Adults sometimes forget what reading means to children. Patsy Aldana of Toronto, publisher of Groundwood Books, who was named a member of the Order of Canada last week, has made children’s reading her life’s work. Reading is healing, she says. Reading is a window into oneself and others. Reading is a bulwark of democracy. And we don’t do enough, she says, to nurture our children’s love of reading.
IBBY talks about the right of every child to become a reader. Each child, Ms. Aldana says, should have access to books that are right for him or her. She is distressed that, in Ontario surveys, children and teenagers report that they are getting less pleasure from books than they used to. She blames that on an education system that in her view puts too much emphasis on literacy as a skill for future workers, and not enough emphasis on reading pleasure. Reading “talks to you about who you are, or it tells you something about who the other is. So they’re windows and mirrors.” And it’s essential to becoming a free person in a democratic society. “If you become a reader, you have a chance to become a critical thinker, to be a person who has some power over your life.”Children who have experienced natural disasters or the fallout of war know what she’s talking about. In Haiti, for instance, there are 60 reading points in camps, where children are read to, or encouraged to read, to help them to come to terms with the trauma they’ve experienced. There is a similar program in Gaza, under the auspices of IBBY – the International Board on Books for Young People – a non-profit group with representation in 71 countries, of which Ms. Aldana is the past president.
It is hard to imagine Ms. Aldana’s life without books. Born and raised in Guatemala, Ms. Aldana was only nine when her mother – a Boston intellectual – read Dickens and Shakespeare to her. Later, as an immigrant to Canada, she noticed that this country had little tradition of a children’s literature, outside Lucy Maud Montgomery, and started Groundwood (now part of Anansi Press) in 1978, publisher of Brian Doyle, Marie-Louise Gay and Deborah Ellis. And her late husband, Matt Cohen, won a Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.
Children’s love of reading is inherent and therefore timeless and universal. Adults can’t kill it, but they should heed Ms. Aldana’s message and do more to nurture it.