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Children's Book Author to Speak About Her World War II Childhood

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May 16, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- When the author of “Barefoot in Fire: A World War II Childhood” lectures on writing at Northwestern May 24, she won't discuss the bulk of her work written over five decades -- works chocked with phrases like “surfactant flooding” and “electrochemical water-splitting” and titles such as “Anaerobic Nitrogen Fixers on Mars.”

Instead, it is the challenges and joys of growing up a biracial child in war-torn Manila and in the midst of poverty, foreign occupation and the omnipresent threat of violence that will be the topic of Barbara-Ann Lewis' lecture. Lewis, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, also will explain how, after and over many years, she came to write a book for readers aged nine and up.    

Free and open to the public, Lewis's lecture will take place at 4 p.m. in the Pick-Laudati Auditorium of the University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. It is sponsored by Northwestern's Center for the Writing Arts. 

Like the first works of many authors writing for children, Lewis' childhood story was intended only for the eyes of her own California-raised grandchildren and for her daughters and son when she began it more than ten years ago. Like most young Americans, they knew little about the Philippines and thought of World War II as ancient history.

Upon reading her mother's first draft of recollections titled “Pocket Stones,” Lewis's daughter, a high school teacher, urged her mother to publish it. Though more a collection of vignettes than a children's book, Lewis sent it to an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The manuscript promptly was returned with comments, including the suggestion that Lewis “put more of herself” into the story.

In the next seven years, Lewis found time to rework the account of her pre-teen life. Recollecting not just the events but also the feelings she had as a child while they were occurring. And, again, she sent her work to Houghton Mifflin. The same editor wrote back positively about Lewis' changes and compelling story but said her company “could not risk” publishing the book. This year, Tahanan Books for Children bought the Philippine book rights under the title, “Barefoot in Fire,” and Lewis, for the first time in 25 years, returned to Manila for the book launching.

“Barefoot in Fire” is available by e-mail from reni@tahananbooks.com. The U.S. edition, “Pocket Stones,” is available at bookstores and from Amazon.com. Both editions are whimsically illustrated and bring to life the story of the spirited girl called Pooh and her struggles with right and wrong, joy and sadness, obedience and rebellion.    

For further information about Lewis's May 24 lecture, call Northwestern's Center for Writing Arts at (847) 467-4099 or e-mail words@northwestern.edu.