A book to call my own

2011-02-03 00:00

I WAS brought up with books: my mother read bedtime stories to me, visits to the library were a weekly highlight for everyone in our family, and nearly every room in our house had a bookshelf or two of books in it. The best birthday presents were books or a book voucher. I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember and my two children have grown up in a similar environment and both read as much as or more than I do. I cannot imagine a home or a life devoid of books

The school in our small town is blessed with a beautiful library and we constantly work at keeping it stocked with new books to keep children interested and stimulated to read more. Fortunately, there are a number of wonderful “travellling book stores” which come trundling around our little country towns with a well-stocked van of books from which we can choose and buy. Children and parents are also encouraged to buy books for themselves. It is a great event in the life of the school each year when the date for “the book fair” draws near. Posters are put up around the school, flyers are passed around and children save their pocket money, or buy less at the tuck shop that week in order to be able to buy themselves a book or two.

Watching the lines of excited children filing into the hall where a temporary book store had been set up recently, it suddenly struck me that if one is a rural child living in a town such as ours or in a township nearby, it could happen that one could go right through one’s school years without ever going to a large city. In our small town and the neighbouring small town, there is nowhere to buy a book. One can buy a newspaper or a magazine, but not a book. There are libraries in both towns where one can borrow and read books, but not actually buy and possess one. And suddenly I understood the excitement and thrill that many of these children were experiencing. For the first time, they had the opportunity to browse through shelves and tables of books, choose one, pay for it, take it home and write their name in it. It could be theirs forever. It would not have to be returned to the library next week; it was not a textbook handed out by the teacher at the beginning of the year, to be handed back at the end of the year. It was a book which they chose and made their own. Some of them were trembling with anticipation; excited murmers and discussions and sighs of “Help me choose, this one or that one?” “What are you getting?” “Have you seen the joke books?” “How much is this one?” echoed around the hall. And I was deeply humbled by a reflection on my own privileged upbringing, constantly surrounded by books and how much most of us take for granted.

Later that day the organisers were packing up. They had advertised that they would be there until 3 pm and it was now nearly 4 pm and time to hit the road and get back to the big city before dark. Most children had gone home, and extramurals were over for the day; only one or two teachers were still busy in their classrooms. Three quarters of the books had been packed away. The school librarian­ and I were helping. Suddenly, there was a pounding of little feet and some hectic panting. A pint-sized, barefoot figure, dressed in a green- and-white spotted dress, flung herself through the hall door.

It was a little Grade 3 girl. Her teacher was hot on her heels and explained to us that Asanda­ Mkhwanazi had forgotten to bring any money to school for the book fair that day. So as soon as she was released from class, she had run all the way home, changed out of her school clothes, gone around the house gathering up all the coins she could find and run all the way back to school, desperately anxious that she might be too late to buy herself a book. The book seller graciously put aside the box of books she was packing (I could have kissed her) and said to the child: “Let’s see how much you’ve got.” So the tightly clutched Checkers packet got turned upside down and coins scattered all over the table. We all helped to count them. My hand was already reaching into my purse to add a few more, but the book lady from heaven took Asanda­ by the hand and showed her some of the books that were not yet packed away and for which she had sufficient money. What a thrill to see that little figure in the green-and-white spotted dress set off home, a broad smile all over her face and a precious book clutched to her chest. A book she could call her own.

Maybe a miniscule, insignificant incident when viewed against the grand scheme of things, but an incident that provoked a realisation and an awakening for me: that I am still privileged­, but now it is because I can be a part of that process — to expose children to the wonderful world of books and to awaken in them a thirst and a desire to read and to be the proud owner of their own book, a book to call their own.

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