Reaching young minds
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
By GAIL SCHONTZLER
Greg Mortenson has spoken to thousands of U.S. university and high school students about his bestselling “Three Cups of Tea,” the inspirational story of his work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan to “promote peace, one school at a time.”
Greg Mortenson, with his son Khyber and daughter Amira, visit with students at the Gultari war refugee girls school built in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan in 2007. But when Mortenson visited a fourth-grade class in Houston, he realized the kids were struggling with the adult-level book. That prompted his wife, Tara Bishop, to suggest once again that he write a version for children.“Kids are so excited,” Bishop said, especially about Mortenson’s Pennies for Peace program, which allows children here to raise pennies that will buy pencils and school supplies for students in Pakistan. “It would feel empowering if kids could read it themselves.”Two years later, her idea is being realized.Two children’s books based on Mortenson’s story are being released today. One is a half-length version for young readers, entitled “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Journey to Change the World One Child at a Time.” It has a forward by famed primatologist Jane Goodall, plus photos, maps, a timeline, glossary and list of who’s who, as well as information about how kids can get involved and help Pennies for Peace.
Advertisement The second is a picture book illustrated by artist Susan Roth called “Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea.”Mortenson and his 12-year-old daughter, Amira, are set to appear this morning on NBC’s “Today” show to talk about the books. It’s the first stop in a national tour that will include the United Nations Children’s Forum and a book expo in Los Angeles.Amira, who has traveled to Pakistan with her family three times, discusses what life is like for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan from a kid’s point of view in a 30-page question-and-answer interview in the young-readers book.“I think it’s important for kids to know, no matter how small you are, you can make a difference in the world,” Amira said.Chatting with the seventh-grader Tuesday, as she sat next to her dad in the family’s Bozeman home, it quickly became clear that she has a confidence and self-possession far beyond her years. When they speak to groups, it’s her dad who is more introverted and Amira - a taekwando champ and Equinox Theatre alum - who is naturally outgoing.Still, she admitted the “Today” show, though “a huge adrenalin rush,” was making her nervous.Mortenson’s mission began in 1993, when he was saved by Pakistani villagers after his failed attempt to climb K-2. Seeing village kids learning by sitting on the ground and scratching in the dirt with sticks, he made a rash promise to build a school.Back home, he struggled to raise a few thousand dollars to keep his promise. One big break came when children in his mother’s Wisconsin school raised $623 in pennies. Mortenson built the first school, and that snowballed into working with other villages to build more schools, aimed especially at educating girls, in remote areas where the Taliban has attacked hundreds of government schools.“I think their greatest fear is not the bullet but the pen,” Mortenson said. “The real enemy is ignorance n ignorance that causes hatred. To overcome it we need compassion and education.”So far, he said, his nonprofit Central Asia Institute has built 78 schools, and runs another four dozen, educating 28,000 children.Thanks largely to word of mouth and book groups, his book, co-authored with David Relin, has sold more than 2 million copies in paperback and been on the New York Times bestseller list 102 weeks. It has become required reading from Montana universities to the high school population of New Hampshire. He has gotten e-mail from such notable readers as Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.Pennies for Peace, meanwhile, has mushroomed among students, growing from 270 schools last year to 3,200 today.One stop on the Mortensons’ tour will be the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., which President Obama’s daughters now attend. Mortenson said his mother-in-law, Lila Bishop, taught there for 20 years. He and Amira have a chance to share their story with Sidwell students, and possibly First Lady Michelle Obama, he said.Mortenson said he is “very excited” about the new president, but concerned about Obama’s “brazen statements” about hunting down Osama bin Laden and plans to beef up the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He’d rather see something like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.“They’re all thinking firepower, and what we really need is brain power,” he said. “It’s education that will determine if the next generation (in Pakistan and Afghanistan) is educated, or illiterate fighters. The stakes could not be higher.”