By Maureen Smith
An unlikely children’s author took on an international peace project with help from an art community in north Mississippi. Major Shawn T. Robinson, USMC, is serving as a military advisor in Afghanistan. In addition to being a soldier, he is a Catholic and a father. He is studying for his confirmation and his reflection on his life as a Christian, his work in Afghanistan and his family life led him to write a book for children called “Shoulder to Shoulder.”
“Shoulder to Shoulder is basically an expression of the love we are supposed to have for our fellow man. The other thing that we are called to be as Catholics is brave. How many times does Jesus tell us not to be afraid?” wrote Robinson in an email from Afghanistan. The book follows the lives of two families, one Afghan, one American.
“I had the idea that I would write a book to my daughter explaining to her why Dad had to go to Afghanistan and it occurred to me that there was a father in Afghanistan that was having the same personal experience that I was,” explained Robinson in a story for the American Forces Network (AFN). The book follows the fathers and their sons as they tell the stories of meeting one another, becoming friends and seeking peace while deployed far from their homes.
For illustrations, Robinson turned to his mother, Diane Dryja, a member of Hernando Holy Spirit Parish. Dryja is involved in an artists’ group.
“I felt very honored when Shawn first approached me with the project. Then I felt overwhelmed because I knew there was no way I could do it on my own in a timely fashion. That is when I decided that I would approach my art teacher, Bernadette Grantham, and my art class for help with the project. They were absolutely wonderful,” said Dryja.
The book is trilingual, with text in English, Dari and Pashto. Dryja said her group wanted to make sure the pictures would also appeal to all audiences. “We knew it would be important to research and learn about uniforms, clothing, family life and customs. We also wanted the pictures to be able to tell the story,” she explained.
The group wanted to be sure the pictures were consistent despite the many hands working on them and keep the story moving.
“So we did our research and went page by page planning what might work. We then divided the pictures up depending on who was interested and able to commit the time painting each particular scene. Many of the pictures had a main artist and another artist did the background. Shawn actually came up with the idea of having the night sky unify the book – the idea being that we all live on the same planet under the same vast sky,” said Dryja.
One of Robinson’s good friends, also an American soldier, died in Afghanistan in 2008. He admitted the loss left him with some bitter feelings about the country, but that all changed during his current deployment. Robinson said the people of Afghanistan “changed my heart.” He wants others to be open to changing their attitudes about people different from themselves.
“I think a lot of people in the United States are afraid to talk about, or associate with Muslims, especially if they are from Afghanistan.
I don’t want my daughter to fear other cultures. I want her to learn about other beliefs and make educated, informed decisions. I hope that Shoulder to Shoulder brings a human face to Afghanistan,” he said.
“There are a lot of lies being told about Americans and Christians in general by the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. I hope that Afghan children and parents pick up this book and feel the love. If we are doing our job as a church then we should be a beacon of light that people are drawn to. I want this book to be a part of that light. I want this book to directly combat the Taliban’s message because it is just as important to me that Afghan children want to learn about our culture and our beliefs,” continued Robinson.
Robinson hopes to spread a message of inclusion both in Afghanistan and back at home. “We are not going to change the world by just talking to other Christians. Maybe you have a Muslim coworker that you rarely talk to, or maybe there is an Afghan-American child in your neighborhood that doesn’t have any friends because they are Muslim. That is just not right. Open up, talk to that person and eventually without you doing anything they will see the light inside you,” he urged in his email.
“Shoulder to Shoulder” has a Facebook page; an internet search for Maj. Shawn Robinson will bring up the story done by AFN about the book itself.
(Editor’s note: the day of publication, Major Robinson returned safely from his deployment.)