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Book group builds bridges to Princeton community and beyond

By Cynthia Yoder

Princeton NJ -- While undergraduate students nearby were studying the implications of cloning, the middle-school students gathered at the Carl Icahn Laboratory on a recent Friday afternoon were getting a fresh take on the subject.

book group

Participants in the Cotsen Crossroads Café recently met for their final session of the year in the Frist Campus Center's Café Vivian. Continuing their discussion from a previous meeting on "The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer, the students snacked on trail mix and hot chocolate foods they might eat on a journey such as one taken by the main character in the book. Pictured are, from left: Alejandro Van Zandt and Nick Cavallo, seventh-graders from John Witherspoon Middle School; Princeton students Katrina Rogachevsky and Meridel Bulle; Melissa Kolano, a sixth-grader who is home schooled; and Nathalie Levine, a sixth-grader at John Witherspoon Middle School. A total of 10 students from five area middle schools are involved in the program.


Holding a photograph of a chimeric adult whose cell makeup is 50 percent human and 50 percent pig, sixth-grader Sarita Rosenstock asked the most fundamental question: "Why would someone do something like that?"

Rosenstock and nine fellow middle-schoolers were gathered for the bimonthly meeting of the Cotsen Crossroads Café, a pilot book group that brings them together with University students, as well as faculty and staff, to discuss contemporary "coming-of-age" novels set in locations around the world. The program is sponsored by the Cotsen Children's Library, a collection of 70,000 illustrated children's books and related items in the University Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

After a tour of the laboratory, the students settled into the scooped triangular black seats in the "oval lounge." The topic was "The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer, a story about the young clone of El Patron, the 142-year-old leader of a corrupt drug empire located between Mexico and the United States. Students empathized with the young clone as a human being, while discussing the question, "What makes us human?"

"The students benefit from being brought outside their immediate culture and a great way to do that is through literature," noted Cory Alperstein, a 1978 Princeton alumna who runs the program with Bonnie Bernstein, Cotsen Library's education and outreach coordinator.

The books in Cotsen are published in more than 30 languages, and this international focus is what distinguishes the library from other collections of children's literature. The library offers several programs that bring the literary traditions of other nations to life for young people in the community. According to Alperstein and Bernstein, the idea for the Crossroads Café developed out of a desire to expand programming to include older children who are ready for a more in-depth look at literature of other cultures.

With the intention of broadening students' understanding of the diverse communities they read about, the organizers selected novels set in hot spots of diverse cultures during the 20th and 21st centuries or, as is the case with today's discussion, set in an imaginary future.

Leading the discussion is Meridel Bulle, a member of the class of 2005, who brought in the photograph of the chimeric pig/human. She has been taking a course on human genetics with molecular biology professor Lee Silver and is part of a task force on immigration both key issues explored in the novel.

Six undergraduates take turns organizing the café sessions, sending historical and cultural annotations to the younger readers via e-mail and sometimes inviting guests from the academic community to participate in the discussion. A total of 10 students from five area middle schools are involved. The Princeton students also lead the meetings when the group gathers every other Friday at various casual meeting spaces on campus.

To further enrich the discussion, the location of the meeting as well as the snack coincide with the book's theme. So as Alperstein handed students in the oval lounge bottles of Snapple-A-Day, a meal-replacement beverage, she predicted, "In the future, meals will be in liquid form."

Other books have taken students on a journey from Mozambique to Zimbabwe in "A Girl Named Disaster," also by Nancy Farmer, to life under the Taliban in "Parvana's Journey" by Deborah Ellis, or to Korea during the Japanese occupation in "When My Name Was Keoko" by Linda Sue Park. Guests have included students and alumni from the countries being discussed as well as members of the academic community who are studying the particular topics.

Seventh-grader Nick Cavallo said he enjoys the interactions with the University students who lead the discussions. "People in this group accept each other's ideas more," he said. "It's more like a small group of friends than a class discussion."

Alperstein is pleased with how enthusiastically the students participate and sees the group as a pilot program for other libraries. "If we can meet at the crossroads of other cultures through the novels we read, and consider other ways of thinking," she said, "then instead of building walls of prejudice between people, we will be building bridges to bring people together."