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Can Suzanne Collins Interest Kids in a Real Foreign Land?

By Dennis Abrams

Today’s feature story about Barefoot Books considers at the company’s history of doing things differently. In their “our story” video posted with the piece, the two co-founders underscore that part of their mission has always been to be a globally-minded company that strives to introduce children to other cultures. It’s a tricky proposition as most children have enough to cope with in simply learning to understand the world outside their front door, let alone continents away. Alas, anyone who has introduced a child to a foreign culture understands the wide-eyed wonderment they can experience. Of course, often, that experience of the “foreign” is best filtered through a parent’s eyes—one with first-hand experience. Foreign lands can be scary after all.

And what if that parent’s experience overseas was traumatizing…

We now have the news that one of the biggest names in children’s and YA book publishing, Suzanne Collins, author of the best-selling Hunger Games trilogy (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) is writing a new book, Year of the Jungle. Scheduled to be published by Scholastic next fall on September 20, it will be an autobiographical children’s picture book about coping with her father’s military service in Vietnam.

The book is illustrated by James Promios, the artist Collins credits with inspiring her to write children’s books (the pair met while working for Warner Brothers’ TV channel Kid’s WB). According to Scholastic:

“In Year of the Jungle, when young Suzy’s father leaves for Viet Nam, she struggles to deal with his absence. What is the jungle like? Will her father be safe? When will he return? The months slip by, marked by the passing of the familiar holidays and the postcards that her father sends. With each one, he feels more and more distant, and when he returns, Suzy must learn that even though war has changed him, he still loves her just the same.”

In a press release, Collins explained the inspiration for the story:

“For several years I had this little wicker basket next to my writing chair with the postcards my dad had sent me from Vietnam and photos of that year. But I could never quite find a way into the story. It has elements that can be scary for the audience and it would be easy for the art to reinforce those. It could be really beautiful art but still be off-putting to a kid, which would defeat the point of doing the book. Then one day I was having lunch with Jim and telling him about the idea and he said, ‘That sounds fantastic.’ I looked at him and I had this flash of the story through his eyes, with his art. It was like being handed a key to a locked door. So, I just blurted out, Do you want to do it?’ Fortunately he said yes. That afternoon, on the train ride home, the book started unfolding in my head. There’s a natural humor and sense of fun to his drawing style that makes the story approachable. As the emotional life of the main character evolves into darker places, the pictures beautifully keep pace with it, but they never lose that Proimos quality. His art made telling the story possible.”

Scholastic promises that Year of the Jungle will be suitable for a much younger audience than the Hunger Games and will depict war in a manner that is “sympathetic rather than scary, relatable rather than raw.”

It will be intriguing to see if readers follow her from fictional war-torn Panem to the reality of Viet Nam? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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