Children are like sponge: continuously absorbing a great deal from their environment. You can also compare children to a blank canvas. However way you put it, the point is how impressionable they are. The Tigrinya proverb that goes, “ቆልዓ ብንእሱ፣ ቆርበት ብርሕሱ” (an expression that means a child needs to be molded while still very young) sums it up rather well. As parents, we have the capability of “coloring” these “blank canvases” however way we want. We can color them vermilion just as easily as we can color them grey, or worse, let the world color them as it wishes. The things that we see, learn and read as children tend to stay with us for a lifetime. If you don’t believe me, take the word of French author Marcel Proust and his novel “In Search of Lost Time”, a literary work centered on childhood memories.
I still remember the first book I read by myself; I remember the color of the book: it was green and had a picture of a fat, orange cat on the cover, entitled “The Diary of the Killer Cat”. I can vividly recall the elation I felt when I finished it. I felt like I was capable of reading every book in the world. Most importantly, I remember thinking to myself, “Hey! Reading is actually fun!”
I was lucky as a child. My mother used to read to me every night before bed. I remember her reading Alemseged Tesfai’s “Gitano” and the Tigrinya translation of “Aesop’s Fables” to me. I couldn’t wait to get to bed and every night, I would fight the oncoming sleep so I can hear one more story or listen to her read one more page. Those bedtime stories with my mom are some of my most cherished childhood memories.
When I was eleven years old, my father gave me a notebook on which I could write book summaries, in whatever language I read them. On the very first page of that notebook, he wrote me a list of quotes with the title “Daddy’s Lifetime Advice”. The very first quote says: “Remember, you have three responsibilities as a student: Read, Read, Read.” Both my parents gave me a special childhood in that way and I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for them.
Some of you may think I’ve digressed. Why do I bring up my own story when today is about Rahel and Etan’s books? Because, like Etan, I am a product of diligent and dedicated parents and, like Rahel, I am the product of the books I read as a child.
At first glance, children’s books may seem unimportant, of very little impact. Silly, even. Some people may look at them skeptically and say “How much value can they really hold?” I believe children’s books hold more power than we realize. They have the power to teach lessons on kindness, compassion, empathy, understanding, acceptance and so much more. Lessons that kids need to learn to become good people.
“Don’t schoolbooks already do that?” one could ask. Not as well as the children’s books that they choose to read. These kinds of books show them- in a rather subtle way- that learning is fun, that discovering is exciting and that books are the best kind of company. They give the child the possibility to delve into a new world, far from their own, where they can swim with fish, fly with birds, run with cheetahs and jump with kangaroos. Books help stretch their imagination, ultimately helping them become innovative critical thinkers. In short, these kinds of books- and the lessons that come with them- can lay the foundation to their personalities.
When I first met Rahel and had the chance to chat with her, she told me about her kids, Etan and Sephron. She told me about how she and her husband Dawit had a policy at home: their children had to read at least one page or paragraph a night before they could go to sleep. This was a non-negotiable rule. Every single night for years, she encouraged and monitored them to read a paragraph or a page. Sometimes, she even motivated them by leaving them a Nakfa or two at the end of a book! Can you imagine what kind of commitment that takes? I was blown away. I was even more amazed to hear that her twelve-year-old son Etan had already finished reading the Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series- to name just a few. As if that’s not impressive enough, he even translated two children’s books from English to Tigrinya- Arnold Lobel’s “Mouse Soup” (መረቕ ኣንጭዋ) and Esther Averill’s “The Fire Cat” (እቲ ኣጥፋኢ ሓዊ ድሙ)! Nowadays, she tells me that she has to beg him to stop reading and go to sleep! I can only imagine what kind of an adult he will be but I can say with some confidence that whatever he grows up to become, be it a doctor, scientist, singer or poet- he will be a good one because he discovered the magic of reading from an early age. It’s also important to note that Etan’s not-so-simple act of translating books can inspire and help other kids realize that they too can do the same.
I think by this point it is clear that Rahel is leading by example when it comes to the importance of reading in a child’s life. It’s been tried-and-tested! Her children are proof that this is not a case of “ቀሺ ዝበሎ ግበር፣ ቀሺ ዝገበሮ ኣይትግበር” (this is parallel to the English saying “Do as I say, not as I do”). Her whole intention is to help other children follow in her son’s footsteps and other parents to follow in hers. She has now provided the Eritrean public with two series of books: Let’s Read Them Stories (or ሃየ ነንብበሎም) and Let’s Learn (or ሃየ ንመሃር). It’s certainly a change from her previous books; but these may be the most impactful. Most writers focus on writing for adults, but their audience will inevitably be people who have already developed the habit of- and a liking for- reading. This time, Rahel shrewdly observed that in order to introduce a wider culture of leisure reading in the society, you start at the root.
I found the books to be colorful, attractive and warm. I appreciated that she wrote them in both English and Tigrinya, a great way to help children pick up new words as they read. I also valued how she used Eritrean characters with typical Eritrean names and pictures with which Eritrean children can identify. You don’t come across many English children’s books of the sort.
It is not lost on me that one of the series is called “Let’s Read Them Stories”, addressing the parents directly, rather than the children themselves. It is not common in our culture for parents to read to their children, something that was neither possible nor feasible a generation ago. We’ve come a long way since then and can now afford opportunities that were unthinkable a mere half-century ago. This parent-centric approach of reading to children allows a stronger bond to be created between parent and child, to even develop a kind of friendship and mentorship as opposed to the traditional authority-subordinate relationship.
I strongly believe that a single drop of water can create a substantial ripple. I think these books whose release we are celebrating today are the first of many more “drops of water” to come. And I suspect that that they will go on to create a ripple big enough to reach other children in Eritrea so that they too can discover the magic of books.
Rahel and Etan, I commend you on a job well done.