Writers Changing Lives: A Chat With Sanna Stanley

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As a child, author and illustrator Sanna Stanley spent eight years in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although she says growing up in the bush, where she lived from age six to 14, was the “norm” for her, in retrospect she sees how the experience shaped her life and work.

Sanna, who has written several children’s books set in Africa and is donating her book Monkey for Sale to Worldreader, said she got involved with our program as way to empower people to understand their own personal stories.

Here’s part of our conversation:

WR: Based on your experience in Africa, why do you think it’s important for kids in the developing world to have access to books and reading?
Sanna: I want everyone to have access to (reading). Readers make writers…Literacy is not only being able to read, but also being able to write or to tell your own story.

If you can reflect and convey what you have come to as a ‘self’ – you can call that telling your story, then you have more power.  I have a quote from Carl Jung that I like:
“He is in possession of his life who is in possession of his story.”

Accessing literacy is one of the most powerful things we can give these days. In cultures like the one in which I grew up, where it’s not so accessible, it’s even more special.

WR: What book made you fall in love with reading?
Sanna: It’s not that simple. I don’t remember not being a reader. In different stages of my life, different books were important.

An author that had a big influence on me was Madeleine L’Engle; she wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I read all her books when I was a teenager – I was older than most kids that read her books. I was so familiar with her and her work that in my journal I referred to her as M.L. She was a character in my life. I borrowed her as a grandmother, in a way, and as a mentor.  She was real in my life.

I really wanted to meet her, so when I went to New York, I made it happen and took a workshop with her. I ended up meeting some of my best friends in that workshop. It had a profound influence on my life.

WR: How did you come across her book? How did you hear about her?
Sanna: I don’t remember. I didn’t have access to her books earlier because I didn’t have as much access to books as people here do [in the United States], especially those related to popular culture. I think I probably just found one on a shelf and started reading it. The one that really influenced me was called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. I found it in a college bookstore, just browsing while visiting a college.

WR: What was that book about?
Sanna: It’s about thinking as a human being, as a Christian, and as an artist. It’s about how worlds overlap. For me, it had a lot to do with my struggle as an artist, and who I am as an artist, what I produce and why, and what matters. It was really about meaning.

WR: How old were you when you read it?
Sanna: I was 18 or 19. I still have my same beat up copy of that book. It’s missing its covers.

WR: Sounds like a book you read often, and that L’Engle was a role model for you.
Sanna: Madeleine was influential in that sense. I think that’s because authors, when you read them, can enter your life. They can be characters in our lives, as are the characters in books. Authors are mentors. We read authors that agree with us, and we read the people who challenge us. Hopefully.

WR: Is this still the case today, do you think?
Sanna: The influence of books is changing, at least in the Western world. People don’t feel like they have the same time for reading and reflection. Things become so quickly achievement-oriented, like how many books did you read rather than what did you think about those books or what do those books say to you.

That’s something that is different for me. Growing up in the Congo, we didn’t have all this technology, we didn’t have telephones and all this stuff, so time was a different thing. Time was fluid and more spacious. It wasn’t broken up into every hour and half hour. That is an important space for me to still find in modern life.

WR: Do you find this space through reading?
Sanna: Now, I find it more through Tai Chi, but reading does offer it. In my son’s case, for instance, you can’t get a book out of his hands. He loves to enter another world. He’s nine, and he does with Calvin and Hobbes what I did with Madeleine L’Engle. He quotes Calvin and Hobbes for life wisdom.

Thanks for the chat, Sanna!

To find out what Sanna’s up to, check out her new site.

For more information about how Worldreader is bringing books to all in the developing world using e-readers, visit us at Worldreader.org.