Thursday, September 13, 2012

S.T.E.L.L.A.A. & Child Literacy

Not that long ago, I listened to a Radiolab podcast about colour and it blew my mind. Now, I'll be the first to admit that their brand of science-y storytelling can often do that, but this was different. In the show (which I highly recommend you listen to), they talked not only about how colour works and where it comes from and that sort of thing – they also talked about the language of colour. Specifically, they spoke to a linguist Guy Deutscher about William Gladstone's reading of The Odyssey and how, even though that book takes place mostly in locations surrounded by water, the word "blue" is never used. Not once. The conclusion? That blue didn't exist for Homer. He didn't have a word for it, so he couldn't express it (he instead describes the sea as "wine-dark"). Colour words, it seems, develop in stages that are consistent across cultures, with blue being the last major one to come into play. Crazy, right?

I have been thinking about this a lot since I listened to that podcast, so when Carrie MacMillan contacted me about being part of the S.T.E.L.L.A.A. blog tour, the two ideas meshed. S.T.E.L.L.A.A. works to eradicate poverty in Africa by providing literacy and educational tools to communities. It's a small thing, but it can have a huge impact. One of the ways S.T.E.L.L.A.A. provides these tools is through books donated in Canada and delivered to various African communities (part of their philosophy is to promote environmental responsibility, and reusing books is a great way to do that).

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with books. My parents were (and remain) readers, so from the word go I was surrounded by books. I was read to, I was encouraged to pick up books and flip through them (and later, of course, to read them myself). For me, books were a way to go somewhere else. I was never going to experience 19th century Prince Edward Island or the pioneer days in the U.S. for myself, but Lucy Maud Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder could take me there. I was never going to take a boat past Patagonia, but thanks to Sue Scullard's Miss Fanshawe and the Great Dragon Adventure I not only got to see the mountains of Patagonia, but also to follow along as the heroine discovered dragons at the centre of the Earth. I still have never been to the Netherlands, but because I was read (many, many times) The Cow Who Fell Into the Canal by Phyllis Krazilovsky, I was given a way to imagine it anyway.

That's the point, really. Reading, and being read to, as a child feeds your imagination with a world of images and and situations and places that you might never experience first-hand, but can dream about nonetheless. As kids, my sisters and I weren't allowed to watch much TV, so our free time was spent reading and playing, and the vast majority of our games were fuelled by our incredibly active imaginations. Even though there were certainly times when, like Homer I suppose, we lacked the word for whatever it was we wanted to describe, we had the imaginations to come up with something else.

In Orwell's 1984 there is the suggestion that if we lack the word for something, we can't think it; fostering active imaginations in children defeats that, because if you have an imagination, there is always a way to express yourself. (No word for blue? Fine then, I'll say it's "wine-dark.")

As my contribution to the S.T.E.L.L.A.A. blog tour, I'd like to encourage you to donate your (gently) used books to their cause. Local libraries are certainly deserving as well, but even if you put every second or third book aside, it makes a difference. In addition to picture books and fiction, S.T.E.L.L.A.A. needs text books. Subjects such as math and basic science – in which not a lot really changes between editions – are greatly appreciated, and put to excellent use. Education and imagination are extraordinarily empowering, although it's easy to forget that living as we do in a society where both those things are so normalized.

Now, it's tempting to say that every book will be appreciated, but it's important to remember the context in which these books will be read. Cookbooks, books about home decor, etc. are of little use to communities looking to improve education. Yes, they can be tools for imagination, but they depict a reality so incredibly different that at best they are useless and at worst, insulting. S.T.E.L.L.A.A. also stays away from evangelical and political work, so please consider that when planning books to donate (an illustrated book of parables may have been a family favourite in your house, but may not jive with a community it's sent to, and respecting that is important). The full list of guidelines for donation are here – for the most part, your books are welcomed with open arms.

All the drop-off points are in Toronto; however, I asked about sending books by mail, and was given this address:

9200 Weston Road
PO Box 92092
Vaughan, ON L4H 3J3
If it's a big donation, though, they ask that you get in touch with them about sending it.

Although I often have the opportunity (both through this blog in in my day to day life) to champion books and literature, it's rare that I get the chance to do more than simply recommend a book or encourage someone to shop at local independent bookstore. If you feel similarly, consider donating books S.T.E.L.L.A.A. – Allegra Young is planning to run a book drive in the New Year, so perhaps I'll talk to her about co-hosting. Either way, stay tuned!

Also, this is the second-last day of the blog tour, but if you'd like to read more about S.T.E.L.L.A.A., and learn more about the organization, please take a tour through all the stops:
Sept. 8: Tour launches with Terry Fallis
Sept. 9: Vanessa Grillone
Sept. 10: Amy McKie

Sept. 11: Jenn Lawrence
Sept 12: Allegra Young
Sept. 13: Here!
Sept. 14: Mara Shapiro


  1. How interesting. Just yesterday someone told me that the ancient greeks had no word for the color blue, which I found fascinating.

  2. It is so interesting that Homer didn't use the word blue in his texts! Definitely, I want to explore colour topic in my next Best Custom Writing review, cause it is worth researching.


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