It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). It has been awhile since I joined this reading community and I intend to be more present this year, life circumstances permitting.
For those of you who have been following our journey here at GatheringBooks, you would know that we have launched our college reading festival on the 1st of March as part of UAE’s reading month.
Apart from literary cafe sessions with UAE-based authors and poets (see my post here and here), and having the inimitable Shaun Tan as one of our featured speakers (see here for my announcement post), we also did quite a few literacy outreach activities to serve the community. We visited and did a read-aloud in a charity school in Dubai, read Arabic poetry to a seniors home also in Dubai; and just last week, we had the chance to meet a few inpatient and outpatient children in the Pediatric Oncology Clinic in Twam Hospital here in Al Ain.
As I have reflected in my LinkedIn post: our team came in with high spirits but with tempered expectations. We had around 14 epicturebooks prepared for read-aloud and downloaded in some of the ipads we brought, along with a few physical Arabic and English picturebooks. We were divided into 5 groups and we all collectively managed to reach around 12 kids.
I paired up with one of our undergraduate students from my department (Special Education), a former student of mine who always does brilliant read-alouds in a lot of our college activities.
She came totally prepared with a box filled with activities for her selected book: Have You Filled A Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud and David Messing (Amazon | Book Depository). She brought three tiny buckets, cut out stars, Popsicle sticks, the works. We planned for around 20 minutes or so per child (roughly around two books for read-aloud), so we could at least manage around three children for the entire hour that we were there. But as I told our team on the lift going up to the Pediatric Oncology floor: “you know what they say about best-laid plans…”
We never used the ipads we brought. My undergraduate student and read-aloud partner soon realized the kids had very little energy for her planned activities. And while I brought the usual expected book titles for possible read-aloud: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan (Amazon | Book Depository), Every Child A Song by Nicola Davies and Marc Martin (Amazon | Book Depository), This Is A Poem That Heals Fish by Olivier Tallec and Jean-Pierre Simeon (Amazon | Book Depository), Imagine A Day by Sarah L. Thomson and Rob Gonsalves (Amazon | Book Depository), Imagine A Night by Sarah L. Thomson and Rob Gonsalves (Amazon | Book Depository) – all great books, by the way. Perhaps with another child at a different time and a different place, these books would have been just the right choice, but last week, unexpectedly these two books below were the ones that managed to hit the perfect spot.
Forever (Amazon | Book Depository)
Written and Illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna
Published by Thames & Hudson (2020) Original Title: Choses qui s’en vont (translated from the French)
Literary Award: Winner of the Society of Illustrator’s Gold Medal for Original Art ISBN:9780500652282 (ISBN10: 0500652287) Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
I discarded the earlier picturebooks I planned to read the moment I met O, the six year old girl we had the privilege to meet. It is clear that while she enjoyed listening to the read-aloud of Have You Filled A Bucket Today?, she was ready for more engagement. Providentially, I brought “Forever” by award-winning Italian artist, Beatrice Alemagna.
It was the perfect choice – with few words per page, the onion skin providing some level of magic to the narrative, as the story shows how things that happen to us do not last “forever” – be they cuts or bruises, tears, a bad mood, rain, even hair can fall off.
We were delighted to hear O follow my words and read along as I read aloud, and say “No more” excitedly, each time we turn a page and the tears, bad mood, even hair – disappear. Hence, it is not just about reading to a child – but reading with a child.
But what remains “forever,” what is constant and never-ending is the love of someone who cares: in the book, it was a mother, which is perfect in O’s case as she looked at her mother towards the end of the story.
It is also a perfect demonstration that while some of the images may be somewhat different or ‘unexpected’ from one’s own culture: be it a tattoo, or an image of a man smoking a pipe – the important thing, really, is to suspend our initial and knee-jerk judgment of what the images signify from our own personal moral code, but use it as a take-off point for meaningful conversations. Books, after all, if we are lucky, provide us our initial contact with the rest of the world and its diverse inhabitants. How we respond to this ‘different-ness’ – be it fear or avoidance; or curiosity and compassion, openness and understanding – may also be reflective of how we respond to those we may perceive as ‘others’ in actual face-to-face encounters.
Instead of dismissing any book outright, reflect on how it can be perceived from multiple perspectives and how it provides spaces and opportunities for connectedness notwithstanding differences, because dismissing any book could result in missing the possible magic that particular book can bring – or the insightful talks it can engender.
How To Make A Bird (Amazon | Book Depository)
Written by Meg McKinlay Illustrated by Matt Ottley
Published by Walker Books Australia (2020) Award: CBCA Picturebook of the Year (2021)
ISBN: 9781925381894 Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
We were introduced next to K, a 12 year old young boy, who was with his two younger brothers (aged 11 and 10), and 8 year old sister, and mother. He seemed more like a boy who likes making things and was slightly more active. I instinctively felt that the perfect book would be “How To Make A Bird” by Meg McKinley and Matt Ottley from Australia.
Initially, K’s brothers were too absorbed playing with their devices to listen to us, but as we explored what kind of bird K and his sister want to make, the tiny bones they need to gather, the color of the feathers, they ever so slowly crept up to us and participated joyfully.
K wants to be a falcon, the other brother an eagle, another a sparrow, and a dove. We then explored the song their bird would sing, and the dreams it will dream, and mimicked its breathing with its heart that beats much faster than any human’s ever could.
As the bird is let go in the end, K was worried. Who will take care of the bird? How will it eat? So many questions and ideas and explorations.
I belatedly realized that I should have read the dedication at the very end of the book which says: “To all the makers out there.. to everyone who has the courage to breathe life and let go.”
Once again, I realized that in read-alouds, it is not the one doing the reading that takes charge of the entire experience – but the one who is being read to, and the child’s agency, as the narrative unfolds, providing spaces for readers to insert themselves into the story and allow it to do its work seamlessly. It is also not about the adult’s favourite books, our plans, our goals – but the children’s, as we have the privilege to get to know them and their dreams through the pages of the book we are reading together.
This experience has made me even more convinced that a special kind of read-aloud happens when, in the process of telling a story, a new one emerges – as brought about by the connection between the reader and the one being read to; another narrative entirely breathed into existence by the unique bond forged in the brave and vulnerable act of not just reading words off a page, but actually making a story come to life.
These are books I did not plan on bringing with me, but everything in this festival seems blessed from its inception, and I am glad that the universe has allowed us to pair the right book with the right child – because that is when magic happens. As my student noted, this is an experience we will cherish forever.
I found this video of Matt Ottley, the artist, as he talked about how this book defies age categories – because it is timeless, and I agree. There is poetry here, and soul, and beauty:
#DecolonizeReading2023 Update: 18/19 out of target 100
What a beautiful time you’ve shared, Myra. I loved all that you told about those you read to and bookmarked How To Make A Bird which my library, luckily, has! I enjoyed hearing about this exciting time you’ve had.
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What a fun post. A literary cafe!
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