An Interview with U.S. Consul General of Bermuda, Karen Grissette

BEN recently caught up with Karen Grissette, United States Consul General to Bermuda, BEN supporter and avid reader. Read on to learn more about her 20-year plus global career, her childhood memories of reading, and her thoughts on the transformational power of reading in the lives of Bermudians. 

Tell us a bit about where you’ve been? 

I am currently the U.S. Consul General to Bermuda, assigned to serve a full three-year term.  I have been a U.S. diplomat for 21 years and have been fortunate to work throughout the world during my career, including Hawaii and a few assignments in Washington D.C., and outside the U.S. in Bosnia, Jamaica, Tanzania, two assignments in Greece, and now in beautiful Bermuda.

Why do you read?  

I always saw my mom reading and she consistently encouraged my sister and me to read. I learn so much from reading, and I truly enjoy it.  I find that I read much more now that I can easily check out books online and read virtually

In your opinion, how is Bermuda doing in terms of technology in reading?

I recently became a member of the Bermuda National Library, which also uses online reading resources as well as print materials.  BNL has a wonderful collection and during my recent visit I particularly enjoyed perusing the room dedicated to materials about Bermuda and by Bermudian authors. I encourage people I know to join the library and see how easy it is to check out books in person and online.  I look forward to visiting Bermuda’s Children’s Library next.    

What was your favourite memory as a child?   

One special childhood memory I have around reading was the joy and excitement I felt when our piles of new books arrived on “Book Order Day” at school. I also fondly recall my parents reading bedtime stories to me and my sister, and how much we enjoyed all the different voices my dad would use when he read. I realize now how brilliant my mom was because she told us we could stay up “30 minutes past bedtime” each night if we spent that time reading. We thought we were really getting away with something by reading nightly. In fact, I think she just set our bedtime 30 minutes earlier and helped instill in us a love of reading. In any case, it worked. 

How do you view the urgency and transformational power of reading in the lives of young Bermudians?

This rich island is obviously influenced by many other cultures and countries, and reading is critical for young Bermudians to increase their exposure to — and knowledge of — the world.  Reading transports you to new locations, exposes you to new ideas and philosophies, and can help you reflect on aspects and situations in your own life as you temporarily inhabit the varied worlds of others.   

At the same time, understanding one’s history is equally as important in moving forward. I have been delighted to find books about Bermuda and its history. I enjoyed participating in The Berkeley Institute’s “Girlcott” reading initiative during February. That book also led me to read Dr. Eva Hodgson’s “Storm in a Teapot,” which provided a deeper understanding of the desegregation period in Bermuda’s history. I also checked out “The History of Mary Prince” when I got my new library card, and I know I will be transported in time and have a deeper understanding of a dark period in world history by reading a first-person account of her horrific experience as an enslaved person.   

For schools, what do you think is the secret to developing reading as a lifelong habit?  

Schools are the foundation of reading, of course. Teachers can help students to not only learn to read but learn to love reading. They arm them with knowledge and passion to read on their own, with wonderful early reading resources, and reading journals to track progress.  Above all, teachers themselves share their passion and love for reading and all that stems from being able to read well. For schools, I think providing supportive learning environments for all students of all abilities is key.  

 What are your thoughts on reading and language?

We have worked hard for our kids to be bilingual, so my husband reads books to the kids in his first language, which is Greek, and I read to them in my first language, which is English. I have seen firsthand how much reading improves their vocabulary. 

As a mother, why do you feel it’s important to read with your children?

Though I read online books, I firmly believe there is no replacement for printed books for children, and I think children love holding, experiencing, and turning the pages. 

My husband or I read a few books to our two children every single night and have done so since they were infants.  A quick calculation tells us we have read well over 3,000 bedtime stories so far with our kids. We snuggle up together to read, and that time closes out every day. Even if we are busy or traveling, we find a way to read online or share a story with them for a few minutes.  Reading is already a daily habit for my kids because they know we are passionate about sharing not only the stories but this special time with them. 

I believe children can develop a lifelong reading habit early on through this symbiosis between teachers and parents, with us as parents doing our best to demonstrate the same passion and love for reading that our kids experience at school.  

Kids all learn differently from one another, and my two children couldn’t be more different in the way that they learn.  By all of us reading together each day, I believe my children are also developing an appreciation and respect for learning differences and each others’ strengths. 

Over your three-year term, do you have any plans to bring your love of books into the lives of Bermudian children and young people? How?

I am so excited for this week, as I will be sharing my love of reading with several different schools for World Book Day. One of the books I will share with students is called “I am Enough” by Grace Byers. I love the message of that book and its inclusive illustrations.   

Another book I will read this week to a group of older children is an except from one of my favorite books growing up, a 1960 Newberry winner called “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. This story is a reimagined history of a young woman who was the last member of the Nicoleño tribe to live on San Nicolas Island.  She survived alone for 15 years in the 1800s on this California Channel Island, which makes for a gripping young adult fiction. 

Beyond these events, I plan to continue to share some of my favorite stories with Bermudian students and teachers wherever I can! I loved volunteering with Bermuda Education Network recently to read with Bermuda’s youngest residents, and I hope to continue sharing stories with young Bermudians through BEN and other organizations. 

What is your favourite children’s book?  

I have so many favorites. Rediscovering children’s literature has been one of the many great joys of being a parent.  Sometimes I think I look forward to story time with my children as much as they do.  

I think Julia Donaldson’s stories are brilliant and there is no one better at perfect verse and rhyme.  My kids and I especially love The Gruffalo.  For classics, my kids think “Ira Sleeps Over” is hilarious.  My son really loves laughing at the antics of Rush Hotfoot in a book called “Axle Annie and the Speed Grump,” and my daughter’s current favorite is a sweet book called “Maple” by Lori Nichols.  

My mother was a first-grade teacher who bought many of her own books for her classroom, so when she retired, I was able to build my children’s library with her collection.  Because of that, I have so many books that are my favorites that it is impossible to pick just one! 

Kristen Scott Ndiaye is a mother of two, an entrepreneur, the daughter of teachers, and an advocate for change. She has worked in publishing, literacy, and education.