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Raffique Shah


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Give a child a book for Christmas

By Raffique Shah
December 02, 2007

As the Armed Forces Veterans Association (AFVA) prepares for its annual Christmas party for selected children in Laventille (where its operations are based), my ex-soldier friend Selwyn Nurse asked: what toys do you think we should give them this year? "Books!" I responded, without hesitating. Books? He seemed somewhat puzzled by my response. I imagine the children, too, would be unpleasantly surprised when Santa (Brigadier Alfonso? WOII Gellizeau?) hands them books, not Nintendos or the latest tech-toys. Parents may even cuss Santa and storm out of the compound, probably pelting bottles and stones, if not spraying the "vets" with real bullets.

Having explained why I thought the AFVA should take the lead in trying to stimulate reading among children, Nurse bought the idea and is now looking for book donors. I should add that besides gifts, the children are treated to snacks and goodies, enjoy music, and generally have a good time. I have identified this one children's Christmas party because I am associated with the AFVA. But there are hundreds of similar events hosted every year, and not only for Christmas, but increasingly for Eid, Diwali, graduations, and so on. At most of these, the hosts feel compelled to buy the children toys-usually cheap trinkets that are bought in bulk.

One of the main failings of our society, and we are not singular in this respect, is that increasingly, children do not read. In fact, I can say with authority that many teachers do not read-except textbooks they need to read for teaching purposes. Over the past few years, British writer J.K. Rowling has stimulated interest among teenage readers with her Harry Potter series. But technology and globalisation have combined to consign reading to a rapidly diminishing number of "old fogeys". Today, it's the ubiquitous LCD or plasma screen that controls mind, body and soul. These are also among reasons why we enter the 21st century with declining numbers of people who can read, write properly, or understand basic arithmetic.

Last week several consumer reports coming out of North America and Europe told of parents who will buy their pre-school children (meaning those under three years) expensive tech-toys like laptop computers, ipods, and real cell-phones. One mother who bought a toy phone for her one-year-old baby said the child threw it away! She wants a real phone, like the one mummy owns. Here in Trinidad, it will be little different, especially among the well-heeled. You can bet, too, that those who complain loudest about rising food prices, illiteracy among school children and high crime, will think nothing of spending heavily on gizmos for their "tiny treasures".

I am not suggesting we take the fun out of Christmas, which I've long maintained is meant for children, what with its compelling tale of the Christ-child in a manger, and its many beautiful songs. Sure, give the young ones some fun stuff. But in or out of the festive season, people must realise that for this country to progress, we need to produce many more literate graduates. And the fundamentals of literacy have not changed since Euclid and Shakespeare walked the earth: the three "R's"-reading, writing and arithmetic are an imperative.

Being a compulsive reader for the better part of my 61 years (except for some textbooks I laboured through when I attended college), I can say with authority that reading not only informs and educates, but more important, it stimulates the imagination. I am no scientist, but I'd rank imagination as our "sixth sense" that is probably more valuable that the other five put together. Conversely, tech-games, television and computers, when not properly used, destroy the wonderful world of imagination.

When I was a pre-teen reading Aesop Fables, Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" series and "Billy Bunter", I was lost in a dream world of high adventure. Today's parents need not turn to foreign authors for stimulating material, although reading, like music, is universal in appeal. Julie Morton has churned out several while my late friend, Ken Parmasad, produced an Indian classic in Salt and Roti. For more mature children, and this has little to do with age, there's Merle Hodge's Crick Crack, Monkey, as, I am sure there are many other good "reads" from other Caribbean writers.

Many bookstores still stock the "classics" in condensed versions, which were what many of my friends and I used to introduce our children to the joy of reading. Homer's Illiad and Odyssey, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Arabian Nights, and, of course, Cervantes' Don Quixote, must be a thousand times more interesting than most television shows (except, perhaps, Sesame Street). Comic books provided an incentive for those children who were not "bright", to learn to read.

As we seek to address today's problems of illiteracy and crime, which are inextricably linked, we should start by re-kindling an interest in reading, in the logic of math, and healthy sports. These give us no guarantee against societal degeneration. But they might just extricate us from this descent into the hell-hole we are mired in. And they cost much less than the tech-junk that children will destroy before the festive season gives way to Carnival.