The Soda Bottle School
by Laura Kutner and Suzanne Slade; illus. by Aileen Darragh
32 pages; ages 6-12
Tilbury House publishers, 2014
This is the true story of how one crazy idea led to recycling, teamwork, and a new school. It is about Fernando and his friends who go to school in a small town in Guatemala. The students squish into the classrooms, with two kids at each desk and two classes in each room. Some days it is too noisy to think.
Then one day the crazy idea hit: could they build a bigger school using old plastic soda bottles? Before long everyone was involved collecting bottles and stuffing them with old chip bags and plastic trash to make them stronger. These were "eco-ladrillos" or eco-bricks. then they stacked the bottles between chicken wire, and later they covered that with cement. And finally, they painted the walls orange.
But the story doesn't end there. Kutner is donating her portion of profits from the book to Trash for Peace, and Slade is donating hers to Hug it Forward. Both organizations are funding bottle schools.
I asked Suzanne to tell me more about how she came to write The Soda Bottle School. She graciously answered Three Questions:
Sally: What inspired you to write this book?
Suzanne: In the summer of 2011, I was checking out the annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall (Washington DC) when I saw a colorful plastic wall sparkling in the afternoon sun. As I approached it, I noticed children stuffing plastic bags and trash into soda bottles with sticks. They placed the trash-filled bottles inside a frame made of wood and chicken wire. Nearby, a poster held photos of children constructing tall plastic walls—an entire building—out of trash! Their elementary school, the Escuela Oficial Urbana Mixta de Granado, had become over-crowded. Two grades shared one classroom. Two students sat at one desk. The situation looked hopeless, until the villagers got this crazy idea. Could they build new schoolrooms out of their trash?
I knew I had to write about this because, first, I was amazed by the remarkable creativity that resulted in a school built out of old soda bottles and trash. Seriously, I would never have thought of that! And second, I was blown away by the tremendous teamwork of the 200 students, along with their teachers, parents, and grandparents, who collected, cleaned, stuffed, and stacked over 6000 soda bottles. As I studied the photos, it was incredible to see the children smiling throughout the entire construction process which lasted fifteen grueling months,
Sally: Tell me about the process you use to research and write, and how you worked together with your co-author, Laura.
Suzanne: For all my stories, I do a great deal of research up front. It's crucial to know the details about the facts I plan to use – as well as background information - before I begin writing. Although my writing budget couldn't support a trip to Guatemala, I was fortunate to have many great research sources. An ABC news report on Earth Day provided video footage of the project so I could hear the sounds and see the sights of Guatemala. Laura's Granados photo collection was very helpful--especially when it came to understanding what happened during the various construction phases.
At the beginning of the book project I met with Laura, and then followed up with numerous phone conversations. I have pages and pages of notes from those discussions. Around revision 138 we decided to tell the story through the eyes of a fourth grade student at the school named Fernando. Since Laura had taught at this school and knew the students (and Spanish!) well, she acted as the go-between and talked with Fernando and his mother.
In the end, I'm very pleased to have had the opportunity share the inspiring story of how students in Granados built their school out of trash (and cleaned up their town.) And I'm even more pleased to be able donate my profits from the book to fund new bottle schools!
Sally: You have an engineering degree - and I notice that 3/4 of your recent books have to do with architecture: The House that George Built; Soda Bottle School; and With Books and Bricks. Does your training help you see the world differently?
Suzanne: I don't know if my engineering background helps me see things from a different perspective, but the research skills I developed during college help me stay organized and keep digging while doing research for a new book. I also suspect my lifelong interest in science draws me to certain topics, such as cool building projects. I was fascinated to learn that, when George Washington decided to build a house for the president, his colossal project required so many people, skilled and unskilled, to complete. I was inspired to write With Books and Bricks after I read Booker T. Washington's amazing autobiography, Up From Slavery, and learned that he made thousands of bricks by hand. He dug the clay, molded the bricks, and fired them in a kiln!
Sally: Anything in the works?
Suzanne: I just finished reviewing the final proofs for a new picture book, The Inventor's Secret, which releases from Charlesbridge in 2015. It shares the fascinating (and true) story of how Henry Ford discovered the secret of one of the greatest inventors of all time - Thomas Edison.
Today we're joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher.