I come from a region where literacy indicators among school-age children are consistently among the world’s lowest. In many countries in the Middle East, public libraries are not particularly prevalent, active, or well supplied, and can certainly benefit from the support of professional librarians. Access to literature and e-books is limited to the affluent few.
This is one of the markets where the need is great and the supply is mediocre. A vast majority of schools still use basal reading programs to teach reading and writing skills, which are mostly based on factual essays and short excerpts of classic literature work. The vast majority of children are growing up never having the chance to hold or read a book outside the mandated school textbooks and are missing out on enjoying complete works of literature.
Unfortunately, the strong bond between literacy and literature is underestimated. Literacy statistics, specifically fluency and comprehension, are not readily available to the public in countries such as mine. Related research studies are scarce. In an unusually bold step, it was officially announced recently in Jordan, my native country, that 80% of second and third graders read below their national grade-level expectations. If we couple this with the fact that about 80% of the schools in Jordan belong to the public sector, the implications are alarming.
Although many can blame inadequate financial resources, I believe it is mainly due to a lack of awareness of the underlying power of children’s literature.
As an author and publisher who strongly believes in the concept of “literacy through literature,” I find myself, on many occasions, in the unenviable and often frustrating position where I still have to discuss the importance and the need to incorporate children’s literature among learning resources. Although this is slowly changing as we are witnessing a few initiatives incorporating children’s literature in education, these remain baby steps when quantum leaps are needed.
The eloquent and beautiful words of the great children’s literature advocate Charlotte Huck are pertinent in these situations: “Literature is a kind of golden string that can place us in contact with the best minds in every period of history, the wisest, the tenderest, the bravest of all who have ever lived. And it can do this for children, if only we can help them to grasp hold of it.”
Marginalizing literature means marginalizing feelings and emotions, which suggests not only missing out on great opportunities to develop more humane individuals but also failing to grasp a golden chance to create lifelong readers.
Here the words of the great cognitive linguistic psychologist Frank Smith come to mind: “The emotional response to reading is the primary reason most readers read, and probably the prime reason most non-readers do not read.”
Although facts and information are important to educate the mind, there should always be ample space to educate the heart. And, with such low literacy indicators to grapple with, the need is more urgent than ever to engage the mind and the heart of every single student and to challenge the status quo.
Flora Majdalawi is an Arabic children’s author and publisher from Jordan who focuses on producing fiction and nonfiction literacy resources for primary students. She has authored over 20 titles in the differentiated graded Arabic reading series Discover the Fun of Reading. She is also the author of the tweens’ realistic fiction series Hind and Saif.
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of LITERAY TODAY ILA’s member magazine.