By: Jake Heller
When Wayétu Moore fled war-torn Liberia as a five-year-old and arrived at an elementary school in New York City, she was greeted with a surprising question:
“Did you go to school on an elephant?” one of her new classmates asked her.
“Something I experienced as a young foreigner here was the lack of knowledge about other cultures,” the now 26-year-old Moore said from her apartment in Prospect Heights.
So in January 2011, Moore launched a children’s book publishing company called One Moore Book, which strives to share the stories of foreign people and the customs of foreign countries with American children. Its books will “serve as a key to unknown people and places for all kids who do not have access to cultures outside of their own.”
“I hope that children can pick up these books… and understand that the world is just so much bigger than what we know and what we have been taught,” said Moore.
Thus far, One Moore Book has sold more than 3,000 books across the country, and is present in schools from Houston, Texas to New York City.
Chloe Taylor, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 116 in Gramercy, thought that her students would do well to learn from Moore’s books. Last November, in a colorful classroom draped with pastel drawings and splotchy paintings, she introduced her class to Moore’s first book, “J is for Jollof Rice.”
The book tells the tale of a young Liberian girl who scours her nation’s countryside, her city’s markets, and her parents’ kitchen for food to make for dinner—all while learning the alphabet. Jollof rice is a mix of rice, tomato sauce, vegetables, meats and spices, and is one of Liberia’s signature dishes.
The students sat squarely in front of 25-year-old Taylor, on a colorful checkerboard carpet. It was near the end of the day, but they all still had boundless energy. They squirmed in their spots, imaginarily affixed to the ground, and shot their hands into the air whenever Taylor probed them with questions.
“How many of you have eaten rice before?” she asked.
Almost all of the children’s hands shot up.
“I’ve eaten brown rice,” said one student.
“Rice with beans,” said another.
“Sticky rice!” shouted someone from the back.
“I really liked “J is for Jollof Rice” because there are a lot of similarities between what the girl in Liberia did and what children do in New York,” Taylor said.
The book’s main character even transforms the apples she buys in a Monrovian market (Monrovia is the capital of Liberia) into the classic American food: apple pie.
“How many of you have eaten apple pie?” Taylor asked.
“Me! Me! Me!” the classroom erupted.
Indeed, in Moore’s Liberia, J may be for jollof rice, but P is still for pie. And parallels.
“I want children in America to learn that Liberian children are not that far removed from them,” Moore said.
Parents of Taylor’s students agree.
“I think it’s great when the kids learn about any other culture and country,” said Sarah Browne, Julian’s mother. “I think it expands their knowledge base and expands their view of the world.”
Shanika Bailey, whose daughter Neeasia is the only black student in Taylor’s class, concurred. She was particularly pleased that her child was learning about African culture.
“When blacks were enslaved they lost their language, their culture and their way of life,” Bailey said. “That’s why I feel it is very important for [Neeasia] to know as much about Africa as possible, so that she can get a sense of self.”
But Moore’s aim is not merely to educate Americans about other cultures. She has also targeted her books towards children living in countries with low literacy rates. By telling stories that reflect specific cultural narratives, she hopes that she will be able to increase literacy levels in countries like Liberia, where such levels remain low.
According to the State Department’s last calculations, done in 2008, 42 percent—nearly half—of Liberians are illiterate. And according to the United Nations, in Liberia’s rural areas, 74 percent of people do not know how to read. Only 19 percent of men and eight percent of women in Liberia have completed high school or university, the UN also reported.
“It would serve the children in Liberia so so much if they had access to literature written for them,” Moore said.
Since January, One Moore Book has published six children’s books, all about Liberia. Moore authored or co-authored all of the titles, while her siblings provided the illustrations. Next, Moore plans to write books about—and for—children in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Bolivia.
“I feel like children are so impressionable and so vulnerable to the world,” she said. “I hope that children can pick up these books and say: ‘I want to go to Liberia someday,’ or… ‘maybe I could have a friend who is Haitian.’”
As Taylor closed “J is for Jollof Rice” and carefully placed it back on the shelf, her students all began to clap and cheer.
“Who wants to go visit Liberia now?” she asked.
“I do!” the crowd in front of her answered.