Ganza Yves and his passion for books have deeply amazed me. As soon as he gets in the classroom, he reaches under the mat, picks the book and never lets go of it the whole day. Before he goes home, he hides it again so that no one can pick it before him the next day. He was carrying around that particular book ,“Inkoko Yanjye,” the day I visited his ECCD (Early Childhood Care and Development) center. He claimed loudly that it was his favorite book because he feels that it features him and his own chickens at home; that the book is about him, and he doesn’t want anyone else to have it.
Ganza is almost age to 6, and he is among the hundred of kids that attend ECCD centers in Burera district. The book he likes so much was produced by a newly established Rwandan publisher, working with Rwandan Children’s Book Initiative.
Books are essential to children’s learning process as shown by numerous studies. They are a source of knowledge and are the doors that open to the world of imagination.
You can explore any subject by reading a book without ever leaving your home. Books help children perform better at school and become better people, confident and aware of the world around them. They sharpen a child’s critical thinking capacity and are good to their brains’ development. Books can be loyal friends too, particularly when children relate to their contents.
This can also mean the child’s age, previous experience, their cultural context, where they live and so on, matter. It is important for children to have books they can identify themselves through, and it is a crucial element in promoting a culture of reading in children.
Award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, Frank Serafini, once said, “There is no such thing as a child who doesn’t like to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.”
It is so true. Children, including those from Rwanda, yearn for books and they have a deep desire to get books in which they see themselves reflected and in which they can relate to.
Another example is of Bonheur Gasana, who is only 12 years old. He loves football, reading and going to school, but he hasn’t done any of these for a long time. He is at the hospital, for treatment.
He spends the whole day laying in bed, with people who come for a visit. And because he is a child, most people do not know how to talk to him. Even though, as a child, he appreciates the care, he gets easily bored and his days are very long.
On one of my regular visits to the hospital, I thought of bringing him storybooks, and I really didn’t know what to expect. But I came to discover a lot about him through the storybooks: He has a soft spot for books, and in midst of his tough life, books have a way of stealing him from his reality and takes him to the imaginary world that every child deserves. When I brought some books, his reaction was absolutely amazing. He seemed really excited and there was a constant smile on his face.
He was flipped through the books, unable to choose which one to read first, and you could see other children shyly looking at him; wishing they could have the same chance. But Bonheur would share the books with his peers after reading.
“I want the book with the boys playing football on the cover,” he told me at some point.
The presence of those books at his hospital bed would have been looked at badly, when a patient in his last stage would need something more than a book. But we are who we are, and in our darkest hours, we need sweet escapes; and this is the same for a child. That is why a sick, poor or underprivileged child will enjoy a book, especially when it has something to relate to.
Bonheur’s eyes sparkled with the light of a happy child regardless of his situation. He was happy, and it was all that mattered in the moment. He got lost in the illustrations and the story in the book that I felt a tinge of jealousy toward the book for robbing me off, taking all his attention. But I was glad something could have such power.
These examples illustrate the importance of storybooks for children. Not only do children learn from such books, but they also enjoy reading them. In order to have more children reading, it is important books on diverse topics are accessible to them (Bonheur loved the book about football, but one of his neighbors was more interested in a folk-tale). In Rwanda, local publishers (now seven established and more coming) are working tirelessly to produce better quality books for all ages, all interests and in Kinyarwanda so that every Rwandan child can read. For that, they work with Rwandan authors and illustrators who will be able to set the local context that is very needed to make these books appealing for local markets.
When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books” – studies have found – they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all language skills they will need for their future learning and writing. They will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good spellers. Although free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level. Without it, children are deprived of their very basic rights of learning for better attainment of self.
For several months now, I have been involved in Abana Writing Café, an initiative by Save the Children and an exciting platform for people who’re working to promote reading at early ages and the production of better books. I have met people who are so passionate about the cause and I cannot wait to see how their work will inspire and empower more kids like Ganza and Bonheur to enjoy reading and reach other frontiers.