High school seniors Bella Wexler of Tucson and Amber Juang of Taiwan have been friends since they were fifth-grade students together at Ventana Vista Elementary School in Tucson’s Catalina Foothills School District. They’ve maintained that friendship across 7,000 miles since Amber’s family returned to Taiwan during the girls’ first year in middle school.
Recently, the teens published a bilingual children’s book, “Amber and Bella: Friends Across the World,” to promote multicultural friendships and support the multilingual education programs that help make them possible.
Mandarin lessons from Amber as well as independent study meant Bella was able to start her formal study of the language with Chinese 3 at Catalina Foothills High School, but at least one elementary school in the school district has a K-5 Chinese immersion program.
The authors emphasize that their book was created and published by kids, for kids — Bella’s younger sister, Sage, and a high school friend, Sarah Farley, collaborated on the illustrations. They have donated books to elementary schools in Taiwan and Tucson, with more to come when coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
Bella, who speaks Spanish as well as Mandarin, came up with the book idea back in March, when the pandemic gave her extra free time. Normally her schedule is jam-packed — besides attending CFHS, where she was a tutor and was involved in several extracurricular groups, including the Chinese club, she’s an intern with the Jewish Latino Teen Coalition; a member of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement; and was a volunteer at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. Earlier this year, she was named the winner of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy Bryna Zehngut Mitzvot Award, given annually to an outstanding teenage girl.
But Bella has always made time to keep in touch with Amber, mainly through video chats.
In December 2019, she visited Amber in Taiwan, accompanied by her father, Michael Wexler. “We were really lucky, we got that trip in basically right before COVID started shutting everything down,” she says.
Realizing “how cool it was to bring our friendship full circle,” Bella thought others might be interested in their story.
The reception from schools was awesome, she says. “The reaction from the schools in the Catalina Foothills School District has been so, so sweet,” even though she was unable to give a presentation for students.
Profits from the book are being donated to multilingual education programs, and right now, she says, that is going 100% to the four elementary schools in CFSD.
Amber was able to do presentations at a couple of schools in her hometown of Kaohsiung. There are photos and a video on the book website, as well as then-and-now pictures of Bella and Amber.
One school, Wen-Fu Elementary School, was so impressed by the book they displayed it at the 51st Annual World Children’s Art Exhibition in Taiwan. “It’s pretty exciting,” Bella says.
Bella hopes the book “can brighten the mood and inspire some young kids right now” who have to keep in touch with their friends via computer, even if those friends live just down the street.