them.

I’ve heard this before from other writers, including prominent ones. It’s a problem.

If a story depicts someone who leaves their own home and interacts with others in public spaces (in other words, almost any novel ever written) but never or almost never has to consider their racial identity, THAT CHARACTER IS WHITE. This could even serve as a reasonable definition of ‘white privilege’: Only those of the dominant culture have that incredible luxury.

A POC can never go outside their own home or family circle without thinking about their racial identity in some way. The trigger is not always malicious or even negative, but it is inescapable. A POC’s racial identity IS NOT THEIR SOLE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC–but in society, it is *always* a consideration.

So if story setting is proto ‘western world,’ and a character’s racial identity never comes up? They’re not ‘race neutral.’

They’re white.


Recent reading

It took me a while, but I finally figured it out: Why I haven’t blogged my reading in so long. Last year, from about May through October, I was a panelist for the Kirkus Prize. 350+ books inside six months, picture books, middle-grade, and YA. WAY too many to blog about.

After that I couldn’t pick up a book for young readers for MONTHS. Never thought it would be possible to burn out on reading kids’ books, but it happened. I read nothing but adult mystery series and adult nonfiction for weeks and weeks.

But in the last month or two, some amazing and wonderful books have come my way…and I’m BA-A-A-A-CK.

 

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THE LEVELLER, by Julia Durango. YA fiction. Set in the (very near) future of virtual-reality games. A terrific read for lovers of action/adventure stories, gamers, and fans of good writing–OF ANY GENDER. Skillful inclusion of some Cuban history as well as a little romance. *I read it in one gulp.*

 

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THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. Middle-grade memoir, adaptation of a best-selling book for adults. If you liked getting to know Salva Dut in A LONG WALK TO WATER, you’ll find Kamkwamba’s story amazing and inspiring too. A young teen in Mali builds a windmill out of scrap to bring electricity, and hence water, to his family’s drought-stricken farm.

 

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THE YEAR WE SAILED THE SUN, by Theresa Nelson. Middle-grade historical fiction. One of my all-time favorite writers! A gritty story set in 1912 St. Louis, with a setting so real you can feel it, and a character to cheer your heart out for. Can eleven-year-old Julia Delaney find a home and a family when her own falls apart? Don’t let the lyrical cover and title fool you; IMHO they belie the humor, action, and gutsiness of Julia and her story.

 

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KISSING IN AMERICA, by Margo Rabb. YA contemporary. Road trip time! Two teen girls, one on her way to see the love of her life, the other to appear on a TV game show. Friendship, first love, and deep grief, laugh-out-loud humor and gorgeous writing. Plus a great cover!

 

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BONE GAP, by Laura Ruby. YA fantasy. Teenage Finn tries to solve the mystery of a kidnapping, and falls in love along the way. Ambitious structure, with the story told (mostly) from three third person viewpoints. Wonderful setting, with surprising but well-earned plot and character twists (which carried me past the minor annoyance of the intrusion of two chapters from other POVs). Daring. Intriguing. Unusual. Read it.

 

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 ECHO, by Pam Munoz Ryan. Middle-grade historical fiction/fairy tale. Three stories–no, four. Wait, maybe it’s five?–that follow a harmonica that might or might not be magical–on its journey through several decades and lives. A remarkable mashup!

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THE SECOND GUARD, by J.D. Vaughn. Middle-grade fantasy. HURRAH for a fantasy that 1) uses Latin-American tropes instead of the weary European ones and 2) has a great kick-ass girl protagonist! Talimendra must train to become part of the Queen’s guard and help save the realm of Tequende. Can’t wait for the next installment.

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THE KIDNEY HYPOTHETICAL, by Lisa Yee. YA contemporary. The last seven days of Higgs Boson Biggs’ high-school career, during which everything he’s worked hard for starts to fall apart. FUNNY and moving by turns–or at the same time, and I still can’t think of the title premise without cracking up.

 

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ARCADY’S GOAL, by Eugene Yelchin. Middle-grade historical fiction. What was it like to be a child in Stalinist Russia–a child whose parents have been ‘disappeared’? Arcady’s story might have been unrelentingly grim, but it’s leavened by moments of tenderness and his passion for soccer. The spare writing suits the subject matter perfectly, with the bonus of lovely and haunting illustrations by the author.

 I’m so lucky, to live in a world and a time with such books in it!

 


May 2015: The Balkans Tour and BEA

Bucharest, Sofia, and Belgrade. Three great cities and three terrific schools.

 A few of MANY highlights:

American International School of Bucharest: The ‘Balkans Tour’ was the brainchild of librarian John Kurtenbach, whom I got to visit in Peru in 2013. When he moved to Romania, he invited me to visit there as well! Librarian Stacey Socholotuk hosted me for two great days, with A LONG WALK TO WATER as their One Book One School read. I saw students from pre-K through Grade 8, and did an evening presentation for parents and families.

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Here’s a link to AISB’s Facebook page about my visit: https://www.facebook.com/AISB50/posts/818575988230243

And Stacey took me and my husband out for really good Italian food at Grano.

Anglo-American School of Sofia: Librarian Rebecca Battistoni took care of me in Bulgaria, where I did sessions for grades K-8, as well as one for a tenth-grade class (LOVE getting to visit with high-school students). While there I was able to announce that AAS was one of the second-prize winners of Salva Dut’s Iron Giraffe Challenge! The school will get a 15-minute Skype with Salva.

Our time in Sofia included two FUN dinners out. The first, with Rebecca, School Director Jim Urquhart, and counselor/athletic director Andie Urquhart; the second, with faculty and staff at a wonderful traditional Bulgarian restaurant.

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Librarian Rebecca Battistoni with friends including Joe Herr, 4th grade teacher (right), and LOTS of Bulgarian food.

AAS Facebook page link: https://www.facebook.com/AngloAmericanSchoolSofia/photos/a.385509012978.166005.309109902978/10152985909197979/?type=1

International School of Belgrade: My host for Serbia was Librarian Mallory Goetz. I met with students pre-K through grade 8; did a writing workshop for middle- and high-school students as well; and an evening presentation for parents. Mallory and the school brass–Director Rob Risch, Lower School principal Brian Lettinga, and Upper School principal Angelo Coskinas–took us out to Terassa, a restaurant within the medieval Kalemegdan Fortress, which wins hands-down for ‘Best Setting’ of all the restaurants we went to.

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After Belgrade, I got to spend three more days in Bucharest just for fun, including a day in the Transylvanian countryside, which looked like this:

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…with flowers growing everything, including wild orchids like this:

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And on our last night before flying home, we had my favorite meal of the trip, at The Artist in Bucharest, which offers a ‘spoon tasting’ menu: one spoonful of EVERY item on the menu! Swoon!

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After a week of jet-lag recovery, it was back on the road again, this time to NYC. I visited the Strand Bookstore, where Brianne Sperber hosted a great event with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from Castle Middle School in Manhattan.

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I also got to catch a Mets game with my dear friend Nancy Quade. Here she is standing with her foot next to her brick at Citi Field, a gift from her son (who was best friends with my son in grades K-2): “Nancy Quade and Nathan Kaplan Remember Game 5.” (And true Mets fans will get the reference immediately. A grand-slam single? Look it up!)

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The most important reason for my trip was to participate on the We Need Diverse Books panel at BookExpo America. I was honored to be asked to speak on this panel. We had a great time, but also discussed some serious issues. Thanks to everyone who attended, tweeted, and followed the live tweets–it was a terrific audience!

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With the other panelists: Tim Federle, me, Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, and Matt de la Pena. (photo credit: Claire Kirch)

C-Span recorded the event: http://www.c-span.org/video/?326181-1/bookexpo-discussion-diversity-publishing

What a spring I’ve had! I enjoyed my travels immensely but am already back at the day job. I love my boss, and I’ve missed him:

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More photos from Dubai

From the American School of Dubai, where I spent the last two weeks.

Students:

2015-03-22 05.45.27Members of student council staffing the first station on the elementary school’s Water Walk.

 

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Students in third through fifth grade, who read A LONG WALK TO WATER, buddied with younger students, walking them around the track to the three stations and explaining Salva’s and Nya’s story.

 

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Mr. Baltes helps a student balance a jerry can on her head, to get an idea of what it might feel like to be Nya, carrying water every day.

 

Teachers:

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The Korean/Korean-American teachers took me out for a delightful dinner one evening. From left, Jae Baik, Shirley Pyon, Jenny Sohn, and me. All-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, of course!

 

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An evening of great pizza and even better conversation: From left: high school psychology teacher Christina Advento, me, author John Coy, elementary school principal JohnEric Advento. Behind us: the lights of The Palm artificial island.

 

Miscellaneous:

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An order of muhammura (various spellings), walnut and red pepper paste, and fresh watermelon juice. Extras of bread, fresh vegetable plate and olives included. Serious yum.

 

At the Mall of the Emirates:

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The famous indoor ski slope. Very popular. I stood there, my mind boggling . . . at whoever thought up the idea–and then made it work!

 

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‘Coach’ in Arabic!

 

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I liked this window at Harvey Nichols: Giantess and fancy backpack. Passerby at right for scale.

 

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The farewell party, on the rooftop of the Souk Madinat. From left: elementary librarian Natasha Pollock; high school librarian Jenny Baltes; middle-school librarian Jill Egan; John Coy; me; primary librarian Carly Brown; library paraprofessional Mara Ziemelis. What a team! How I hated to leave them!

THANK YOU, ASD DUBAI, FOR A WONDERFUL TWO WEEKS!


A magical 24 hours

The work week in Dubai is Sunday-Thursday, so today (Friday) was the start of the weekend. Late yesterday afternoon, I took a taxi to Dubai’s Public Beach, right smack in the heart of the city. It was very windy, with sand whipping everywhere, but the beach and sea were beautiful, and there were lots of little shells. (I love picking up little shells.)

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Then, on the recommendation of librarian Natasha Pollock, I walked a short distance from the beach to a restaurant called Bu Qtair. The opposite of fancy–it’s literally a trailer. No menu. You can have fish, or prawns, or both. Stand in line (with locals and tourists alike); choose your fish when you get to the window; pay by weight. Go outside and wait for your fish to be cooked. When it’s done, a runner calls your name and brings your fish plus a plate of lettuce and lemon quarters. Another runner brings your table. You read that correctly: From somewhere behind the trailer, he hauls out one of those white plastic patio style tables and a stool; you sit, and your fish gets plonked in front of you. A big serving of rice, a pile of flatbread, and a bowl of curry sauce are extra. 25 cents extra. Plastic utensils are available, but I watched the locals and did as they did: ate the freshly grilled piping hot fish with my hands.

2015-03-13 19.37.06Bu Qtair, al fresco seafood at its best.

 

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Pick your fish. I was told that the one I chose is called a ‘hamour.’ It’s coated with a dry rub and gets seared on a big round metal grill…

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…positively crackling crisp outside, tender inside.

After that feast, I walked a couple miles of the beach boardwalk to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, where the ASD teachers were having their annual Habitat for Humanity fundraiser: a trivia bowl! It was a really fun evening, and I proudly contributed the correct answer ‘Stone Temple Pilots’ to one of the questions.

Only a few hours later, I was up before the sun. Natasha met me at the hotel, and a car picked us up at 5:15am to take us to Al Maha Resort for a day-trip package, their ‘Activities Adventure.’ This stunning resort is located within the grounds of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve about an hour outside the city. We arrived at 6:30, just in time for the beginning of the falcony demonstration. Three falcons and an eagle strutted their stuff for us, including this beauty:

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At the end of the demo, she patiently let each of the spectators get up close and personal:

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I did say ‘magical’, didn’t I….

Breakfast was next. While we ate, one of the locals dropped by:

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Gazelles (like this one) and oryxes are the two largest animals in the preserve.

Next we toured one of the stunning tent suites and then hit the pool area. Oryx, anyone?

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After lunch, we were taken on a wildlife drive, offroad through the dunes. We saw lots more gazelles and oryxes, including a herd with babies nursing!

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Our sharp-eyed guide also spotted a rare lizard, which we admired from afar. Back at the resort, we browsed the gift shop, and had tea and dessert in a deck area with stunning desert views. We drove out of the reserve at sunset, the end of a better-than-perfect day.

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Tomorrow: Taste of Dubai Food Festival!


In Dubai!

Just finished my first week at the American School of Dubai (ASD), and it couldn’t have been better. The librarians and teachers have worked all year to prepare for my visit, and the students are BEYOND AWESOME. The school is so supportive of author presentations that every year, not one but TWO authors visit, so I’m lucky to have John Coy here at the same time: We’re both having a blast!

With John, ready for our first day:

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Students who spoke at the opening welcome assembly getting last-minute tips, with librarians Carly Brown (far left) and Natasha Pollock (right).

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Natasha and John at the assembly.

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A HUGE honor: ASD chose A LONG WALK TO WATER for their first-ever One School One Book program. EVERY student from 3rd grade through high-school seniors read the book! Here’s a display in the elementary library, where students added drops of water with their comments on the book.

 

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At dinner with the amazing librarians. From left: me, K-1 Librarian Carly Brown; elementary librarian Natasha Pollock, author John Coy; middle school librarian Jill Egan; high school librarian Jenny Baltes.

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IT teacher Renee Williams, a longtime Dubai resident, gave us a wonderful tour of the historic district called the Creek. Here’s Renee standing in a traditional Dubai house that’s been converted into the Majlis Art Gallery.

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Cross the Creek in an abra, or water taxi. Fare: 1 dirham, about 27 cents!

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I have much more to add about my time here in Dubai, and the best part is, it’s only half over! This week I got to spend time with middle-school students, and those in grades 3-5. Next week: kindergarten through grade 2, plus high school. More posts to come!