Are you looking for a unique book for your child? If so, ‘Island of the Invisible Being’ should be your choice. Its author is Madelain Westermann, a teacher from Oregon who fell in love with the island cultures after working in the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend reading the interview with this talented and utterly lovely lady!
Pasifika Tales: What inspired you to write a book for children?
Madelain Westermann: I have been teaching in one form or another since 1976. The only reason I continue to teach at my age is the children. They are amazing, miraculous, and inspiring. When I come across former students and see what they have done with their lives, I know that I can teach one more year! Our 8th Grade teacher at my current school was one of my former students. She has a beautiful family, and will probably be my boss next year! That’s plenty of reason enough for me to keep suiting up and showing up! So, I chose a children’s book format as they are the future and the book contains a message of ‘being an over-comer’. This is a message that children at this time in history need to internalize the most!
PT: And what inspired you to write this particular story?
MW: I was inspired by a third grade student who was in my class on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. He lived on Ebeye and took the boat over daily to attend school. He wrote this as an assignment for class. He told me that his grandmother had told it to him. He graduated from elementary school and was attending middle school when I was told that he had taken his life. I was so upset but powerless to do anything as I had not been in contact with him for several years. When I left the Marshall Islands, I found his story in with my teaching materials. I had no idea how it got there, but decided to rewrite his story because I wanted some part of him to be passed on. After the book was published, Benjua contacted me and asked for a copy of the book! Turns out that his life’s adventure did not end as I was told! He is now a professional salvage diver!
PT: Children’s books with a protagonist who is not white are not necessarily popular. I would say it was a risky endeavour on your part. Do you agree?
MW: This was a story set in a culture that has such a rich and vibrant history that is basically unknown to most of the world. As global warming increases, this entire culture is at risk of being lost or assimilated. I truly believe that the loss of one culture is a grievous offence to all of humanity. The Marshallese culture has a rich history that needs to be shared both in story and in our curriculum in schools. There were no other picture books for children of this culture that I could find. So, Emon needed to be fully Marshallese to bring this culture into children’s minds, hearts, and imagination. The money was never a consideration in publishing this book. The memory was.
PT: Did you create this book for Pacific Island children or did you want to introduce the Marshall Islands culture to wider audiences?
MW: Both really. I have shipped books to students who are teaching on Ebeye and had book presentations here in America. I use it as part of a UBD Unit (Understanding by Design) that I use in my 4th Grade classroom to this day. My kids LOVE learning about the Marshall Islands! I was contacted by an individual who is trying to translate the text into Marshallese. I have tried to do this in the past, but haven’t succeeded yet in creating a bilingual copy. So the book was intended for anyone who would listen and wanted to learn a little bit about a courageous culture of people way out in the Pacific!
PT: Speaking of the Marshall Islands. How much time did you spend there?
MW: In total, I spent 15 years in the Marshall Islands, but at two different times.
PT: What did you – as a person and possibly as a teacher – learn during your stay?
MW: What did I learn?? Honey, it would never fit on these pages!! I wrote an entire unit about the Marshallese Culture that was embedded in the school curriculum there. I am not sure if ‘The Marshallese Culture Experience’ is still a part of the Elementary School program on Kwajalein. But I have to say, now that I am looking back, that the resourcefulness, creativity, and imagination of the Marshallese people is like no other! Put that with their cultural norm of generosity of spirit that could inspire the world, most specifically in today’s mind-set!
PT: I’m sure you know some fascinating Marshallese legends. Have you considered writing more books based on the Marshallese culture?
MW: Oh yes! At one time, I had mapped out a series, but writing and presenting take so much time away from my true passion which is teaching, that I had to put a hold on it until I retire. To teach effectively, I need to be ‘truly present’ with my students for them to really learn during the one short year that they are with me in 4th Grade. I keep trying to retire, but my principal is REALLY GOOD at convincing me that I really need to teach ‘just one more year’. So far, I haven’t found a good enough reason not to! And I do truly love my profession!
PT: Are there any children’s books featuring Pacific Islander characters you would recommend?
MW: Actually, in the picture book format and from the Marshallese culture, I couldn’t find any. There are many based on Hawaiian culture, but I haven’t yet found one that I love for children. I do like ‘Call It Courage’ by Sperry, but it is really old. I haven’t research it lately, though.