Insights into Montreal Part 5: My Interview with Louise Penny, Book Lovers Day, and an Invitation for the Voyage
One remarkable thing about reading is that it gives us the power to travel anywhere we please. Where, in your deepest desires, do you wish to go?
Over the past months, I’ve been visiting Three Pines – that is, the setting for author Louise Penny’s 13 best-selling novels. If you wish, let’s travel there for a moment with the novel’s main character Inspector Armand Gamache.
Armand Gamache looked across to the deep green midsummer forest and the mountains that rolled into eternity. Then his eyes dropped to the village in the valley below them, as though held in the palm of an ancient hand. A stigmata in the Quebec countryside. Not a wound, but a wonder.
(Chapter 1, The Long Way Home)
In Thee Pines, there’s a Boulangerie, a Church, a Bistro and a Bookstore…
Have a seat in the Bistro:
It was a restful room. The fires at either end of the beamed bistro took the gloom out of the day. Their light gleamed off the polished wood floors, darkened by years of smoke and farmer’s feet. Sofas and large inviting armchairs sat in front of each fireplace, their fabric faded. Old chairs were grouped round dark wooden dining tables. In front on the mullioned bay windows three or four wing chairs waited for villagers nursing steaming café au lait and croissants, or scotches, or burgundy wine…
(Chapter 2, The Brutal Telling)
Saunter into the Bookstore:
The walls were lined with bookcases filled with hardcovers and paperbacks. With fiction and biography, science and science fiction. Mysteries and religion. Poetry and cookbooks. It was a room filled with thoughts and feeling and creation and desires… A black cast-iron woodstove sat in the center of the room, with a kettle simmering on top of it and an armchair on either side.
(Chapter 4, How the Light Gets In)
Can you hear the simmering kettle? I can…
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Louise Penny for Literacy Quebec. It was a wonderful experience. She is as generous in conversation as she is in her stories. I had to refrain from pinching myself the whole time. Louise Penny is a New York Times Best-Selling author whose novels have been published in 23 languages. She is also the patron for one of our members, Yamaska Literacy Council.
As the patron of YLC, she has published a novella called The Hangman which is specifically geared toward emerging readers and adult learners. It deals with adult themes and challenges at a Grade 3 writing level. This gives learners the opportunity to strengthen their reading skills without having to resort to children’s books for practice. They have the chance to join Inspector Gamache and travel to Three Pines.
A cup of coffee is always the best when paired with a good book. Virgin Hill Coffee Roasters, a local Brome Lake family-owned business, created the Gamache Blend in tribute to their favorite author. The special thing about the Gamache blend is that for every bag sold, Virgin Hill donates $1 to the Yamaska Literacy Council. To top it off, Louise Penny matches these donations to support YLC programs.
Today is World Book Lovers Day. On this day especially, I’m reminded of moments from my conversation with Louise Penny, a fellow book lover. "Books can feed the heart, feed the spirit…not just the mind", she said. As an avid reader and of course, an avid writer, Louise is passionate about literacy. The first level of literacy is functional – reading a medicine label, writing a cheque, etc…"but what about making reading a joyous experience?" Louise asked, in our conversation. Yes. Let’s aim higher for literacy and the power of reading…"You can think of reading as more than just a tool to survive the day with…Ultimately, you want people not only to survive, you want people to thrive". Books have the power to take us there - "Books have the power to take us to places we can't normally go…so how awful it is to have a huge percent of the population not invited on the voyage".
42 percent of adult Canadians have low literacy skills. Thus, many are also less able to view reading as a joyous experience or an opportunity for travel. In an ideal view of the future, through Louise Penny’s eyes, "We all need to be able to be given the ticket to at least have the choice to go anywhere in the world through what we read…or go anywhere inside ourselves for that matter...Novels and reading can take us to places inside ourselves, help us to understand ourselves, human nature, compassion for others, and what makes others tick - that's what books can do. If you can't read, it's so much harder to get to those places."
With this said, organizations such as Literacy Quebec and our 13 members continuously strive to make our services as accessible as possible for those who need them. And Louise Penny is right by our side. If you visit her website, you will find a wealth of resources for emerging readers, aspiring writers and devoted readers alike. "Persevere. Believe in yourself", she writes as one of many tips to getting published. During her Hugh McLennan lecture at McGill University this past April, she shared her morning ritual. A quotation hangs above the dining room table where she writes that says, Noli Timere, the last words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Noli Timere is Latin for ‘Be not afraid’.
Here’s the thing: Three Pines is a fictional town. As in, it only exists on the page and in our imagination. Louise Penny told me, "Three Pines is an interior place, it's an allegory for kindness and the fact that goodness really does exist as a place of peace and comfort. It doesn’t mean that bad things don't happen there but rather, that they are survivable through community and belonging. It represents the certainty that goodness not only exists but will triumph". Three Pines is within us. When we read, we travel to a new place, to a point B. Yet, that new place also becomes an extension of point A: ourselves. We are all invited to embark on the journey of reading and together, we can conquer any fear of flying. Step by step, we can fill the pages of our literary passports and explore new worlds between the lines. Noli Timere, dear friend.
Have you ever thought of your hero as the person who makes you coffee in the morning?
Certain underlying, elemental forces set us on our good path every day that we work, play, dream, and succeed. Some of those forces are the people we start our days with- the people who care for us enough not only to benefit from the outcome of our success but to set our days up so that we may succeed.
Every Tuesday morning, RECLAIM Literacy holds a Summer Storytime program at Norman-Dawe on Woodland or in the Church of the Epiphany on Wellington. Every Tuesday, play mats and a bin of books are laid out before the kids arrive. Stories and puppets for the day are chosen beforehand so when the kids start pouring in at 10:30, everything is already waiting for them. I visited a session for the first time last week. As the children settled down and prepared for story time, I found a seat toward the back – perfect for quiet observation.
The animator began with songs and rhymes full of clapping and movement. The kids, all aged between 0-5, were already watching diligently. With their parents holding them in their laps, gently guiding their children and repeating after the animator, I could see the little ones already getting the hang of this. They watched wide-eyed as the animator then pulled out the first story of the day: Elliot Bakes a Cake. Lionel decides to bake Elliot Moose a cake for his birthday but it quickly turns into a disaster when Lionel is unable to follow some of the complicated instructions. Thankfully, Elliot comes to help. They work together and manage to bake the best cake either of them had ever tasted. You don’t need to read children’s books to realize that this is a story about teamwork and friendship. Watching the kids listen so avidly was touching.
In the moment that we finished that story, something magical happened. Joy, the director of RECLAIM, came out with a bowl of ingredients – all the ingredients needed to bake a cake. The story was coming true. Just as Lionel and Elliot had done, we were going to bake a cake together. Everyone was bursting with delight. Joy gave turns to the older kids at mixing the bowl as the younger ones watched in awe. You see, the day I visited was one of the rainiest days of the week but story time went on indoors regardless. No matter what, a story, a snack, and sunny people can bring light to any situation.
Reading aloud to children is incredibly powerful. In an article recently published by the NPR, it says that, “When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye”. As we read to them, they build the muscle in their brain that brings images to life in their minds. According to another recent article in the New York Times, The more parents read with their children, the more children have an opportunity to think about characters and the feelings of those characters. Eventually, “they learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.”
As I watched the staff of RECLAIM and the animator of the Storytime program mobilize to read to these children, I realized that there is so much more to them than what meets the eye. They are the unsung heroes of our lives. And yes, heroes don’t always wear capes. Most times, they are the ones who make us cake. They’re the ones who read us stories that help us understand friendship and teamwork. They sing silly songs and rhymes. They bring us joy without any inhibition. They light the way for us every single day.
Has a book ever changed your life?
When I was seventeen, one changed mine. I read a book that gently informed the rest of my teenage years and continues to guide me today. Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet fell into my hands as a gift from my father. It remained on my bedside table for a month before I tentatively reached for it on my way out one day and cracked it open at a Second Cup one faithful summer afternoon. I remember not being able to put the book down and I still remember Rilke’s words: “No experience has been too slight, and the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another and held and borne up by a hundred others”…. A cold coffee had never tasted so good.
I was reminded of that passage recently. To me, it speaks to life’s little moments that we sometimes take for granted – the ones that seem little yet, in the grand scheme of things, have the power to greatly shape our lives.
A couple weeks ago, Literacy Quebec had its first free book giveaway. Book donation boxes had piled up in our Verdun office that deserved to be opened and shared. So we set up a table on the sidewalk outside and gave each book a spot in our moveable library. The response was incredible. Before we even had a chance to finish setting up the full table and boxes beneath it, our first curious street-goer ventured over. And then another and another and…another.
I pulled up a chair next to the table and watched joyfully as…
We really had a bit of everything on that table – War and Peace, books on the wines of Burgundy, a guide for first-time elementary school teachers, The Wind in the Willows, books on fashion, books on chocolate cake, parenting advice, poetry and books on places to visit. A bit of everything. And at the end of the day, we were surprised to find most books had cleared out. We were surprised about what people in our community gravitated toward and it turned out that “a bit of everything” had become our sweet spot. A bit of everything appealed to a bit of every one on the sidewalk that day and it was a fantastic thing to see.
A small event like this one also strengthened a sense of community in Verdun. At one point, two women reached to take the same book - something that, for dramatic effect, could've spurred a small quarrel. However, they instead agreed to share the book. They exchanged phone numbers and agreed that when the first was finished reading, she'd call the other to arrange a meeting to exchange.
And for some of our visitors, this initiative was an opportunity to grow their love of reading. Two little boys from the school across the street came by our table after their class let out. They were each holding a small plant and after they both chose their books, they scurried off. With a plant still in one hand, one boy had chosen a book about how pencils are made. He cradled it tightly with his other available hand. Perfect balance.
The magic of the printed word is definitely not dead. People still reach for books when they can. It's just that, nowadays, buying new books and even some used ones can be costly and not everyone has time to browse a library. Sometimes a small sidewalk giveaway is needed to remind them of their love of reading.
As I watched people come by our table, I caught a glimpse into the excitement that reading and books still spark. An event of this nature can have tremendous impact that isn’t necessarily quantifiable but can be subtly, powerfully informative to the rest of our lives. Mexican artist Jorgé Mendez Blake illustrated this in his viral art installation “The Impact of a Book”. The installation itself was 23 metres long and used 5000 bricks. Yet, only one book was needed for the message to be conveyed and sometimes that’s all it takes. A book, an illustration, a poem, a sentence, a word and an idea – they can all act as threads that support the wonderful, wide web of our lives.
Every Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode begins in the same way. As he enters his TV house, he starts by singing.
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Revisiting episodes of this beloved show is thought-provoking. I wasn’t born when Mr. Rogers debuted but I still find something enchanting about his daily ritual. When he was interviewed on the Charlie Rose show, Rose asked him how many children he thinks he’s influenced over the years and Mr. Rogers responded:
“I don’t care how many, even if it’s just one. We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important.”
The one-to-one moment is key. And those moments are hard to come by today. We do live in a culture of sharing but much of that sharing is focused on maximizing the amount of people reached rather than individual impact. For example, if you think about our version of stories today – you might think of Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook stories where one can string together pictures and videos taken throughout the day that normally only stay posted for 24 hours before fading away.
A couple weeks ago, Literacy Quebec ran a Community Storytelling Workshop in partnership with fellow local organization, Suspicious Fish. All were welcome to come, listen to stories, write their own, receive feedback, engage with the Verdun community, and explore storytelling in its various forms. One of the best parts of the workshop was that it felt intimate and easy-going. We all shared stories with one another and listened to what each other wanted to say. It didn’t matter how many people were being influenced as much as it mattered that the people in the room felt comfortable to share. I racked my brain for a funny family anecdote to tell but came up with nothing. I talked about something I read in a magazine that I loved instead and it was great. Some of the best stories don’t even have a phenomenal ending or an extraordinary plot but are simply told with heart and that seems to be what matters most.
Mr. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self”. Through sharing stories we cherish, we can tell about our honest selves. And that gets us closer to those one-on-one magic connections.
We all have stories to tell. Except right before telling them, we occasionally get stumped thinking that they aren’t worth sharing or aren’t noteworthy enough for people to care about. What if we replaced this doubt with another sentiment that Mr. Rogers frequently referred to in his shows? He finished every episode the same way in his closing song – by saying: "You always make each day a special day. You know how: By just your being you. There's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you. And people can like you just the way you are. I'll be back next time. Bye-bye!"
He would enforce this notion constantly and as Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores, contemporaries of Rogers would sometimes blame him for breeding a sense of entitlement and self-centeredness among children. He responded to these critics in his 2002 Dartmouth commencement speech:
“It’s you I like…And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch.”
As Literacy Quebec and Suspicious Fish prepare for our next storytelling event on July 12th, I think about the value of the stories we tell. The simple act of sharing one story may seem like a drop in the ocean but maybe its impact is invisible to the eye. Each word has an undercurrent that reaches further. Had Mr. Rogers been so focused on impact and numbers, would the messages of his show have traveled as far as they have today? Our stories have power when we believe in them and no matter how many people they reach; they are special because they share a part of our honest self.
DO YOU HAVE A STORY ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD IN VERDUN? SUBMIT IT TO EVENTS@LITERACYQUEBEC.ORG UNTIL AUGUST 10TH.
This happened in the mid-80’s when I was in elementary school, grade six to be exact. I won’t use anyone’s names even though the story isn’t negative or critical of anyone. It is a bit graphic though and I’m still a bit embarrassed about the way I behaved at the end even if I was just acting like a goofy 11 year old caught up in school drama.
So, I was in the 6th grade at St.Thomas More Elementary School back when there were enough English Schools that you may not have known every other English kid your age living in Verdun. From what I can remember, it was late fall and there was a small gang of us who had started to hang around each other enough that we thought of ourselves as a little gang among other little gangs.
Again, this was 35 years ago and I can’t remember all the details. One piece that I’m a fairly clear of, but can’t completely see even if I close my eyes, is where our classroom was on the top floor of the building. There was a main stairway in the middle of the floor that all of the classes used. There was also a stairway that was at the end of the hall close to our classroom. This stairway was used at times, but for the most part students were not supposed to use it unless there was a real good excuse. If I remember correctly, one of the big attractions was that it was a bit of a shortcut to the school lunchroom. Looking back now, I have no idea why there was any big reason to want to get there before anyone else, but then again, who can remember much of what make us tick at that age?
It was lunchtime and as the hall filled with students pushing and screaming and punching and screaming some more, myself and two of the guys in our little gang made a dash for the back door leading to these other stairs.
Something else I remember about the layout was that unlike the main stairway that was covered in artwork and signs telling us to do this and that, this back one was bare and dark.
Getting through the door unnoticed was no problem with the teachers distracted by all the noise. We did a quick check to make sure weren’t noticed and then made for the staircase. Like I already said, there was this need to get down there before anyone else and this feeling to win the race was combined with our love for sliding down banisters.
Each floor was made up of two staircases that turned in the opposite direction. There were three floors to get down and so we would be taking six sets of rails in all. I can’t remember who went first down the first one, but in a few short seconds we had covered one set and had jumped off to get on the next one.
This part I remember vividly. I had turned to look somewhere else for a moment, maybe up to see if anyone had followed us, and when I looked back only one of my friends was still there, but he wasn’t getting on the next rail, he was running down the stairs screaming the other one’s name. I watched him going down and then looked straight down between the opening of the crossing staircases. There I saw my other friend sitting upright against the wall at the bottom. He was in shock and staring straight ahead.
I can’t say much about the details from here. In my memory, I next remember a teacher squatting next to him and trying to comfort him. From there, I feel like I remained at the top of the stairs and watched as he was attended to by paramedics, although I don’t think that I really stayed up there through all of that. I think that just comes from my memory of having it been retold. What I still think about in my own shock now is how he managed to cleanly fall between the narrow openings of the staircases all the way down to the bottom.
My friend was okay in the end. Again, from memory I remember that we were told he suffered a ruptured spleen and other injuries, and that he missed what must have been a couple of months of school. I also remember that we rallied around him, made him cards and other get well gifts and collected money to pay for a new sweater to replace the one that the paramedics had to cut when they attended to him.
I don’t know how this affected me as a kid. I don’t think it was too traumatic since we knew shortly afterwards that he was going to be okay. There was one incident not too long afterwards though that has stuck with me.
I mentioned at the beginning of this story that we had our little gangs at St. Thomas More. I know that there were rivalries among the gangs and that like most kids, we weren’t always nice to those who weren’t in our cliques.
It was an afternoon recess about a week after the fall and we were still in a state of breaking down that fall. I felt safe in my little group and also unified in our shared dislike of a kid in another group. I can’t remember how the conversation led to this other boy, but in the heat of our conversation I let it be known that I wished it was this other boy who had taken the fall between all those stairs.
There was a hush and I knew right away that I had crossed a line. No one shared my preference for this and one of our members even went to our rival and told him what I said.
Whatever followed makes me glad that we can’t recall our memories with perfect clarity. What I do remember was feeling shamed by the others in my gang. While I was still allowed to remain and while there was no real retribution for my mean sentiment, I was reprimanded by their distant behaviour towards me for the next few days.
So while I do remember the shame and regret for saying what I said, there is a part of me that
looks back at that time with a sense of gratitude for being surrounded by kids who had a sense
of kindness and balance for just how far to push a good rivalry.
Some of those kids are still friends of mine today. I kind of hope their memory of that time doesn’t include which kid said what I said.
Every city has its neighborhoods, every neighborhood has its sites to see, every site has its people to meet and every person you meet has a story to tell.
I’m back in Montreal from my exchange in Manchester. And being back has brought on a newfound appreciation for the neighborhoods I call home. The Summer walk down Notre-Dame W in St-Henri is charming. The heat of the sun radiates through the air – so hot that the air itself is visible, coating every building with a mirage-like veil. I’m visiting a local bookstore today: St-Henri Books. It’s tucked away right off of Notre Dame on Rue Thérien, stowed in the pocket of a street that’s always buzzing with activity…St-Henri Books or as people in the neighborhood simply call it: “the bookstore”.
There’s a quote I love from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that goes like this: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”
Somehow, independent bookstores have a quietly powerful presence in every neighborhood. Maybe it’s because they are a reflection of our longings. At least, that’s the sense I got when I walked into St-Henri Books.
The store space is curated for us. Windows near the entranceway give natural lighting to the handpicked books that line the shelves. Everything has its place here. It almost feels like a community art space. Books are hand picked for readers as one would imagine curators select pieces for gallery-goers. Except these are artworks that we can reach out and touch. The record player, the children's books corner, the classics and the recent releases...all layered in French and English - jive together in harmony.
When I spoke with Alex, one of the store’s managers, his enthusiasm for the space and his job was absolutely contagious. One would think that it’s rare to see an independent bookstore open nowadays. In fact, statistics show that Canadian book consumption has been steadily declining over the last five years, with a slight spike in 2014. However, arriving at the St-Henri Books made me realize that it is needed now more than ever. Books are gateways to new understandings of the world. Even Alex describes experiencing a huge learning curve working at the bookstore. When selecting books to purchase for the store, it isn’t uncommon to wonder whether “they’ll move”. In other words, everyone in the neighborhood has different tastes in what they prefer - some don’t even know what they want. It’s hard to predict which books will find a home. Except they do move. Seemingly without rhyme or reason, people look for something new – their next favorite read recommended to them by the bookstore staff and something new in the bookstore space itself. Nestled in the neighborhood – the bookstore satisfies that desire for the new but reflects the familiar as well. In each book that lines the shelves, we find the stories that speak to us as individuals. Under one roof, our literary tastes coincide. And in the bookstore as a whole, we find a story about our neighborhood and us.
When I was a child, I remember being enchanted by my little world. As my tiny feet walked through life, I found that almost everything was a reason for wonder and joy.
These days, I try my best to emulate that perspective. Luckily, I got the chance to feel that side of me shine again in Manchester.
As I look back on my time in this remarkable city, I think that participating in RocketWorld was one of the highlights of my time in Manchester. RocketWorld is an initiative that brings together international students around Manchester universities to visit primary schools across Greater Manchester. During these visits, university students have the opportunity to share stories about their country with 7-11 year olds. RocketWorld aims to help tackle intolerance, prejudice and racism by dispelling fear and ignorance through fun and adventure. Over 18 000 children have now taken part in the projects and over 1500 volunteers from all over the world have taken part as well. All visits involve a giant EarthBall with NASA satellite imagery. This shows our planet as it is seen from outer space without borders.
RocketWorld is part of the International Society’s One Love school projects. The International Society is a not for profit organization that works with Manchester Universities to offer its members opportunities to go on trips across the UK, attend language classes and participate in projects such as RocketWorld. Being away from home can be tough but if you’re lucky, you meet people who make you feel at home wherever you are. The International Society was my home away from home throughout my exchange.
Rocketworld is a mission for international peace and friendship. My part in the mission involved talking all about Canada. I told the kids about our crazy Canadian winters, our love for hockey, the color-changing maple leaves and I even told them about maple taffy (or as I described it there – a sweet syrup lolly). They were all ears. Staring at the photo of syrup drizzled on a bed of snow, one boy exclaimed: “That’s wicked!!” Their infectious energy made me excited about all those Canadian gems that I often take for granted. At one point, I asked the kids if any of them knew how to make a snow angel. Their hands darted up as they exclaimed “Me! Me! I do!” then proceeded to sprawl across the gym floor and show me. My heart was full.
Everything new that I shared was a catalyst for greater curiosity. And every funny part of our country I showed them was met with a sense of intense wonder untarnished by prejudice or judgement. In the eyes of a child, we are all equally deserving of the chance to tell our story. You see, from little worlds, big worlds grow.
Throughout my time in Manchester, I’ve looked for stories to share with you. From the Learning Commons to the John Rylands Library to Radio Lollipop to Trafford Tales to everything in between…stories have abounded my time in this city. They have an unparalleled connecting quality and they can fill us with wonder and joy again. As I share this final Insights into Manchester post, I hope to share one more message: Where there is life, there are stories waiting to be uncovered - stories we will read, stories we will learn, stories we will remember and stories we will write ourselves.
“I’m on my way”, I tell Suzanne Wild, a Service Development Officer for Manchester Libraries, who I am meeting this morning.
The sun shines on the nape of my neck and seems to emanate from all angles of the sidewalks as well. I am heading to Gorton, an area in Manchester where the City Council Depot is located and where the Books to Go office is. Spring has arrived in Manchester and lately, flower sightings have been welcome affirmations that the persistent Mancunian rain paid off. As I wander down this back road, I am hard-pressed to find real flowers peeping through the sidewalk. So I settle for the next best thing: Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers”. Insert headphones. Walk onward.
In a suddenly transported state of mind, the shining sun plants flowers in my footsteps. Seeing The Nutcracker with my family used to be a Christmas tradition. I distinctly remember my anticipation leading up to the opening act. The lights would dim and there would be a moment of silence before the magic began. I loved to relish that moment. I would dwell in the silent presence of anticipation, waiting for the curtains to draw and reveal all that I had dreamt of.
Before I knew it, I had arrived at the Gorton depot. Suzi was waiting for me there and together, we were going to work counting out and placing book copies into bundles ready for distribution during National Bookstart Week.
Bookstart is the world’s first national bookgifting programme. It ensures that children and families across England and Wales are given access to free resources through their local nurseries, libraries and schools that encourage reading for pleasure from birth. Every year, National Bookstart Week sees this project at its peak - Events and distribution are organized around a chosen book and delight ensues. This year, the spotlight is on Lucy Cousins’ A Busy Day for Birds.
I had never seen that many copies of a single book before. The depot was filled with boxes and storage containers that we spent the morning filling up, labeling, and sending off. Throughout our time there, the depot truck drivers came by to pick up the packages and deliver them to their respective destinations. As mechanical as the process may sound, it felt magical to be a part of this chain of events. Actually, I was standing on the cusp of a magic moment. These books were on their way to meet children across Manchester. Kids would soon get to marvel at the rich colors and the delightful coos and caws of Cousins’ work. We were there, standing in the silent presence of anticipation waiting for that first act to begin.
I don’t think a book can arrive in a child’s hands by accident. Books mobilize people. Before the orchestra strikes its first chord, an innumerable amount of forces align to make sure all runs smoothly. As we packed up the boxes, the books seemed to whisper “I’m on my way”. And there I was - sitting in the audience waiting for the curtains to pull back and for the magic of reading to begin.
Yesterday, I traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon and had the chance to visit William Shakespeare’s birthplace and several of the properties where he lived over the course of his life. It was a stupendous day. As I strolled through the yards where the Bard of Avon once himself wandered, I remembered all of his stories that I have come to love and appreciate over the years. I grew up admiring Walter Crane’s Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden and much of high school was spent pouring over Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and the Tempest along with his sonnets. In university, I now realize that it is thanks to my teachers who introduced me to all of these stories that my love of stories has persisted. In the gallery of the Stratford museum, a quotation from the end of The Tempest greets visitors. It is taken from an exchange between Alonso and Prospero and reads simply: “I long to hear the story of your life”.
From a very young age, we learn about stories. We learn to listen to them and we learn to tell them ourselves. We seek to understand them and we learn to write our own. From a very young age, knowing about stories – writing and reading them – can change a child’s life.
In 2017, the Community Learning team at Trafford College in the Greater Manchester area invited local Trafford primary schools to participate in a Creative Writing project. Over the course of four weeks, parents got the opportunity to participate in a creative story-writing workshop alongside their children. They learned about how to get started, how to develop characters and how to create plot. The goal was to impart parents with the creative tools to continue supporting their children writing for pleasure at home. I spoke with Sarah Roiditis, an English tutor at the college and a member of the functional skills team who told me more about the initiative.
The project is called Trafford Tales and was created to help parents support children with their learning. As Sarah said, it not only “helped parents improve their own writing” but also “gave parents the opportunity to write their own story with the help of their child”. After the workshop concluded, children became published authors. With the tangible Tales, they got the chance to see their names printed and shared – who knows whether that precious proud moment could be the impetus for much more writing to come. Parents had the happiness of experiencing the rewards of the project in a more subtle way. Through the Trafford Tales, they had the chance to share a writing experience with their children in school and create a special time and memory with them.
Maybe, through workshops such as these, we realize that we have the power to shape our stories. Maybe, we also realize that stories have the power to shape us. Parents have a marvelous influence in introducing their children to a love of stories. Effectively, parents who participate in workshops that encourage writing for children are raising readers.
The Montreal Gazette published an article called, “Getting the word out about children's literature in Montreal” by Bernie Goedhart last November. In it, Goedhart speaks with Robert Paterson, a member on the board of the Knowlton Literary Festival Association, who emphasizes the importance of reading to the very young. Below is an excerpt from the article:
“Children need to hear a lot of words by the age of two,” he said, noting that it’s crucial to the acquisition of language and vocabulary. “The wonderful thing about being read to as an infant is that you’re bathing that child in words. Parents are holding the babies in their arms and that touch is important — the touch, the words, and the culture of reading for pleasure.”
Reading to children and introducing them to stories from a young age contributes greatly to stimulating their imagination and encouraging their natural creativity. Children and Parents reading and writing together can be even more beneficial. A decade ago, Literacy in Action and the Yamaska Literacy Council released a booklet entitled Learning with your Child. In it, they describe the multi-faceted role that parents have in raising readers. You can view it here.
Eventually, children learn to read themselves and are imparted with the tools they need to write their own stories. And somehow, there isn’t a word to describe how valuable that is. However, it can be gleaned in the way we write the story of our lives. Earlier in The Tempest, Prospero famously says, “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep”. The more we read, the more we expose ourselves to different life stories. More often times than not, these stories expand our world view and help us realize the power we have as storied individuals. As we celebrate Shakespeare's birthday this week, let us remember his immortal words: We are such stuff as dreams are made on. And so the story goes.
Support the Trafford Tales initiative and order your book copy here.
Insights into Manchester Part 6: Radio Lollipop and the Power of Play at Manchester's Children's Hospital
Covered in drawings and playful colors, I wondered what lay behind the door marked Radio Lollipop. I had walked into the Manchester Children’s Hospital earlier that morning to visit a friend volunteering in one of the hospital wards. In my explorations, I had come across the door and upon further exploration and curious questions to hospital staff, I was told to come back that evening to find out what lay behind it.
At 7:15pm that evening, I made my way back to the hospital. The hallways were considerably less crowded. I listened to all that could be heard: faint footsteps of lingering visitors and a distant vacuum noise cleaning the remnants of a long day. I rounded the corner and suddenly, the door was no longer closed.
With happy expressions, a group of people in red t-shirts filed out of the Radio Lollipop room carrying balloons. Watching them felt energizing. I approached John, one gentleman in the group and he told me about Radio Lollipop. A volunteer for the past 22 years, he told me all about this incredible organization that encourages play through radio. Radio Lollipop brings together “volunteers providing care, comfort, play and entertainment for children and young people in hospital”. And I was lucky to catch up with him because volunteers of the organization are only in after hours. Below is part of my conversation with John.
Gabrielle: What differences do you feel the presence of Radio Lollipop has made in the Manchester children’s hospital?
Mr. Rogers once said, ”Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” One of Radio Lollipop’s signature taglines is Serious Fun. Play and the positive impact it can have on the morale and creativity of children is something to be taken seriously. Another beautiful aspect of play for children is that it can be one of the best forms of therapy. Through play, a child can find security and stability. Experience has shown that a happy, motivated child can respond faster to treatment. Radio Lollipop initiatives “help normalize a young person’s day, support their psychological well being, and reduce the emotional challenges of a hospital stay” all through play and entertainment activities run by passionate volunteers.
When I’m listening to something I really connect with on the radio, I feel momentarily as though the people on air are speaking directly to me, even thinking of me, and responding to my ideas. That feeling of intimacy never loses its novelty. Every patient in Manchester’s Children’s Hospital has a radio next to their bed. At any moment, they can tune in, experience that same feeling of connectedness and know that they are not alone. Radio Lollipop is now in more than 30 hospitals in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US, and South Africa – working after hours and broadcasting the power of play on air 24/7.
A service such as Radio Lollipop in Canada would be brilliant. Children possess an innate sense of curiosity that deserves to be encouraged and stimulated in all circumstances, especially in illness. The pursuit of curiosity leads to creativity and children deserve the freedom to pursue their ideas with their unabashed curiosity. In his article “Enhancing Creativity”, Raymond Nickerson describes the characteristic of “childlike naïveté” that is common among great scientists – including Albert Einstein. As Nickerson recounts, the famous logician Bertrand Russell once praised Einstein because he did not take familiar things for granted. In an interaction between Russell and Einstein, Russell noted Einstein’s expression of “surprised thankfulness” that four equal rods can make a square. It is dazzling to imagine Einstein marvelling over the components of a square because it is something that seems so commonplace. However, it is just the faith in those moments of surprised thankfulness that lead to the persistence and realization of creativity.
The innate playful curiosity that children keep and protect in their earliest years is often taken for granted. However, Radio Lollipop is a guardian for children and their parents in hospitals across the world, providing them with the tools to pursue their interests and desire for play regardless of the circumstances. Having worked with over 5 million sick children with over 100 000 hours of volunteer time every year, Radio Lollipop continues serving patients with an open door – encouraging children everywhere to play on.
For more information on Radio Lollipop, visit their website
Nickerson, Raymond S. “Enhancing Creativity.” Handbook of Creativity, edited by Robert J. Sternberg, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 392–430.