This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.
I learned only by chance that March 7 was World Book Day. Also by chance, we had just received a box full of wonderful children’s books – in Hindi and English and at all different levels – from a new organisation called #BRAKLiteracyInitiative whose mission is to share the love of reading with as many children as possible.
Like so many things in my life, I chose to see it as a sign.
I sent a quick message to our senior team here at the Latika Roy Foundation where we work with children with disabilities and their families suggesting that we should do something special with books for that day.
As I walked to my office on March 7, I met a procession of children from our Child Development Centre coming toward me – not only were they celebrating World Book Day, they also wanted the whole world to know about it: Some were holding signs, some were dressed as characters from their favourite story.
But as thrilled as they were to be walking the streets and spreading the word, they were even more excited about getting back to the ranch to settle in for story time.
Back at the ranch, the children who hadn’t gone marching were all sitting outside under trees in little groups. Every child had a book and almost every single one of them was engaged and happy.
Some were with their teachers, listening with a kind of drunken delight to stories and descriptions of what was on the page. Some were explaining to those teachers what they thought was happening on that page – and the thing about stories and children is this: no matter what they come up with, it’s right. Unlike in mathematics where one plus one is always, stubbornly, two, a story on a page can be whatever a child thinks it is.
The whole point of a tale is to set the mind wandering – to fire up the imagination and fill the world with people and deeds and fantastic images of one’s own creation.
Some children sat with friends, with older children helping the younger ones explore the mysteries and anticipation of turning those pages to find out what happens next.
“What happens next” is one of the most delicious phrases one can utter. We live to find out and all our days are really just a journey to discover it. Books are a way to enlarge that sense of anticipation and possibility into worlds we can only experience through stories. How can a child while growing up in Dehradun ever know about a child growing up in Mongolia or Egypt or Oshkosh if not through books?
There were children for whom even turning the pages was too challenging – hands don’t always work the way we want them to – but whose excitement and participation was not only undiminished by their disabilities but enhanced. Here – in books – is a world in which the limitations of cerebral palsy disappear and the mind can fly no matter what the body is doing.
There were the inevitable solitary bookworms, who seemed to actually be looking for a way to get inside the pages and have a look around for themselves. Do you remember when books were like that for you? When every story was a tantalising open door, this one leading to Narnia, that one to Hogwarts, to the bottom of the ocean and the top of the meadow, to the edge of the world and the back of beyond… I remember.
And that’s why there was me: daughter of a librarian father and a novelist mother, raised on books, brought up on the printed word, helpless to resist a bookstore, unable to sleep without reading those last few pages of whatever book currently has me ensnared.
For me, World Book Day was like a dream coming to life – what magic to see children in all directions, caught up in and enchanted by the same world that has been my home for 60 years.
We give our children the greatest possible gift when we share with them the magic of books, when we introduce them to the world of imagination, when we teach them through stories that anything is possible and when we show them that the most rewarding state of mind is the one which all good books inspire: WONDER.
Jo McGowan Chopra is American by birth and a writer by profession. A mother of three, she has lived in India for the past 34 years with her Indian husband. She is co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disability in Dehradun. She blogs at www.latikaroy.org/jo.