A MARTINEZ, HOST:
"I, Witness" is the name of a new series of nonfiction books for children ages 9 to 12 edited by bestselling author Dave Eggers. The stories are written by people who experience trauma at a young age. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Salvador Gomez-Colon was 15 years old when Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico.
SALVADOR GOMEZ-COLON: (Reading) The living room, my room and my mom's room were flooded.
BLAIR: This is Gomez-Colon reading from his "I, Witness" book "Hurricane."
GOMEZ-COLON: (Reading) We threw clothes onto the living room vents as water poured inside. As we tried to stop more water from coming into the bedrooms, the building started to sway. We need to get out of here, my mom said. We felt the entire building shake.
BLAIR: Maria caused thousands of deaths, a blackout and contaminated the water. Gomez-Colon started a foundation that gave families solar-powered lamps and hand-crank washing machines, and that's why eventually he was approached to tell his story for a new Dave Eggers project.
GOMEZ-COLON: I was like, of course. Sure. Why not? And we did a bunch of interviews and sort of - I was still not in the know of what was going on.
DAVE EGGERS: It starts as oral history.
BLAIR: Dave Eggers has been helping kids hone their writing for years. He says the "I, Witness" writing process begins with the young survivors doing oral interviews.
EGGERS: And then that transcript, which might be many hours long, is edited down into a linear narrative.
BLAIR: Then the authors and editors fact-check and streamline.
EGGERS: So it still has that visceral, first-person I'm telling you a story person-to-person kind of sound to it rather than labored prose, I guess, that sometimes might result if we said go write your book and take two years to write it or whatever.
BLAIR: Now, kids, parents or teachers listening might be thinking "I, Witness" sounds a lot like "I Survived," a hugely popular children's series about major events and disasters. The difference is that the "I Survived" books are historical fiction and all written by the same person. Eggers says he likes those books and isn't trying to compete with them. He believes there's plenty of room for more personal narratives for kids.
EGGERS: Kids are just uniquely drawn to first-person stories where the protagonist is around the same age as them. And I think that that's been - that's always been the case.
ADAMA BAH: (Reading) The morning of March 24, 2005, my mother, my siblings and I were in our apartment sleeping when pounding at the door woke us up.
BLAIR: That's Adama Bah reading from her story, "Accused." Like a lot of Muslims, she and her family faced an onslaught of racism and discrimination after 9/11. When she was 16, FBI agents barged into her family's apartment in East Harlem.
BAH: (Reading) They went through papers, threw our stuff around, shouted, talked to each other. They were like a destructive storm in our apartment. I heard them yelling at my mother who didn't speak much English. They pulled her into the kitchen screaming, we're going to deport you all, your whole family.
BLAIR: Adama and her father were arrested under suspicion of terrorism. She spent weeks at a juvenile detention center. After her father was deported, she dropped out of school to support her family. Adama Bah hopes her story helps children facing hardship.
BAH: Even though you have stories of children who have gone through traumatic experiences, it normal targets older audience. So it's great for me to target young people and understand, listen; you're going to go through traumatic things, but make sure you reach out and get help.
BLAIR: The next book in the "I, Witness" series is by a young woman who grew up in Afghanistan. As members of an ethnic minority, her family was persecuted by the Taliban.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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