To My Local Library: Thank You
category: Newspaper Articles

To My Local Library: Thank You

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnist

I recently received sad news from home. One of my favorite childhood television shows, Reading Rainbow, will no longer air on PBS to promote reading as exploration for children. It ends a run that began the year I was born, 1983, finishing as the third longest running show on PBS, behind Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. PBS will no longer seek funding for the show, since recent studies indicate that children do not need to know why to read a book; rather, many children in the US are struggling with how to read a book. The news was depressing, and reminded me that sometimes the gaps between Guatemala and home are not as great as we imagine them to be. The United States has one of the highest functional illiteracy rates of the developed world, and Guatemala’s illiteracy rate stands at a staggering 40%.

In mourning over Reading Rainbow, I began to think about what books mean to me. I read constantly. In fact, it’s rare that one would encounter me without a book on my person. This is handy in my current job as a Peace Corps Volunteer, because people here have a very different concept of time. They are habitually late for everything, by at least an hour. I read while I wait, and although I’m stared at all the time here, when I’m reading a book the stares turn into perplexed, open gawking. “Is that the Bible?” I’ve been asked on a few occasions, presumably because the Bible is the most widely known book in these parts, and it has been translated into Q’anjob’al, the local language. But that’s not the case; I’m usually reading a fiction book, or a book on gardening to better our greenhouse production, or a book on women’s health to plan my next health talk.

These stares and inquiries aren’t limited to time spent in public. We have children peeking over our Dutch door all day long while we work in our home. The other day, a twelve year old neighbor girl came to visit as I was reading. I remembered my copy of Curious George in Spanish, so I asked her if she would like to read too. She took the book, and we began to read together. I heard her whispering the words, sounding them out, examining the pictures.

Word spreads fast in our village when we do something new or different. That afternoon, a group of boys showed up asking if I could read them the book. So began the first public reading of Jorge el Curiouso. Normally a rambunctious group, the boys sat quietly, mesmerized by the story and pictures. Since then, kids have come over to hear me read a story, and others have come asking permission to sit and read to themselves. It was moving, realizing that these children might never have been read to; suddenly I felt sad for them and overwhelmed with gratitude for my own fortune.

In addition to Guatemala’s high illiteracy rate, which includes most of the parents of the children who come to visit our house, most books here are in Spanish and they are prohibitively expensive. A subsistence farmer earns 30 quetzales a day when he can find work. A brand new book easily costs 100 quetzales or more, and there are no libraries within hours of our village. In fact, there are only about 100 libraries in the entire country of 13 million people.

I can’t describe how profoundly and positively I was affected by the Logansport/ Cass County Public Library. I didn’t grow up in a family with a huge disposable income, but the great thing about a library is you don’t need money, just your card. My mom and dad read to us almost every night before bed when we were little. We were read to at school after lunch, through the fifth grade. We had a school library in addition to the public one. I spent many scorching summer afternoons in the air-conditioned quiet of the library, picking out books during the summer reading program. Call me what you will, but my first solo drive was, on a Friday night, to my local library. Prior to Peace Corps, any time I wanted to know anything I turned first to the internet. If I wanted to know more, I’d find book recommendations, and make a trip to the library. The library is the basis of how I was taught to learn, and at the risk of sounding cheesy, how to be a life-long learner.

I believe books foster an imagination that will later be responsible for creative thinking and problem solving- or any lack thereof. I have talked a lot about the poverty suffered by third world countries, but sometimes I feel like monetary poverty isn’t so stark as the intellectual poverty the people here suffer. Their educational system is based on rote memorization, if they even go to school at all. Where we live there are no story books, very few moral tales, little to no creative thinking and imagination- so many of the things employed to teach our children in the US. The longer I’m here, the more convinced I am that development through education is key. Kids everywhere are naturally curious, just like Curios George. Think what books can do for them!

We can’t solve illiteracy without books. With them we might begin to solve a host of problems including improving Mayan children’s Spanish skills, maybe even inspiring them to write books in their own language some day. Books allow us access to diversity, histories, people, and places we may never have access to otherwise. Without books we are limited -and not just kids here or kids there- people everywhere are limited to the extent that their educational research tools are limited. Unlike so many of the problems I’ve talked about, the first steps to improving literacy are easy. Read a book. Read to your favorite kids. Read to someone’s classroom. Donate books to a library, to the Christmas gift drives coming up. While the show will not go on, we can still carry on it’s legacy, for the theme song rings true, “Take a look, it’s in a book, a reading rainbow…”

And for my part, thank you, to all the teachers and parents who read to me, and thank you to my local library.

Posted by: emily