A few years ago, one of my favorite things to do on Facebook was follow the posts of my friend Meredith Davis. Her and her family were looking after a girl from Rwanda who had bravely left her family to come to Austin, Texas, in the hope that her curled feet could be corrected so she could walk. I had the privilege of meeting Rebeka once, very briefly when I had to collect something from Meredith and Rebeka was in the car. Her smile has stayed with me ever since.
So when I heard that Meredith and Rebeka had co-written a middle-grade book about Rebeka’s journey and it was getting published by Scholastic, I rejoiced. Rebeka’s story is one of fear but making your own courage (something that any reader of my novel knows is important to me), resilience despite challenges, and the joy of knowing that, even though our world often looks harsh, there are wonderful examples of community and love.
HER OWN TWO FEET: A RWANDAN GIRL’S BRAVE FIGHT TO WALK comes out on Oct. 1, and I can assure you that it is absolutely wonderful. So inspirational and touching, as well as beautifully written, this is a book I hope will be available in every library and read by every kid and adult. (You can find it on IndieBound here.)
I’m thrilled to have had a chance to chat with Meredith about how this book came about. PLUS, there’s a giveaway at the end…
Tell us how you and Rebeka met.
Rebeka and I first met at the Austin airport at 2:30AM on August 6, 2012. She didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak her language of Kinyarwanda, we were both a bit bleary-eyed and scared as we stepped into the unknown together. Rebeka briefly met my husband in December 2011 when he was on a trip to Rwanda. Amazingly, some of our friends had recently sponsored her so she could go to school, and the husband and father of that family is a doctor. When he found out about her medical condition, he applied to a Dell Children’s Hospital foundation and their doctors agreed to treat her for free if they felt her twisted feet would respond. It was truly a miracle, all those small pieces coming together to bring her to Austin. When we got the call, asking if we would host her, we said yes.
Rebeka Uwitonze runs circles around Meredith’s daughter on their trampoline.
She had seen pictures of our family in preparation for her trip to Texas to receive treatments for her club feet. There was a photo of her family sitting on the counter back home, which I studied frequently, but we didn’t meet in the flesh until that fateful morning. In twenty-four hours, she went from scared and tired, to chasing after my sons and running circles around my daughter on the trampoline.
Why did you both decide to write this story?
I’ll answer for myself first and then for Rebeka, sharing the reasons she shared with me when I asked her this same question. I wrote this book so that more people would know about this resilient, funny, courageous girl who lived with us for almost a year as she went through thirty-one casts, fifty-eight hospital visits and three painful surgeries to turn her feet straight. I want more readers to know about Rebeka’s home country of Rwanda, too, a country I love.
Rebeka partnered with me as co-author because she was excited about encouraging other kids. She doesn’t want her story to be forgotten. We needed each other to write the book in a way that honored how she was thinking and feeling as a young girl crawling, as a seven-year-old teaching herself how to walk, as a nine-year-old leaving her family to come to America, and as the young woman she is now.
How did you and Rebeka collaborate on this book, especially with such a great distance between you?
This is a great question! The distance made our writing process unique. There were other complications in addition to the giant ocean that separated us. I couldn’t call Rebeka or send her an email since she had no cell phone and very limited access to computers and the internet. Our communication had to be carefully planned, taking into consideration the seven-hour time difference and the schedules of school administrators who would need to pull her from class and bring her to the office.
We mostly worked in three big chunks. In 2017, we talked a lot about the shape of the book, deciding what scenes to include and what to leave out. In addition to talking to Rebeka, I interviewed her parents, her former teacher, house mother at her boarding school, and staff from the organization who got Rebeka sponsored to go to school (Africa New Life).
In 2018, it was all about revision as I brought the entire manuscript to Rebeka in both written form and a DVD. I had hired a Rwandan in the US to translate and record the entire book so that both Rebeka and her parents could listen to it. Edits were made until we were both happy with it.
The next summer was spent working on promotion together. We are both debut authors! The summer of 2019, I flew to Rwanda to record a video of Rebeka giving a tour of her home and school and answering readers’ questions. The readers were ten Texas kids who read advanced copies of her book. I plan to show that video at all my presentations, and we both look forward to where this project leads us next.
The conversations between Rebeka and her sister at the end of each chapter are wonderful. How did you both come up with the idea of ending the chapters in this way?
Rebeka Uwitonze and her sister Medeatrece.
The summer of 2017, Rebeka and I lay side by side on a bunk at the guest house and dreamed up how to tell her story. Earlier that week, Rebeka showed me the bed she and Medeatrece shared when they were little girls. Her affection for her little sister was so evident. There were nights when she lived with us that I would hear her whispering with my daughter after dark in the room they shared, the way she did with her sister. All those memories and experiences came together as the first-person vignettes between the chapters.
I love the photographs throughout. How did you choose which to include?
I had so many pictures from our time with Rebeka in Texas, and pictures of our times in Rwanda, it was really hard to choose. We wrote the manuscript first, and then chose the pictures that best represented the text. I kept a blog when Rebeka lived with us (if anyone wants to go back through those, they can still find them on my website, www.meredithldavis.com) which kept me accountable to document our time together. I am so thankful for all those pictures now!
We sent about seventy to the editor and were so pleased that they were able to incorporate almost all of them. We were also hopeful that the pictures would be spaced throughout the text instead of clustered in the middle, and again, our wish came true!
Scholastic was amazing to work with. Their designers did a great job of working to make sure the pictures appeared as close to the text they represented as possible. There were only five pictures that weren’t taken by my husband or me. They were taken by friends who were happy to let us use them. I was especially pleased when Scholastic chose esteemed humanitarian photographer Esther Haven’s picture of Rebeka for the back cover. It is one of my favorites!
What have been your biggest joys and challenges so far in bringing this book to shelves?
Rebeka Uwitonze and Meredith Davis in 2017, during Meredith’s first visit to collaborate with Rebeka in Rwanda.
Oh, there are have been so many joys. One of the biggest was getting to see Rebeka three years in a row and finding out more of her story as we worked on the book, and watching her rise to the occasion, poised and eloquent as she was interviewed for various media opportunities.
Getting to share news about the publishing deal with so many friends and family who have watched me write and submit over the years was also a big thrill. All those years of heartache and rejections have prepared a rich soil where many close relationships grew, and those same people who encouraged me when I was down are now cheering for me.
The challenge has definitely been the physical distance between Rebeka and I, but Rebeka is used to challenges and I have learned a lot from her. We made it work, just like she’s done her whole life.
This is the first book for both of you. Will we see others? (I hope so!)
I hope so, too! For me, I am digging into another narrative nonfiction project and I have lots of fiction projects I am eager to return to as well. I can’t imagine my life if I wasn’t mired in a writing project. It’s a little like being pregnant, with a whole world going on inside of you, a secret you carry around as you wait in lines and shop for groceries and do the normal things you do.
As for Rebeka, I would love to see her write another book. Right now, her focus is school. She got a late start, entering kindergarten at the age of nine, just months before coming to America. But she is smart and determined, and the same girl who left her family at age nine to fly to America and live with strangers while she had surgeries is the girl who will one day graduate and go on to change her world.
I hope that this experience will encourage not just Rebeka, but many other Rwandans to write books. Nonfiction and fiction, books about their lives, books about worlds they’ve made up, books that are influenced by their own unique culture and country. I have had some really great conversations with some enterprising men and women in Rwanda, encouraging them that the world needs their voices.
What’s the most important thing you hope readers will take away from this book?
Courage, compassion, curiosity . . . there are so many things, it’s hard to choose the most important! We hope this book will awaken a curiosity in readers for those who look or act different, whether it’s the color of skin, a different language, or a disability. We want readers to crave the story behind what makes someone different, and that in the craving, they will engage others with compassion, empathy, and interest.
We want readers to be courageous when faced with a hard choice, because sometimes chance comes once!
Thank you, Meredith, for taking us behind the scenes of HER OWN TWO FEET.
Seriously, this is an amazing story wonderfully told. I know you’ll love it as much as I do. Here’s more about Meredith and Rebeka:
Meredith Davis and Rebeka Uwitonze with their book!
Meredith Davis worked at an independent children’s bookstore and started the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators before earning her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives and writes in Austin, Texas, and Her Own Two Feet is her debut book. Visit her online at meredithldavis.com.
Rebeka Uwitonze goes to school in Kayonza, Rwanda, and spends her holidays at her home in Bugesera. She was born with arthrogryposis, a disease that caused her joints to contract, resulting in stiffness, clubfeet, and muscle atrophy in her arms. Her Own Two Feet is her debut book, in which she is able to share her inspiring story with the world. To find out more about Rebeka, go to herowntwofeet.com.
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