By working with Macmillan Children’s Group, I have learned that children’s literature contains subjects that encompass various experiences across the globe. Our picture books devote a large proportion of their stories to illustrations—a visual language that conveys the same meaning in different cultures. A book has a narrative, but also a distinct set of images that doesn't exclude non-native English speakers from understanding a story. In fact, images are not limiting at all; rather, they are interactive and liberating to the extent that a young girl who speaks Swahili can use her imagination to draw her own meaning from a book written in English and perhaps learn another language in the process. This cross-cultural appeal is unique to the picture book format. I gained new insight into this realization when my sister, Andrea, recently traveled to Kenya with our books and was consistently greeted with smiles as wide as the ocean separating the two countries.
Andrea passed around ten books to the nearly 300 children at Livingstone Academy, a small school run by the retired runner Simon Biwott. The children stared in amazement and cradled the books in their arms like precious commodities. Livingstone Academy is characteristic of most schools in Africa: it lacks books and supplies, and the classrooms are in ill-repair with broken windows, chipped paint, and thin, drafty walls.
It is hard for me to imagine such decrepit and uninspiring surroundings. One of the great perks of my job at Macmillan is a backdrop full of bright, fluffy objects. I wanted to share a small slice of my office with Kenya through products that continually lift my spirits; I was delighted to discover, therefore, that the Kenyan school children greatly cherished the vivid bursts of color in our books.
Splashes of crimson, yellow, and blue, particularly in A Book About Color, offered a refreshing contrast to the muted browns of fading books and dusty shelves in their schools.
Most of the existing books at Livingstone Academy are dated by their tattered bindings and wrinkled yellow pages littered with hand-written notes in the margins: notebook paper is hard to come by in Kenya. The books are like endangered species in a rugged landscape where animals live in their natural habitat. I wonder what personal narratives Christian the Lion, a book about a lion returning to Africa from London, will spark in children who live in an environment where they could conceivably encounter a lion's paw print in the forest.
I sometimes take new books for granted because I work in publishing There are occasions, however, when I open something hot off the press that transports me back to my first day of elementary school, when knowledge was so inviting because it was on glossy white pages and smelled vaguely of new ink and cardboard. The stiff spine used to convince me that I was special; maybe I was the first person to read this book in my class. I imagine this feeling is the same for these Kenyan children, only profoundly multiplied. Their reactions remind me that information at this stage is fresh -- and should look that way too.
It is easy to see the initial excitement on these children’s faces, and I'm happy to say that it has not dissipated. Simon Biwott recently reported that the school children now frequent the small book collection. He even overheard a group of students discussing the magic of mixing two colors to make new colors of the rainbow, which seems like an apt metaphor: I keep thinking of the way this school creates hope with just a few books.
Leslie York is the National Accounts Assistant, for the Macmillan Children's Publishing Group