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Stamping the Grass With Words: An Interview With Page McBrier

Page McBrier stood by a hand-dug pond on a hillside in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Filled with water diverted from a nearby stream, that pond was home to tilapia, a type of African freshwater fish often raised for food.

A chicken coop hovered above the pond. Manure from the coop not only provided fish food, but it clouded the water and protected the tilapia from preying kingfisher birds. This process eventually yielded fish for consumption and sale. Its repeatable nature formed a circle of life.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Heifer Project International had provided these Tanzanians with tilapia fingerlings to start the cycle of self-sufficiency. This hillside pond in Kilimanjaro, and the principles it illustrated, was just one stop of many for author Page McBrier.

In February 1995, she and illustrator Lori Lohstoeter spent three weeks in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />East Africa, traveling through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Their ultimate goal: meet a Ugandan girl named Beatrice, who had been given a goat by Heifer, and produce a children’s book about her story.

They succeeded. Beatrice’s Goat hit shelves in 2001 and has since become a popular book, with 2 percent of the publisher’s proceeds going back to Heifer.

“My involvement began when Lori came to me and asked whether I would be interested in going to Africa with her as the writer,” McBrier told EthicsDaily.com in an interview from her home in Rowayton, Conn., where she continues to write and lead elementary school writing workshops on cultural diversity.

“We had a very loose arrangement with Heifer Project that basically said that if they took us to Africa, we would use our contacts as writer and illustrator to try and find a publisher,” she said. “Ordinarily, picture book manuscripts are written first and then the publishing company chooses an illustrator, so this was a gamble on everyone’s part.” 

“My feeling at the time was that this book could be a winner, but it was going to take time to find the right publisher,” McBrier said. “My guess was five years. It took six.”
McBrier and Lohstoeter were part of a 15-person “study tour” group from Heifer. They visited remote villages that had benefited from Heifer’s help.

“Because we represented the organization that had given these individuals goats or cows, we were received as honored guests,” McBrier said. “In every village we were feasted, entertained, and thanked in speech after speech. It was quite overwhelming to realize the profound difference these animals made to people’s lives.”  

McBrier and Lohstoeter didn’t meet Beatrice, then 12 years old, until the end of the trip. They picked her up in Kampala, Uganda, from the school she had been attending—a school she could afford only because the goat from Heifer had given her family an income. They drove Beatrice back to her village and spent several days with her.

“I tried to capture her manner of speaking and her natural curiosity. From talking to her, I knew her yearning for school was genuine,” McBrier said. “The most difficult part of writing the story was whittling down all the information.” McBrier said that once she focused on the story, not the facts, the manuscript gelled.

“I never doubted that it would be well-received, but its popularity has been much greater than I ever imagined,” she said. “As a writer, it was an opportunity for me to move in a new direction and into a new genre, picture books. As a global citizen, it was a chance to educate the next generation. To see a story that you care about, that truly comes from the heart, do so well is enormously gratifying.” 

Beatrice’s Goat spent six weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List for children’s picture books. It has received numerous awards, including a 2001 Christopher Award, which McBrier said has meant the most to her.

McBrier said the book’s success was “a team effort.” She and Lohstoeter worked closely with the book’s publisher, Atheneum, which promoted the book with Heifer.

Beatrice, however, really made the difference, McBrier said. When the book was released, Heifer brought Beatrice to the United States for a six-week, 14-state tour.

“Beatrice turned out to be a natural in front of an audience,” McBrier said. “When she got in front of a crowd, she was so compelling, and she was able to convey in a very real way how this goat had changed her life. In my opinion, she was the catalyst for the book’s success.”

Beatrice appeared on numerous TV programs, including “Oprah” (which also named the book as one of the top 25 children’s books of 2001).  

McBrier hadn’t heard of Heifer until Lohstoeter approached her for the trip in December 1994.
“After having traveled with them to Africa and been closely associated for the last 8 years, I think they’re a wonderful organization,” McBrier said of Heifer. “Not only do they provide animals, they also provide training in how to care for the animals in an environmentally appropriate manner.”

Heifer also operates the Read to Feed program, which allows children to raise money for Heifer through sponsored reading.

“I believe that now more than ever it is critical that our children become culturally competent and globally aware,” McBrier said. “Through the Read to Feed Program, the Heifer Project is reaching the next generation of global citizens, and I hope our book helps children understand in a simple way that we’re all connected.”

Or as one Chaga villager said to McBrier after they spent the day together on Kilimanjaro’s slopes, “Now we will be friends forever because we have stamped the same grass.” 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

Buy Beatrice’s Goat now from Amazon.com.