A novel idea

Sometimes kids say the darndest things.

But it takes a parent like Masha Hamilton to know how to turn those things into acclaimed novels.

Hamilton, author of "The Camel Bookmobile," the current Rochester Reads selection, said she first heard of the real camel bookmobile from her daughter, who mentioned it one day in the car on the way to the library.

While driving, Hamilton started building a story around the bookmobile and narrating it for her kids. "They said, 'What happens next?'" Hamilton said. "And I said, 'Don't you have to go in and get a library book?'"

For the next three years, Hamilton continued to develop the story of Scar Boy, Mr. Abasi and the train of camels who bring books to isolated schools in the African bush. She turned to her years of experience as an American journalist living abroad to build the story.


"I wanted to explore what it's like to be an American overseas, and how we often come with generosity of spirit but not enough knowledge," Hamilton told a Rochester Reads gathering Monday at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester.

She returned to that theme later in her talk, "What is it like to be an American in a foreign country?" Hamilton said. "What if we're bringing not bombs, but books? What a different reception we might get."

In fact, Hamilton continues to explore that topic. She has organized an effort by 250 American writers to donate five books each to the camel bookmobile in Kenya. American libraries, bookstores and organizations have joined the effort. "Now, they've been able to start another camel bookmobile," she said.

It was only when her book was in its final draft that Hamilton journeyed to Kenya to see the camel bookmobile for herself. She took along her daughter, who was 17 at the time.

"The kids had never seen anybody like us," she said. "They'd touch us and run around laughing. But then the books would come out." And at that point, the strange Americans weren't nearly as interesting as the books spread  on mats under the lone shade tree.

In response to questions from the audience, Hamilton said that:

€¢ "I love Scar Boy. I don't outline my books, which is so much more fun, because I'm following the story, too. Every time it was time for a Scar Boy chapter, I was excited to see what he was going to do. I loved watching as he revealed himself little by little."

€¢ "I can't write for publication. I have to write because it means something to me."


€¢ "I'm definitely not writing to answer a question. I'm writing to explore a question."

€¢ "I didn't know how the book was going to end in the first draft. I felt we didn't want to have a Hollywood ending that was unrealistic."

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