Although Abia's been in an Ethiopian refugee camp for sever years, four months, and sixteen days, she 's still a child who creates her own imaginary world. She's queen of the fields, queen of balancing water, and queen of her noisy drum. Yet, she must sleep on a prickly mat, collect fire wood, and take care of her baby cousin.The thought of moving to a strange, unknown land scares her, but she brings her can-do, queenly spirit with her. Once in her forever home, Abia continues marching, balancing, and racing as only a proper queen can.
WHEREVER I GO is a picture book the world needs right now with it's upbeat yet realistic message about resilience, hard times, hope, and refugees. Author Copp creates a main character who is at once relatable and realistic. Abia's voice and personality shine through the honest depiction of refugee life, a writing feat that was deftly crafted. Readers know Abia and her family situation yet see they are not victims to be pitied. Mohammed's realistic acrylic illustrations add another layer of truth and beauty to the book. Educators and librarians will appreciate the back matter and well-curated reading list from picture books to young adult novels on the refugee experience. I honestly had tears in my eyes and a smile on my face when I finished Abia's story.
Craft Chat Questions for WHEREVER I GO
K: What was the submission journey like for your debut book? (How many queries, how you found your agent, etc.)
Mary: Well, I can’t really say I found my agent. I went to a workshop where I had a very insightful critique with my eventual agent. The feedback was actually a bit overwhelming as she challenged many aspects of my story and how I wrote it. It was a lot for me to digest. I don’t know where the energy and determination came from that particular evening but I literally stayed up the entire night and totally revised my manuscript. I had another critique with her the next day and, although I could have read a different manuscript, I was determined to get this one right so I shared my revisions. About 2 months later I signed with her. In about a month, we were out on submission and in came an offer!
K: In your recent interview on Critter Lit with Lindsay Ward, you said putting your energy into your craft rather than chasing publication was important for you. What classes, workshops, books would you recommend to pre-published writers?
Mary: Yes! I am so glad, in retrospect, that I had no illusions of finding an agent in my beginning years. I didn’t even at the conference where I met my eventual agent. Of course, I wanted to have a story turn into a real-life book at some point but I was so focused on learning the craft. For all the folks starting out – I’d keep that in mind. Learn the craft first! Be patient. It is a long haul and there is a lot to learn. Listen. Be open to feedback. I signed up for SCBWI, took classes and workshops, signed up for critiques at conferences and joined 2 critique groups. I love Highlights and Whispering Pines (that’s where I met you, Kathy!) The New England SCBWI conference is phenomenal. Besides the learning, this is where you can connect with your writing friends in person!
I have discovered that I am not a great online learner so I will continue to attend conferences. I also ask for critiques (from independent editors) as birthday presents from my family!
K: How did you begin working in the refugee settlement world? How did this experience and being a filmmaker influence this story? What skills transfer from movie-making to writing picture books?
Mary: When our family moved back from Ecuador I became certified in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). I remember sitting in on a few ESL classes at a resettlement agency to get a feel for it. That was my first introduction to ESL and to working with newcomers. Concurrently, my young daughter was looking for some volunteer work on weekends and school breaks. She worked in the toddler center of the same resettlement program. She met some incredible families who had just arrived to our community. We all stayed part of this resettlement agency - and those families. This eventually led to my working on a documentary featuring the agency’s work in supporting resettled families. It was producing this film as well as getting to know so many resettled folks that inspired me to write WHEREVER I GO.
The similarity between producing films and writing stories is that in both, you need HEART. How do you want your reader or viewer to feel at the end? The take-away is really the essence of the story. Also, one needs to be a collaborator. Both making a film and publishing a picture book is a real orchestration of talents and passions.
K: Your main character Abia is a resilient role model yet an “everyday” kid with childhood wishes and dreams. I love Abia’s imaginary world where she is the queen. I’m curious about how Abia’s personality came to you.
Mary: I know a few Abias in the real world – former refugees and now resettled. They are indeed models of resiliency and they’re also just like other kids the world over – creative, curious, joyful, playful. I just gave Abia those attributes as she goes about her daily chores in the camp.
One of the many drafts of this story was in 3rdperson. One agent told me it sounded like I was a documentary filmmaker looking into the life of this family! Ha, little did she know! She wanted a closer telling. I guess I hadn’t made the leap from documentary story-telling to writing for children. So I made Abia the storyteller. In doing so, I was able to imagine being a little girl again. That was fun! What little girl doesn’t pretend to be a princess or a queen?
K: Although WHEREVER I GO is fiction, the book gives a realistic look at what life is like in a refugee camp. What are your tips on weaving factual information into fiction?
Mary: Oh, great question. I’d say that staying true to your story line is important. For sure, get your facts correct (research, research) but if it is a fictional story, your commitment is to the story. If the factual information moves your story along or offers richness to the setting then rely on that as PART of the story. If need be an author’s note or back matter, then make it a great fact-filled supplement.
K: What are you working on next?
M: I actually have 2 manuscripts out to editors now and I am super excited about a nonfiction picture book that I am working on. I have been reading about an amazing creature who was in captivity for years and was recently released and doing very well – her journey continues, and I love following her. As you can tell, I love stories about journeys!
Mary Wagley Copp has worked for many years in the refugee resettlement community. She was a producer of an Emmy Award–winning documentary on refugee resettlement, which was the inspiration for this book. Her professional life has also included community organizing in Appalachia, teaching in Ecuador, and being executive director of two nonprofit organizations. When she’s not writing, Mary teaches ESL to newcomers in her community. She lives in Westport, Massachusetts, with her husband, their puppy, and their chickens. They have three grown children.