‘Long Walk to Water’ a well of inspiration for Young Readers

Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

Running water can be taken for granted in privileged societies, but not in a land where bullets fall more than rain.

The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Young Readers program’s selection this week is Newbery Award-winning author Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water. The book is based on the life narrative of Salva Dut, who went from being a child refugee in Sudan to becoming a living inspiration.

The novel, published in 2010, will be discussed at 4:15 p.m. today in the Alumni Hall Ballroom. Conservationists Jane Conroe and Deb Naybor, from the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, will educate the young readers on water, and show them how some women and children carry water in African nations.

“When adults hear news about other parts of the world, that’s just what it is,” Park said. “It stays on the screen; it stays at arm’s length or a longer distance.”

Dut was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. They were orphaned children who began wandering their way into refugee camps in 1983 after civil war broke out in the East African nation, leaving 2.5 million dead and many more millions displaced. The mass exodus spanned 12 years.

In 2004, Park met Dut through her husband, an Associated Press journalist who covered the region.

“I was telling everyone I knew about him, because I found his story so remarkable,” Park said. “And if you’re a writer, writing is just another way of telling people things.”

It was Dut’s unrelenting spirit to do better for his people that sparked Park. She could not fathom how a person with such a traumatic childhood could find the will to triumph over adversity and to transform the very land that tormented him.

“I just felt Salva’s story is the kind that can truly inspire children, to make them bear witness to the fact that one person can make a difference,” Park said.

Despite the civil unrest, Dut was able to reconnect with his family. Now he is founder and president of Water for South Sudan Inc., which builds wells for poor communities throughout the newly established country.

“I wanted to figure out a way to give equal weight to the fact that Salva had a horrible childhood and the fact that he came out of it and is doing wonderful work now,” Park said.

“I think the target audience for the book has tremendous energy, and they’re not yet cynical or jaded about the world,” she said. “They have a lot of hope that things can get better, which is sometimes hard to come by if you’re an adult. … But young people still have the capacity to be truly horrified, to be truly inspired. That naïveté is actually an advantage.”

A Long Walk to Water follows Dut’s journey through in a war-torn land in 1985 as Nya, a young Sudanese girl, deals with the war’s aftermath in 2008.

“That is why the well coming into the village at the time that it does is so life-changing for her,” Park said about Nya’s role in the story. “It might not be so life-changing for her mother or grandmother. But for her, it’s going to mean the opportunity for an education.”

Nya is based on many women Park’s husband met while traveling through the Sudan. And Park felt Nya would help weave the narrative thread between Dut’s escape from war to what he does now.

But splicing two perspectives in one story can be confusing.

“The editor understood that difficulty,” Park said. “And she was the one that had the idea of not only printing in two different fonts, but printing in two different colors, which is very unusual for a novel.”

Much more expensive and rarely done, the pages were run through the printer twice. The price was worthwhile considering Dut’s incredible tale.

There was even another challenge for Park, because she wanted to present the story without forcing emotions unto the young readers. To combat this issue, Park uses a very concise and journalistic style.

“ ‘Three shots rang out. The men ran away,’ and I leave it to the reader to fill in the emotions,” she said.

“It really is up to each reader to decide what the message of Salva’s story is for them, personally. That’s the answer that teachers don’t like too much. But I think it’s a true answer,” Parks said. “If it’s a really good book, you can read it at different stages of your life and the message for you will change as you grow.”

Park thinks enabling young readers to say what is important to them about the story should be encouraged more, rather than being told how they should feel.

“The thing I like most about A Long Walk to Water is that I had actual access to the person who had lived through the story,” Park said. “I could interview Salva as long as I wanted, and as much as I wanted, and way more than he wanted.”

Park has a new book coming out in December, as well as a new picture book about pandas coming out in the next year.

For now, young readers and adults alike can better grasp current global conflicts, with a moving story about a boy and a girl looking for more than just water, but what it represents as life and nourishment.

“There’s always somewhere in the world, where something like Salva’s story is happening,” Park said.