Two years ago, I shared a creative project that was carried out by Nellie Robertson and her two children. They live in the U.S. and Nellie is originally from Hungary, which means that English is their majority language and Hungarian is their minority language.
The project took place over the course of a full year and involved a stuffed alligator named Alfonzo, who they sent on a worldwide trip to enjoy “homestays” with a number of families (including mine!) who then reported on their experiences with their toothy guest.
During this time, Nellie and her kids blogged all about Alfonzo’s adventures—in both of their languages—and the result was a wonderful project that was both very fun and very effective.
You can learn all about it, and see photos from Alfonzo’s “homestays” in various parts of the world, by reading this post…
…and by visiting Nellie’s blog…
Another creative project
Well, Nellie and her kids are back, this time with a fantastic book project that involved Nellie and her nine-year-old daughter, Zita. With Nellie’s solid support, Zita has written and self-published a book about her chickens, with versions in English and in Hungarian!
Full disclosure: Because Nellie and her family live just a short drive from my hometown of Quincy, Illinois, I was able to visit them in the summer of 2017! So I not only had the happy chance to meet Nellie and Zita (and the father and younger brother), I met the chickens, too!
When Nellie told me about their new book project, this became something I was eager to share. As I’ve stressed before, along with persistent daily efforts—like providing ample speech in the target language, reading aloud, and pursuing a regular homework routine—language and joy can be fueled even further through the use of short-term projects: making videotaped interviews or “dramatic” films; creating a picture book or comic book; writing and performing a short play; singing and recording a favorite song (even making up your own); inventing a new game and playing it together; compiling a photo album and adding captions; pursuing crafts or a building task; researching and reporting on some subject of interest; and many more.
Here, then, are Nellie and Zita to tell you all about their bilingual book project. Many thanks to them both for generously sharing their lives with us.
Nellie, could you describe the project for us?
Publishing Dixie’s Chicken Sisters and its Hungarian translation, Csirkeszemmel, was by far the biggest project my daughter Zita and I have worked on together. We set out to write a chapter book for kids about Zita’s experiences keeping a small flock of chickens. Her goal was to write and edit the book in 12 weeks, and then take another 12 weeks to finalize, format, and publish the English version before her ninth birthday last November.
She had bought the chickens only a year before, not to write a book about them—she had different plans then. “I’ll get some chickens, sell the eggs, use the money to buy a goat, sell the milk, then use the money to buy a horse,” she said when she was only five. She doesn’t have the horse yet, and her parents, having grown up in the city, have proven to be very little help with the day-to-day challenges of keeping her flock of chickens healthy and safe. She has been reading books and magazines about this, and Google is our friend (I had no idea why the eggs were blue or lacked a shell), but it was her grandma and great-aunt in Hungary who could help her the most. She was on Skype with them often, chatting in Hungarian about broody hens, chickens with hernias, molting, and preening. This is how the project involved her minority language from the start, and when the book was done, she wanted to take copies to her family and friends in Hungary. Most of them don’t speak English, so the next goal was to translate the book so we could fill a suitcase with Hungarian copies when we traveled back to my native country this past June.
What made you and Zita decide to undertake this project?
You know those Saturday afternoons when you’re exhausted from the week before and your kids, who aren’t exhausted because their energy is inexhaustible, come to you with their newest Lego or robot or puppy (or chickens) and say, “Guess what, Mommy!” or “Look, Daddy!”, and they tell you about the newest itsy-bitsy thing they have changed in their construction or the latest cute thing their animal did? Well, on the millionth occasion when Dixie did something and Zita had to tell me about it, I was unable to feel much excitement over the newest trick the bird used to find bugs in the grass, so I said I’m not guessing and I’m ready to talk about something other than Dixie. I suggested that maybe she should just write things down so the rest of us in the family could keep our sanity; she certainly had enough to say to fill a book. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy with me. As she stormed out the door and back to the bird kingdom (which by now included our whole acre of a backyard), she yelled, “Maybe I will write a book, you just wait and see!”
What sort of benefits did the project provide?
Once Zita had decided to go ahead with writing a book for real, there were certain benefits I was expecting, and many others I couldn’t have foreseen. There are also longer-term things that we’re still discovering.
For example, I was looking forward to her handwriting improving, she had to get faster to keep up with her thoughts. She learned to spell, not because I gave her lists to memorize, but out of necessity: if her spelling was so far off that I couldn’t type her chapter up, she had to read it to me instead of being outside with the birds (“gathering more material for her book”, as she put it). The timeline she set for herself also forced both of us to plan well, stick to the plan, and complete every step, no matter what.
When she was writing the early chapters, her thoughts were all over the place, without considering what information the readers already have and what they need to know to understand the story. By the end of the project, she was able to describe a scene much better, writing down things that were obvious to her, but were necessary for those who haven’t been to our house. She also learned to include conversations and use them to move the story forward. Before we started the project, I wasn’t even thinking about these conceptual aspects of writing and the fact that these also have to be learned, that they don’t just come naturally when you’ve only learned your ABCs not too long ago.
Once she had the book in her hands, the next task was to get it to readers. She wanted to share what she had learned about keeping chickens and also to inspire other kids to take on writing projects—these were her goals from the beginning (her family’s sanity was not really her concern, that was mine). She decided to set up a stand at the local farm and home improvement store next to the baby chicks they had for sale, and promote her book that way. It took a few Saturday mornings to get the hang of it, but she’s now much more confident when talking to adults and approaching strangers with a request. This is something I wasn’t planning on, but it’s a most welcome benefit that will always be useful for her.
How has the response been to Zita’s book in English and in Hungarian?
We have received very positive reviews of the English version and the translation as well. Here in rural Missouri, many of her readers can relate easily to her experiences as far as keeping chickens. Most of all, they enjoy that the whole book is narrated by Dixie, giving a “chicken’s perspective” on life with a clueless young owner and her family. For our Hungarian friends and family, the book is a wonderful insight into how we live here, since most of them will never have a chance to visit us. We also know of at least one little boy who’s now building a chicken coop with his grandpa, and a girl who wants to write her own book—they both read about Dixie and were inspired by Zita’s project.
What challenges did you face? How did you overcome them?
During the original writing part, I think we had two main challenges. One was to keep moving forward, taking the steps we had agreed on even when the progress seemed slow and the project a never-ending one. There were days when we both had other things we could have done or would rather have done than work on this book, especially around chapter 5, when we had already worked on it so much and the end was still nowhere in sight. We kept each other accountable, I’d tell her to keep writing so I could type it up, and she was looking forward to the edited versions so she could build on that for the next chapter.
The other challenge was for us to work together, with very different skills and knowledge (as well as goals) that we were bringing to the project. Zita started out with very crude tools as far as the craft of writing goes, and I confess, I was only half paying attention to all the little details she kept sharing with me about the life of her chickens; she had three hens I could never even tell apart from each other. So I never really knew what the content would end up being. It took a lot of back and forth to arrive at a final manuscript that remained true to what had actually happened in the year the book is about, creating something in the process that’s enjoyable for the reader. This took a lot of patience, both on my part and hers.
What advice would you give to other parents who are interested in a similar book publishing project with their children?
Writing a book, no matter how old you are and what help you have available to assist you, is not an easy task. In fact, we had a little post-it note on our desks that describes the phases of the writing process:
This is going to be awesome!
This is hard.
This is terrible.
Hey, not bad.
That was awesome!
This list is from Published, an e-book by Chandler Bolt, and it fit our project perfectly. We hit the “We’re terrible” part around chapter 5 and it took the next several chapters to get to “Hey, not bad.” But looking back now, we know that the journey of getting it published was awesome. We’ve learned from the terrible parts, we know we can do it. We’ve inspired others to have chickens and to write, and the book has become another little piece of the bridge that connects our home in rural Missouri with our other home in Hungary. I think if you have an idea to write about, you shouldn’t let anything stop you, because the process itself will be worth it.
ADAM’S TIP: Through the use of today’s print-on-demand (POD) technology, it’s now possible for anyone to self-publish a nice-looking book at little cost and with little technical expertise. The most important thing is simply the commitment to complete the writing and publishing process.
Zita could you talk a little bit about your experience of the project, and include a message for other bilingual kids?
My mom said there are other kids out there in the world who speak more than one language and may want to write bilingual books about their experiences. I wanted you guys to know that writing gets very difficult at times, and you’ll need to be persistent (or stubborn). The best thing about the writing part was that I’ve learned to look at and read books differently. I know what it takes to get from the first word to the last and it makes me respect other writers more.
I used to think I would hate to edit my work. I always hated when I made spelling mistakes in my homework and I had to look it over one more time. When I was writing Dixie’s story, I tried really hard to make it perfect the first time around, so I could move on, but then I had to change almost everything in every chapter as the story unfolded. It was fun, though, to make something “perfect” even better. Other times I got frustrated that I couldn’t get it right, so I just had to restart and work from a different angle. And then it was even more exciting to reach the final version.
Then came the best part: we got the first feedback from the very first beta readers, when the story was still printed on regular paper at the library. That’s when we decided to add the map of the chicken’s territory, so it would be easier for readers to imagine the setting.
It took several attempts to upload the manuscript in its final form to the publisher’s platform, and then several more after we read the proof copy that came in the mail. But I had my own book, with my name on the cover page!
We live in a small town, so pretty soon there were people everywhere who knew I wrote a book. They greet me with “Hi, author” and are very excited for me. This makes me nervous sometimes, because I don’t know what to say, especially if I don’t know them, but it’s also encouraging.
In Hungary, people generally were less openly excited about my project, but they had a lot of questions about how and why I wrote the book. That was a little easier for me because I knew what they were interested in and I could just talk about those parts.
All in all, the whole process was a good experience, and I’m ready to do it again. I hope you guys will write, too—I would love to read about your lives!
Show your support!
Friends, here’s your chance to show your support for this young bilingual author! Remember, she still wants to get that horse! So please consider buying a copy of Zita’s book and sharing your impressions with others through reviews and word-of-mouth. Many thanks!
Buy Dixie’s Chicken Sisters at the Book Depository. (And get free shipping worldwide.)