Books have the power to expand the boundaries of one’s world. Good stories allow us to take a few steps in somebody else’s shoes and, in doing so, to recognize our shared humanity and experience a world beyond our own.
International education efforts to get books into the hands of children have been spurred by improving literacy for children in the early grades of school. It is difficult to learn to read without books, and this is the plight of millions of children in the world.
But books are so much more than a source of decoding practice! They delight, teach, engage, and challenge us. When living in difficult circumstances, books can provide a respite from struggle and a window into possibilities beyond the here and now. In a world where differences are exploited to pit people against each other, books can be a means to understanding both ourselves and others better.
The role of books in my childhood
During the first decade of my life, my family of five lived comfortably in a single room home in a bus factory in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A wailing siren began and ended the day, and afternoons after school were punctuated by the screech of welding and pound of hammering, all of which I relegated to background noise, like the hum of the ceiling fan circulating the humid air. Years later, I have multiple rooms to call my own in a peaceful American neighborhood where flowers thrive and birds chirp. Amongst the many privileges that shaped this journey was access to two sticky drawers of second-hand books crammed in like an intricate puzzle, with any book out of place turning the entire drawer into disarray.
Dar es Salaam in the 1980s did not offer much by way of children’s books but, as a teacher in an international school, my mother had access to a revolving door of expatriate colleagues who invariably sold some of their belongings before leaving Tanzania. From these sales, we got our unusual collection of books, from The Adventures of Sam Pig by Alison Uttley, to an illustrated book on human evolution, to the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton.
Notwithstanding the clanging of the bus factory, I often got lost in the English countryside where unfamiliar things like treacle and badgers piqued my imagination. Or I became engrossed in details about human evolution much before I learned about evolution at school. The books I read broadened my world view, added joy to my life, and played a role in shaping my aspirations. However, I did not--until later in life--see any books in which I saw myself reflected in the pages, as a child of immigrants growing up in Tanzania.