“The book I wrote is the book I wish I’d read when I was an ESL student.”
iSchool Alumna (MLIS, 2009)
Paula Pereira immigrated to the United States from Brazil when she was 19, and quickly learned that her English language skills were not enough to make her comfortable communicating in her new country. So she took English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and started working as a clerk at the Cerritos [California] College library. Pereira loved her job and wanted to be a full-fledged librarian, so after several years working at the library, she enrolled in the iSchool’s MLIS program and got her degree.
And then, to share her positive experience with other ESL and immigrant students, she wrote, illustrated and self-published a book: How I Learned English: The Story of a Brave Mexican Girl. The book is a teaching tool and a fictional telling of a shared experience, available with love from Pereira.
“I always wanted to help people.”
After obtaining her MLIS degree, Pereira was offered a full-time role at the circulation desk at El Centro [Texas] College, and relocated from Southern California to fulfill her dream. Working with ESL students, many of whom shared her immigrant experience and were learning English but on the verge of giving up, Pereira was inspired to be their counselor, friend and teacher.
“I noticed that when I was doing a library orientation, students needed the extra push to learn English and be more motivated,” Pereira explains. “The materials we had were either too advanced, or too boring, or not relevant to what they were going through.” Pereira remembered that she liked to talk about her own journey to the United States, the shared experience of a family coming from another country, learning English, leaving loved ones back at home. So to help her ESL students connect with their textbooks and motivate them to want to learn English, she decided to write something for them.
“This is my story. It is the story of many of us immigrants.”
“The book I wrote is the book I wish I’d read when I was an ESL student,” Pereira says proudly. How I Learned English: The Story of a Brave Mexican Girl follows the journey of Claudia Sanchez, who grows up on her family’s farm in Mexico and is sent to Dallas, Texas, when she turns 20, to “live the American dream.” Eventually Claudia gets a job at a library and begins to really learn English, and her confidence grows as her language comprehension increases. Drawing inspiration from Pereira’s own story, as well as that of the Latino students she befriended in Texas, “the book shows study skills Claudia had to develop to be able to master the language, and that’s what I wanted to tell,” Pereira says. “It does take time, and effort, and perseverance to master a language.”
The text and illustrations (see samples below) are original work by Pereira, who taught herself to paint with the help of her artist sister, Bruna Massadas. Pereira studied Mexican art as well as children’s books to inspire the patterns and colors in her own book. It’s structured like a traditional language textbook, with a little bit of text, illustrations reflecting the text, and captions to reinforce the language and make the learning as easy as possible. The book took Pereira more than three years to complete, and when she was done she shopped the book out to publishers. But she found that she wanted to maintain complete control over her labor of love.
“Before I published the book I read the story to over a thousand students,” she says, “and they’re the ones who motivated me. Every time I read it I had people crying, saying this is my story.” Publishers wanted her to change the content, or outsource the illustrations, which Pereira wasn’t comfortable with. So she self-published the book, making copies available on her website and through Amazon.
“Whenever you encounter something new it can be a challenge.”
The book’s intended audiences are ESL adults and young adults who already know some English. “I wanted something that would speak to them, that wouldn’t demean them,” says Pereira. “Many people ask me, What do you have to do to learn English? Because they go to classes, they’ve been living here 10 to 30 years, and they don’t feel like they’ve learned enough, and that’s because they haven’t embraced the language in all different aspects.”
So Pereira worked with other ESL instructors to add reading comprehension questions, making sure they were correctly designed and coordinated with the text. “The idea of the comprehension is for students to engage with English in class, by talking to each other and doing presentations,” she explains. As Pereira wrote the book inspired by her students, she added discussion questions like, “What is your life story?” to entice students to open up and communicate in English.
“When people come from other countries they are very proud of those countries, and they want to talk about their countries,” Pereira says. “I wanted them to be able to talk about immigration, family separation, the anxiety of having to learn another language.” In essence, all of the scenarios Pereira experienced, including anxiety answering the phone in English. “Claudia answers the phone at the library, and she’s very nervous to pick it up,” Pereira explains. “A lot of [ESL] students have that fear.”
Several libraries are purchasing copies of the book for their ESL learners, and librarians who hold book discussions are interested in using it as an icebreaker for those learning the language. And Pereira has been invited to be a motivational speaker for different ESL programs. “I have instructors who decided to make the book part of their curricula,” Pereira says, “And if I can, I go to their classrooms and talk to the students myself.”
“I found my dream job!”
Drawing on her iSchool background and work experience, Pereira developed a course, Introduction to the College Library, to help make students comfortable with the library and even inspire them toward librarianship. She’s also the advisor of the Library Club, holds book sales, takes students on educational field trips, and hosts a poetry night every semester.
“I’m helping the ESL students,” she says happily. “I have people coming to me and saying, ‘I really like what you do and I’d like to do the same.’ And this is exactly what I wanted to do.”