When Culver School students heard from author Jasmine Warga recently, it was clear that they connected with her family’s story and her strong desire to write about it.
Warga, author of “Other Words for Home,” a 2020 Newbery Honor Book, came to Niles Township as part of Coming Together 2020. That program, jointly sponsored by schools, libraries, local governments and other organizations across the township, has chosen a shared topic to celebrate for the past 11 years. This year’s topic is “Journeys to Niles Township.”
Warga’s book, which tells the tale of an immigrant family’s experience through the eyes of a young teenage girl, fits the topic well. Several Culver students found things in common with the author, whose father emigrated from Jordan and who was born in the United States, grew up in Cincinnati, and now lives in Naperville.
“She’s a diverse author,” said Culver Principal Erica Smolinski in explaining why Warga’s presentation was of interest. “She wanted to write a book about the immigrant experience. Jasmine and other culturally aware authors want kids to see themselves in the pages. And we as educators want to hear from all different perspectives when we’re talking about reading and writing.”
“Other Words for Home” is aimed at middle-school-aged readers. On Feb. 5, 21 Culver students accompanied Smolinski to the Niles Public Library for a chat with Warga over lunch, followed by her talk at Culver to the 5th through 8th grades. It was a memorable day for all, particularly those who participated in the more informal first session.
“Those kids were very voracious readers, very interested in the writing process,” Smolinski said The school arranged to get them copies of the book beforehand. “It was very exciting. Many students felt, ‘This is me. I’m a writer. I’m a reader.’ The kids felt really special to be chosen to have this opportunity. Many of them had never met an author. They had really awesome questions for Jasmine.”
At the presentation at Culver, Smolinski said Warga talked about writing her first book, when she was in first grade. She shared her love of reading and writing, and the opportunity to write. “Her message was, ‘Get your story out there, write it,’” Smolinski said. She added that students and staff wrote comments afterward. One student’s message read, “Dear Jasmine, the book also inspired me since I’m new at Culver. I love to read and write stories. I will never forget meeting you. I hope I can be an author, too.”
Smolinski said Warga offered valuable lessons to the students. “I know that reading and absorbing other people’s stories is what enhances life — even moreso with stories that do not reflect your own life,” she said. “You can get attached to a character, attached to a story, and it makes you want to write.”
For those students who want to write, she said Warga offered this advice: “Your first draft will never be your last draft. You can always make it better, you can always change your course.”
Smolinski expressed gratitude for the Coming Together project, and Culver’s ongoing relationship with the library. “Our partnership with the library is very joyful, fun work. Librarians come to the school, and take kids over to the library. We feel honored to have been chosen to have Jasmine as a gift. We’re very thankful to work with them.”
Smolinski said several teachers have since asked for copies of the book, and it will be an option for in-class reading. “At least one class is using it already,” she said. “This will have a lasting impact.”