Youme Landowne: Creating a Safe Place to Talk About Hard Things

Youme Landowne is the author and illustrator of the picture book Selavi (That is Life): A Haitian Story of Hope (Cinco Puntos Press), which tells the true story of how street children came together in Haiti to create their own family and home despite difficulties they encountered. She is also the co-author and illustrator with Anthony Horton, of Pitch Black (Don’t be Skerd) (Cinco Puntos Press), a graphic novel that recounts the story of a homeless artist that Youme met in the New York subway. Anthony Horton takes her deep into the underground tunnels that he calls “home” and shows her his art and tells her about his lifelong search for belonging.

Youme’s newest book, Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home (due out Summer 2010), continues to explore what it means to lose one’s home. In this story, Youme tells the true story of a young Lao girl who, though she becomes a refugee, keeps her home in her heart no matter where she goes.

I talked to Youme this month about what it’s like to write about social issues for children and teenagers (and adults!), and how she balances hope with reality. Below is the transcript of our interview.

Jessica: All of your books have been about homelessness in some way. Why are you so fascinated with the topic?

Youme: I think it has to do with the questions I have about the world. Really, we all have a home—our home is our body on the planet. But there’s the central question of how could anyone not have a home, how could we as humans keep each other from what we need? Of course, hunger is even more fundamental than that, but from my own experience if we have a base, we can get what we need, but if we don’t have a base, there’s no foundation for getting what we need. I think I’m trying to explore the idea that we’re responsible for ourselves and at the same time we’re responsible for each other.

For Mali [in Mali Under the Night Sky], she knows that her home is with her even when she’s not there—and that her strength comes from everything that was her wonderful home when she was there. Honestly, she’s 39 and she still gets her strength from that childhood home and what it has meant to her all her life.

For Tony, in Pitch Black, he never had something that he could call home. The place he’s been the longest is the tunnels in New York. He has several locations he can camp out in, he knows people, the streets of  New York are the closest he has to home and he knows it well, but it is still not home.

[My stories seem to explore those areas] between the strength of coming from a strong home, and having to leave it, or coming from nothing and having to build it. In my family, I had people who had to leave their countries, and people who stayed in one place for a long time, and from both of those experiences, I learned the value of home.

 My big question for the world is, “How much power do we have and how much power can we share?” For children especially, they have a lot of power, and they’re often very vulnerable, so I often think about the bravery of children

It’s not that I feel powerless. I write about homelessness because I want us all to look at our own power, understanding how we, as children and adults, create home in whatever situation we’re in. I remember reading the book Our House is a Car Right Now—that one definitely had the idea that we make home, the idea that if somebody tells you your situation is bad, you might believe it. Instead, you can work together to get a better situation for everyone.

Some of my strongest influences [growing up] were books that said you are as responsible for the way you view things as what anybody tells you. There’s a book about a caterpillar who thinks he’s a mustache (Hubert the Caterpillar who thought he was a moustache) and everybody laughs at him, but he doesn’t give in and he ends up in a dark place; when he comes out, he thinks he’s an eagle and he is happy (the illustration shows a butterfly on a flagpole). He’s ready to believe in himself.

I was making books before I knew how to write or read. I drew about the author pages and eventually wrote blurbs and reviews on the backs. Books were a place I could go when I didn’t feel safe in the world, they were a sort of home for me—and when I came out, I felt better, more informed, more meditative. A book is a public and a private place; a story is a place where everyone has a home even if it’s just the length of the story.

Jessica: Let’s talk about your first book, Selavi, which tells the story of how a group of street children started their own homeless shelter in Haiti and eventually started their own radio station by and for children. How did you get the idea for that book?

Youme: I was looking for a story about a group of heroes rather than an individual hero story. Though the story still ended up focusing on the character Selavi, my goal was to show how [the children could not have created the shelter] without all of them [working together], and I think the same is true for making a home.

I heard someone from the radio station speak at a fundraiser in U.S. about the shelter in Haiti and I said, “I want to interview you,” and the journalist said, “You can come to Haiti and interview the children at the radio station, it’s not that far away.” So the first time I visited, I stayed at the shelter, and I had a sketch of the story, and it was my graphic version of whole history of Haiti, starting with the native people, kind of visually showing how the land had been over-farmed for sugar so that things wouldn’t grow, etc, trying to get all the roots which grew into the radio station, the children and the shelter. The children looked at it and said, “This is good but you can do better.” With the next version, they said, this is better, but it should be funnier.” (That is a lesson I take to heart!)

I often think about metaphors, and how the relationship we have with one individual is similar to the relationships we have with a community, or a nation. I wanted to talk about all of Haiti’s history for that reason.

There was one researcher who was there at the time, when I first went, and he published a short paper saying that Selavi [my book] glorifies what was a terrible situation. And I wrote back to him, asking him to engage about that, and I never heard from him. I guess what I want to say is that there were a lot of terrible things going on at that shelter, and at the same time, a lot of incredible things were happening. So as storytellers, I am aware that I am making choices about what parts of the story I am going to tell.

 Jessica: What do you think children understand about homelessness? What do they take away from your books, or what do you hope they take away from your books?

Youme: I think every time a child leaves their house and goes out into the world to school, or to an unknown place, they’re potentially thinking, ‘Where am I allowed to be? Where am I comfortable?’ They have an appreciation and an understanding for what it can be like to not be in control of their housing . When we say homelessness, we’re often  talking about going more than a week without a house–sometimes it’s one night, sometimes it is several years, and those are all very different experiences. When I talk to students about Selavi, I ask them, “How many people here have ever had the feeling when you stay over at someone’s house that they wish you weren’t there? Did you feel at home or homesick? What have people done to let you know it really is o.k. to be there?”

Many children when they leave to go to school don’t have the safety of their home around them anymore. Conversely for some children, school is the only “safe” they encounter. I think I’m a little bit obsessed with questions about risk and safety. Where is safe? And even in unsafe situations, how can we be as safe as possible? What’s in our control as children, as adults? Not that we shouldn’t take risks but how can we assess our risks, and nurture ourselves from a place of strength? A lot of people who have faced risks have been put in a social category of “damaged” and with homelessness, there can be an internalized stigma. Tony in Pitch Black doesn’t know if he’s ever going to emotionally be able to stay in one place, because he’s never done it or built up a community of people who would encourage him to do it.

So yes, I think children have a particular understanding of homelessness and also an understanding of power dynamics because they’re not in charge of whether they have a house, it’s the people around them that are. Everything comes from home, and what we experience. For some reason, all my books have dealt with home in some way.

I’ve met some librarians and teachers that say that they don’t know how to read Selavi to children—I think because they don’t see the hope, they only see the hard parts. The first page is very hard and it can be hard to get past that first page, and the page where they talk about how they lost their families is incredibly hard.

But I’ve read it to all ages of children. I ask questions as I go (which makes some audience members impatient), but it is important for me to get a sense of that particular audience. Sometimes I talk about the pictures as a way of working through the more challenging words.

What continues to be important is that the children in Haiti had these experiences and lived through them. They knew about wealthy children hearing from their parents that ‘street children’ weren’t good children because they were poor, and the children didn’t want other children being taught that. They would ask, “Why do adults teach children things like that?” I guess I like to examine those things. It’s important to me to speak truthfully and honestly about my experience but also to speak hopefully. Life is all of our responsibility together, not just one person. It seemed like in the 80s, there was a trend of stories putting pressure and responsibility on children without giving them tools or access to respond to social and environmental concerns. I can see that came out of a time period of books and education when children were being told that there were problems in the world and children were responsible to make it a better world. Like, clean up your world, it’s not going to last much longer unless you clean your room and go lobby the government and I know you don’t have money as a child but it’s your responsibility. I also had role models of children who did make a difference in their communities and in the world. I am happy to say that there are more stories out there now about children being listened to. Children’s authors are as much as anyone are trying to bring hope into the world. But it seemed like [during the 70s and 80s], there was a trend to talk about difficult things without empowering children.

Jessica: I get frustrated with picture books that talk about social issues. It seems to me that they present only half the picture. Like any children’s writer, I believe in presenting hope to children. I can’t live without it myself so why would I write something that lacks it altogether? Yet at the same time, for every child that’s rescued from a terrible situation (like domestic violence), there are several kids who live all their lives in its shadow. For every kid who ends up in a good foster care home, there are dozens that end up in foster care homes that are as bad as, or worse than, the home they left. How do we talk about these things in children’s books—particularly picture books? I feel like we usually ignore the difficult side of these stories when we write for children. It feels like we lie to them. I suppose if we talked about these things the way they really are, nobody would publish them.

Youme: I get where you’re coming from and it’s telling what publishers won’t touch. We live in a system where some of these things are perpetuated and that system is not designed to support a change. There’s a book I heard about years ago called White Woman Social Worker, and it was introduced with the argument that the social worker system was designed not only to alleviate the problem but to maintain the structure within which the problem exists. We have to comfort each other if we’re going to make it through a day. We also have to challenge each other if we’re going to make it through a day. Can we comfort and challenge at the same time? I’ve been very grateful that I have had support in attempting that in my books. Cinco Puntos (an independent smaller publisher) has provided a vehicle for my stories to reach a wider audience.

That open-endedness that I was criticized for by larger publishers now seems to be one of my strengths. For example in Pitch Black, in all of my books actually, I don’t end saying that it’s all okay. I say that the strength of the people in that situation made it better than it was before.

Jessica: What about Pitch Black? It’s so much grittier and stark than Selavi. Have you read that to young children?

Sixth graders in New York is the youngest I’ve read that to and many of them had a brother or a cousin or an uncle or a father who’s been in that situation.

An 8-year-old friend of mine picked the book up and his mom encourages him to read everything. He read it, he was pretty quiet afterwards, and I asked him, “Do you think it was too old for you?” and he said, “Yes, I think maybe it was.” We talked about it. He recognized that it was a sad story and a hard story. On the other hand, I’ve read Selavi to kindergarteners.

Part of the reason of doing the books is to create a safe place to talk about hard things. I’m not sure where I got my “don’t tie it up neatly” sensibility, probably from the world, which doesn’t tie things up neatly. Maybe because of a desire for the very thing that you’re talking about—not to lie to children. We look for the success stories because we know we need success, we need to visualize it in order for it to happen. I don’t know if we can give hope to one another. I sort of feel like stories can help create a space where people can remember it in themselves, though I don’t think that’s the same thing as giving hope. So it’s part of why stories are so powerful.

This is going to be the central contradiction in my life and work—I’m optimistic because I can’t live with the alternative. I know that entropy is part of the world. I love biology, and I realize that everything is falling apart all the time. I don’t think there’s a separation between destructive and life-giving forces, they’re happening at the same time. At the same time, there’s something in me that knows if I don’t find a way to feel good in this moment, I’m contributing to feeling bad at some level. A lot of people tell me I’m not realistic. I expect the people that I meet to be brilliant and shining and open and I find that they are more times than not. People tell me I’m too open, I know I can be annoying and unrealistic and yes, sometimes even offensive—but I guess I’ve tried the alternative and it is against my nature. It’s strange because I write about things that some people find very negative but I’m dazzled by the human response to a challenge and I want everyone to learn from that. So I don’t see the children in Selavi as “those poor kids.” I see them as brilliant and very strong kids that have something that the world needs to learn from.

Jessica: I like what you said just now, that “part of the reason of doing the books is to create a safe place to talk about hard things.” Can you talk about that a little bit more? 

Youme: I believe humans are communicating beings. Even if one of us doesn’t have have another person to talk to, we can have the conversations with ourselves and with one another’s ideas by reading a book. Even beyond words, when I’m making a composition of the page, I’m thinking beyond the frame of the page. I’m definitely thinking about what’s happening outside the world of the book. So the book is a conversation and if the stories and images can help somebody talk to someone about what is important to them, maybe to voice a question they may have thought needed to stay hidden, then our story continues together in the world.

Part of my motivation for writing Selavi, (before I realized how little books make), was to help raise money for the radio station and programs in Haiti and the U.S. that support listening to children. I didn’t realize that I could have written a letter and gotten more money and resources in a few months than I raised in the seven years it took to get Selavi published. But writing the book was about mobilizing love and attention for Haiti, a counter voice to negative stories about Haiti. I was motivated to publish because I thought it would be useful to more people than just myself. And it furthers a conversation that otherwise people might not know how to begin. I find that a lot of adults don’t know how to start that conversation. People ask, “What age is it for?” For me, picture books are for people reading together—for the parents, grandparents, friends reading to their children and babies.

I feel like we can’t talk about homelessness without talking about the racism and classism, the systems that our country (or other countries) have institutionalized…I grew up in a culturally diverse community and I wanted to make books that would reflect appreciation for diversity—I knew children who didn’t see themselves in books and I wanted to expand our public dialogue. There’s a kind of homelessness that can exist even when you have a home. One of my favorite teachers Sekou Sundiata, a poet, said “We are all homeless in time.”

I think it was hard to be a child a hundred years ago, and it will be hard to be a child a hundred years from now. All children’s books are about social issues. I really mean that we all write and draw about things that are important to us. Quite a lot of children’s books are about children losing things….In a way, we’re always telling our children, “Bad things can happen and you can be okay.” A friend of mine who works for Amnesty tells me that her child’s favorite page in Selavi is the one where the police officers are staring at all the children. A six year old I know likes the page where a police officer is pushing Selavi out of the way. Maybe there isn’t enough social space for children to address confrontation because we don’t want them to be scared, or we don’t want to be scared ourselves. I seek a balance.

I have been a muralist and community artist for most of my career. There was one project for a lead safehouse, a temporary shelter for families poisened by their own apartments’ lead paint. They wanted to paint about that but when we went over it, they realized the mural needed to be 80% positive because they didn’t want to be looking at tragedy every day.

One thing I find when people ask me why I write the stories that I write—what I love about children’s books is that we’re never supposed to have just one book. We’re not supposed to have just one story. It’s the most equitable society that I could find, even though it isn’t—many people aren’t getting published who should be—but for me, the world of stories is aware that we are enriched by diversity, and that we benefit from more stories. The more stories the better, the more voices, the more ears, the better.

When people think about the word “Selavi”—That is life—they often think of it as a negative saying. It cannot be helped, it is not fair, live with it–“that’s life” when it’s something negative. But life is also the sharing and the helping each other. I like to remind people that life is hard but it’s also absurdly wonderful and inspiring. And that is life too!




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