This week is children’s book week and it had me thinking about an opportunity I had to share books with children who had had not previous access to them. Last year we spent six months living and working on the island of Tanna in the country of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, where my husband offered medical care to the population of 30,000 people. The people of Tanna live largely by gardening, adding small amounts of protein through hunting small fish and birds, and on special occasions killing livestock such as pigs, chickens and cows. They have very minimal monetary exchange, live in thatched housing and still cook every meal on a fire. The land is fertile and the trees are heavy with mango, papaya, breadfruit and pineapple. The living conditions of the island are very rural and underdeveloped and it took some time to adjust to the slow pace and the absence of external stimulation. This was one of the major challenges and also one of the major benefits.
We arrived on the island with a huge suitcase of books, art supplies and a yogurt tub of lego, however, found after a month that we had already plowed through most of the books, and the picture books many times over. You can imagine our delight when we discovered that a peace corp worker had developed, over the previous year, a library in an elementary school in a nearby village. This quickly became a regular outing for my clan. An opportunity to replenish our reading supply, have a play with the kids of that village and talk to someone from our own cultural background.
The benefits of that little library grew after I quite accidently discovered how I could use the books to communicate with children who lived in the jungle villages. Every Thursday my family drove away from the hospital for a dispensary visit. These visits would take us to medical outpost clinics on even remoter parts of the islands, often unreachable due to the horrific road conditions that turned roads into mudslides whenever it rained. These were days we looked forward to as they often invited an opportunity to have the family together, explore a different area of the island, often revealing extraordinary waterfalls, or offering opportunities to have some kind of cultural exchanges with people who live in a completely different way. Sometimes these days were wonderful, full of exploration and adventure, and others I would sit patiently with my three young boys waiting for hours while my husband took care of patients. So, I soon came to carry a big bag of books to read to the boys during these long hours.
One day a few village children came and curiously watched as I read to my kids. I flipped the book around so that they could see the pictures and added a lot of expression to my reading. Before I knew it I had an audience of perhaps thirty kids laughing away, despite not understanding a word of English. After I had read through every book in the bag I let the children look through the books themselves. This became my village ritual. I carefully tried to select books that were about animals, or things that the kids could understand at least a little.
At one village there were probably close to 70 kids gathered around hoping for an opportunity to hear the book being read, and flip through its pages. Some of these villages had a school, while other didn’t. The kids who went to school would have access to the dull, poorly written books the government published, but none would have seen a book with coloured pictures, or with a story that was written for creative purposes. These were some of the magical moments, watching my own children listen to the stories in a crowd of children, many naked and all dirty, who were enthralled at having a first experience with what books can offer: a means of communication, a reason to laugh and share, a delight of the senses, exposure to new thoughts and ideas. The opportunity to read a book is something that we believe in as an inherent right in North America and it was truly remarkable to observe children gaining access to literature for a very first time.