By Megan O’Connor, a physician assistant in a Boston hospital and now a long-distance mom
It’s 7:30 p.m. and I’m leaving work. The phone rings. Bedtime is a little later these days so that we can have dinner together.
“Mumumumumum!” It’s my one year old, who is now living two hours from me at my mother’s house, along with my wife, so I don’t infect them. Over FaceTime, I watch as he learns to eat with a spoon. He feeds me through the video and then slobbers a goodnight kiss on the screen.
It’s been an exhausting day and I’m longing for my pillow. Each day holds a different struggle. Today, I had Zoom meetings with family members who can’t see their loved ones and want updates from a face rather than a voice. Over the phone, I attempt to coach a young man on making crucial medical decisions as well as how to cope as a child who is losing his mother.
Before I curl under the blanket, the phone buzzes with a text from my partner: our sonogram’s fuzzy outline provides solace. I press on with renewed energy to take on one more day.
Photo: FaceTime dinner dates between mother and son.
We talked with Carlin Carr, Boston Book Festival’s new Director of Operations and Outreach, about her experience volunteering with the Mumbai International Literature Festival in India, what she looks forward to about working with BBF volunteers, and what’s been inspiring to her about her own volunteer experiences.
How did you first get involved with the Boston Book Festival?
When I moved back from India in 2018, one of the first things I did was to reach out to BBF. I had worked on the festival in Mumbai and loved it and wanted to be involved with something similar here. I ended up spending six months launching the Roxbury edition that year, which has now become an integral part of the festival weekend. It was an amazing experience working with the Roxbury community to get it started, and I’m so happy to see how it’s grown. I’m just thrilled to be back working in both Roxbury and Copley.
What are the similarities and differences between producing a book festival in Mumbai and one in Boston?
Well, the biggest similarity is the insane number of details that goes into planning a large-scale event. But planning for traffic in Mumbai is definitely on a different scale. We would have to alot 2.5 hours for authors to get to our other venue, which was only about 15 miles away!
Also, the Mumbai Lit Fest goes for four days, so there’s a lot of stamina involved. We would start early morning and end with festive dinners each night, but there was always such good energy from writers from all around the world, so it was easy to keep going.
At the Mumbai festival, you encountered a lot of international authors. Who’s an author who’s well-known elsewhere in the world and you wish was better known here?
If I had to choose one, I would say it would have to be an Indian author, since I am so grateful for all the literature that helped me better understand the country I was living in for so long. I was really happy that we gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to a Mumbai-based author, Kiran Nagarkar, who unfortunately passed away last year. He was well-known in India, but I don’t think many people would know his name here. He was the most delightful human who cared about people’s stories from all walks of life, and I loved that about his books, too, especially Ravan and Eddie, which was about two boys from a chawl, traditional housing for the poor in the city.
What do you miss most about living in India? What did you miss about the US when you were living there?
I miss tons about India! I love that so much of life happens on the streets. I miss magical sunsets on the Arabian Sea. And I miss the warmth of the people–from the street vendors to the person who would come collect the trash at home every day to people who took me in and made me feel like family. The city is so massive but it often feels like a village.
Now that I’m back home, I realize how much I missed really simple things, like trees and fresh air. I definitely like to just be outside in nature, which was much harder in Mumbai.
What do you most look forward to about working with BBF’s volunteer team?
I’m really looking forward to seeing all the festival love they bring to the visitors who come. In Mumbai, whenever we would ask our authors what made their experience so special, they would inevitably say the wonderful volunteers. I know it’s the same at BBF, and I’m looking forward to getting to know all our volunteers who make the festival come alive for our audience members.
What’s a memorable experience you’ve had while volunteering for an organization or project?
In 2008, when I first landed in Mumbai, I started volunteering at a shelter for street children (that’s me with one of my kids in the photo above!). It was just a public bathroom block on the beach where kids slept at night after it closed. I started teaching them under a plastic tarp to protect us from the blazing sun. I ended up spending the next 10 years with them–they are amazingly resilient and joyful despite how little they have materially, and taught me so much about life. The shelter has transformed a lot, and some of the kids have since left and gone on to forge their own lives in the city. I miss them like crazy, but I go back once or twice a year to see them.
What are you reading right now?
I just got two shipments of books, so I’m restocked! I followed some of Ella’s advice from our bibliotherapy session, so I’m reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I also ordered a couple books from Frugal Books, which were featured on its homepage: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found. After so many years of reading about cities and Asia, I find myself picking up books to catch me up on U.S. issues or to just escape into nature. Are you starting to get how much I missed trees!
With the crisis that has hit our world this year, we are more motivated than ever to ensure every child has access to well-stocked book shelves.
That’s why Boston Book Festival is once again calling on the Greater Boston community to help implement our annual Shelf Help book drive, which will reach two schools in need again this year.
Many area schools lack the resources to fully stock their school libraries with contemporary, high-quality books. Our Shelp Help partnership aims to expand the library book collections at two local schools, and then work with Wondermore, a local organization dedicated to inspiring young readers, to coordinate a children’s or YA author or illustrator school visit to share the wonders of book creation with young readers! And if in-person visits are not possible this fall, we have lots of other ideas for connecting students with an author or illustrator.
Highlights from last year’s winners
Our 2019 Shelf Help winners, Orchard Gardens Pilot School in Roxbury for grades K–8 and TechBoston Academy in Dorchester for grades 6–12, were treated to fantastic visits by celebrated BBF authors Charlotte Nicole Davis and Brendan Wenzel. We teamed up with Wondermore to create lively school visits to excite kids about reading.
We are grateful to KPMG as well as to the many publishers and individual donors who helped us to fill the library shelves at Orchard Gardens and TechBoston!
Applications are open for 2020!
In 2020, Shelf Help will partner again with two school libraries! We will choose one K–8 school library and one 9–12 school library, providing a donation of new books near the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. We will be collecting donations at the twelfth annual Boston Book Festival on October 24-25.
If you know a library professional at a school that needs some Shelf Help, please forward them this Request for Proposals, which has links to a short online or downloadable application. All proposals are due by May 31, 2020.
Everyone can help put books on school shelves
You can also lend direct Shelf Help to the Boston community! If you would like to help us curate contemporary collections for selected schools, please bring book donations to our information booth at the Boston Book Festival on October 24 (in Copley) or October 25 (in Roxbury), or you can donate through our online book wish list. Email us at email@example.com to receive a link to the “Shelf Help” donation site once it’s live later this summer.
If you would prefer to make a cash donation, please visit our donate page. Upon checking out, select “Make this a gift” and designate “Shelf Help” as the gift recipient in the appropriate box.
Inspiring young readers for life
With Shelf Help, we aim to support students’ discovery and expression of their voices through access to an increased selection of books within their school environment. Words have power to motivate and provoke all readers to discover themselves and their place in the world, and we hope that Shelf Help will encourage students to view themselves as literary explorers!