On May 12, 2016, the Robert H. Jackson Center welcomed over 1400 students to hear Newbery Medal award winner Linda Sue Park discuss her life and journey as a writer. Ms. Park was the Jackson Center’s keynote author for its 2016 Young Readers Program. Students traveled to Jamestown from as far away as Grand Island, New York to hear Ms. Park discuss her extraordinarily popular book, “A Long Walk to Water,” which has sold over 1 million copies since it was published in 2010. Additionally, 1000+ students, at more than twenty New York and Pennsylvania schools, also watched the program via live streaming.

The Jackson Center’s Young Readers Program uses literature to engage young people with their world by inspiring them to read and hone their analytical skills and writing ability. The program’s annual essay contest, co-sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s Law, Youth, and Citizenship Program, received more than 90 student submissions this year. First, second, and third place essay contest winners Hannah Eisenhauer (North Park School, Lockport, NY), Emily Wakelee (Cassadaga Valley Middle School) and Alan Conklin (Stillwater Middle School), their families, teachers, and special guests joined Linda Sue Park, sponsors, and Jackson Center staff for a reception, award ceremony, and dinner at the Jackson Center on May 11, 2016. The students were each presented with a certificate of recognition and a monetary award of $500, $250, and $100, respectively.

A Long Walk to Water
Credit: Linda Sue Park

Ms. Park made two presentations to students on May 12th. The morning session was held at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts with Robert H. Jackson Center co-founder and board member Gregory L. Peterson as master of ceremonies. The afternoon session was held at the Jackson Center with Executive Director Susan Moran Murphy presiding. Essay contest winners Hannah, Emily, and Alan were recognized and applauded for their achievements. Then, after an introduction by former Robert H. Jackson Teacher Fellow and current Southwestern High School A.P. English teacher Junie Eimiller, Ms. Park launched into an animated lecture, with slide show, to her audience of predominately seventh grade students and their teachers. They listened intently as Ms. Park spoke about growing up with a passion for reading everything she could get her hands on. She explained that she started writing at the age of four, inspired to mimic the style of whatever book she had just read and enjoyed. It was not until she reached the age of forty, however, that she pursued a career as a professional writer. On that point, she noted: “It’s never too late to pursue your dreams.”

Ms. Park gave her audience a glimpse of her life growing up with parents who immigrated to the United States from Korea and held on to strong cultural traditions, including a deep appreciation for the power of education. Her father was amazed when he came to the United States and discovered public libraries, where “they just let you walk out of the door with a book, and keep it for weeks!”   Her parents chose not to speak Korean in the home, in the hopes their children would learn English more quickly, and Ms. Park regretted not having the chance to grow up as a bi-lingual speaker. After sharing a few humorous Korean catch phrases she had mastered, Ms. Park lamented the fact that it is more difficult for adults to learn a foreign language than it is for students in elementary and middle schools. So, she encouraged students to take advantage of learning a second language while they are young.

Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut
Credit: Water For South Sudan

The inspiration for “A Long Walk to Water” is a true story Ms. Park’s journalist husband, Ben, shared with her after he returned from a trip to Sudan. The story of the main character, Salva Dut, was so incredible; Ms. Park said she couldn’t help herself from sharing it with everyone she encountered on the street, in supermarkets and in professional settings. Over time, it finally dawned on her: “This is a story I have to write!”   And, fourteen drafts later, “A Long Walk to Water” was published.

The book recounts Salva’s journey, starting as an 11-year-old boy separated from his family as a result of a rebel shooting. With little hope of finding his family, Salva becomes one of the “lost boys of Sudan” and struggles to find food and water to survive. After living in a refugee camp for over 10 years, Salva eventually immigrates to America and lives with an adoptive family in Rochester, New York. After finally finding his father, Salva left the United States to start a volunteer group to build wells in Sudan, called Water for South Sudan. Through his program, wells are drilled for villages in South Sudan for families whose members previously had to trek for hours just to get contaminated water. Ms. Park explained that, now with the water from wells drilled in the villages, all children have time to go to school and villagers have access to clean, safe drinking water. Ms. Park said students across the United States have raised funds for Salva’s organization after learning his story.

Boy drinking water from a new well provided by the organization Water for South Sudan
Credit: Water For South Sudan
Ms. Park explained that, now with the water from wells drilled in the villages, all children have time to go to school and villagers have access to clean, safe drinking water.

At the conclusion of Ms. Park’s presentation, she answered questions submitted by students. When asked her favorite genre to read, Ms. Park could not identify a single one, but claimed she draws from a wide variety of genres: middle-grade novels, young adult novels, adult literary fiction, mysteries and nonfiction. She added: “Whether a wondrous story or a hilarious passage of dialogue or a beautiful sentence or a memorable image, every bit of reading I do helps my own writing.” Ms. Parks encouraged students to read everything and anything they loved. The best advice she offered to aspiring writers — read. Students gave Ms. Parks a thunderous applause at the end of both the morning and afternoon sessions.

The 2017 Young Readers Program speaker will be Carlotta Walls LaNier, author of “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.” Ms. LaNier was the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, the group of nine African American students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.