Kindness at the Border
Stephen Briseño

Before, the sun drenched the yard. Our neighbor’s laughter danced in the streets. Now, the streets are quiet. Papa is gone, and we are no longer safe here. We are leaving, too.
Based on actual events at the Tijuana/San Ysidro border, author Stephen Briseño’s moving story—The Notebook Keeper—follows Mama and her young daughter, Noemi, as they seek asylum in the United States. Illustrator Magdalena Mora uses heartfull illustrations to depict this emotional journey, fleeing from a home in Mexico to the U.S. border.

Once at the checkpoint into the United States, Mama and Noemi are denied entry. They must find the refugee in charge of “the notebook,” an unofficial ledger of those waiting to cross into the States, and add their name and number to the book.

Notebook Keeper cover art

The “Notebook Keeper’s” kindness instills a sense of hope and comfort as the two wait in a tent city for their number to be called.

After the days of waiting turn into weeks, the little girl’s hope fades until she draws upon the kindness of others and the compassion within herself to rebuild that hope. On the day when the Notebook Keeper’s number is called to cross, Mama and Noemi are chosen to take her place because of their own capacity for kindness.

Stephen’s lightbulb moment for writing this heartwarming story came in 2019 while driving home from the funeral. Buried in grief from the passing of his close relative, he began flipping through his podcast app and picked one at random, hoping to distract himself from his thoughts.

The podcast turned out to be “The American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass. The episode broadcast an interview with a migrant who was volunteering as a “notebook keeper” at the San Ysidro/Tijuana border and helping to keep track of refugees attempting to cross or seek asylum in the United States. Stephen was so moved by what he had heard that he thought it would make an inspiring story for children. In fact, Stephen includes an Author Note in his book explaining the actual circumstances of the notebook keepers and how the system had stopped once the border was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Art work

Now, a little over two years later, Stephen’s idea is realized in this informative, fictional picture book about loss, grief, compassion and hope.

The Notebook Keeper is Stephen’s debut picture book, which is also released in Spanish. As a surprise to his mother, he named the Notebook Keeper in the story after his mother Belinda. She had no idea that he had done that until the book was published.His reward for honoring his mother this way was her tears of joy while reading the story. While crafting other picture books, Stephen works as a middle school English teacher. From early on, he wanted to be a children’s book author but struggled to, as he puts it, “find my way and find my story.” He’s certainly “found his way” with this inspiring story of heart and hope.

Children's Book illustrator

Illustrator Magdalena Mora, who has a number of published picture books, is based in Minnesota. To capture the atmosphere and essence of Stephen’s story, Magdalena visited the San Ysidro/Tijuana border to find inspiration. Her experience had taught her that although “border checkpoints are different,” there are similarities in the feel of them—“the sense of waiting and urgency.” She spent much time sketching and photographing the area. Using gouache, colored pencils and vibrant pastel paints, she sought to capture the border’s “bustling energy and statelessness” as well as put a real human face on the struggle so many refugees face today.

During the publication process, each time Magdalena had sent Stephen a finished sketch, he found that she had “surpassed” anything he had already envisioned. Through their brilliant collaboration, these two talented storytellers paint a more nuanced, human picture of the struggles of migrants, one that will connect with everyone.

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Waiting to cross a barrier, even a creative one, is not easy. While in the middle of our struggling, we would all welcome kindness—both in the giving and receiving of it. May today mark the start of more kindness, more hope, and more humanity in our lives.

Notebook Keeper art

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Marsha Elyn Wright

Bursts of belly-laughs. Raised eye-brows. Teary trickles. Heart tugs. Grumbly mutters and more. Good storytelling sparks emotions and memories in us. It connects cultures and generations. The best words create melodies on a page we can sing reading aloud. These story songs expand, challenge, affirm, and delight us. My hope is that my storytelling creates this magic for you.


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