March 20, 2002 – "That's Jubela!" the voice of an amazed 6-year-old rang out as he listened to St. John author Cristina Kessler narrate her slide show called "Behind the Books" at Zurich International School in Switzerland recently.
Jubela means "fighter" in the siSwati language of Southern Africa. It's the title of Kessler's sixth children's book, published last year by Simon and Schuster, and also the name of the book's main character, a baby rhinoceros in the Swazi region.
All of Kessler's internationally acclaimed books are set in Africa, where she and her husband, Joe Kessler, then a director for CARE International, lived for 19 years. The couple left Africa last August to settle on St. John, where he became the executive director of the Friends of the V.I. National Park.
So how does a St. John resident who writes children's books set in Africa end up making a presentation in Switzerland? She was invited by the Zurich International School librarian, Betty Story, whose last previous position was librarian for two years at Charlotte Amalie High School.
It was in 1999 that Story and Kessler met. "I was the librarian at the American School of Antananarivo," the capital of Madagascar, Story explains. "I invited her to be guest author there and was impressed with her work and the students' responses to her presentation."
From Madagascar, Story moved to St. Thomas. "At about the time I left St. Thomas for Zurich, Kessler was moving to St John," she relates. Once established in Zurich, Story tried to contact Kessler, who had been living in Mali, to set up an author visit at the Swiss school. "Through the stumbling efficiency of forwarded e-mail," Story says, "we finally connected."
In Zurich, Kessler also talked with high school students in Amnesty International at Story's school about her young adult book "No Condition Is Permanent." Then she spent two days at Zug International School and one day at Inter-Community School of Zurich. The three Swiss schools jointly funded her visit from the Virgin Islands. "I suggested it and the other schools agreed," Story says.
Kessler's presentations at the other two schools got "rave reviews," according to Story. "Especially impressive was her tireless attention to students' questions — and that she ate school lunches along with the students while she talked with them!"
Story notes that "'Jubela,' a favorite of the students at my school, was named to the Audubon Society's 10 Best Conservation Books in 1991-2001 and went into its second printing after just four months."
Another Kessler book requested a lot by Zurich International students is "All the King's Animals," a non-fiction work subtitled "The Return of Endangered Wildlife to Swaziland." The book received the 1996 Skipping Stones Book Award, was on the New York Public Library's "Best Books for the TeenAge" that year, and was nominated for a National Council of Teachers of English Orbis Pictus Award. Her other books, "One Night," "Konte Chameleon" and "No Condition Is Permanent," have also won wide acclaim.
Last fall, Kessler received the Africana Book Award from the Library of Congress for "My Great Grandmother's Gourd," a story about the traditional means of saving water in baobob trees in Sudan.
She is much in demand as a speaker at schools and as a presenter at writers workshops. After leaving Switzerland, she spent March 9-13 in Mobile, Alabama, taking part in a young authors conference and conducting workshops before returning home to St. John. She is scheduled to conduct writing workshops at Julius E. Sprauve School and will be going to Washington, D.C., in April to appear at the Smithsonian Institution and read from "My Great Grandmother's Gourd."
"Besides having a personal involvement in all of her books, which are based on actual experiences, she is compelled to present readers with an accurate impression of Africa," Story says.
As Kessler herself puts it, "The reality of Africa is not sound bites of war destruction, famine and drought. I want to get out the good news about Africa: the immense wealth and beauty of the land, as well as the grace and promise of its people."
According to Story, "Reading Cristina's books make you a better person." She added, "I am pleased that the Virgin Islands is now an inspiration for her and that the Virgin Islands will in turn be inspired by her."
For more information about the author's books and presentations, see the Cristina Kessler web page. Additional information can be found at this Author-Illustrator site.
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