Pekanbaru Library on the island of Sumatra is one of the most impressive library buildings I have ever seen but the empty book shelves and the sight of out-dated books published in the 1970s and 80s saddened me. When I visited the library on a trip to Indonesia a couple of years ago the head librarian, a tall man dressed in a uniform reminiscent of army fatigues, graciously met with me to discuss the library system in Indonesia. I had several picture books with me that I had brought over from Australia. When I showed him a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped. His look of astonished enchantment increased with each page. At the end of the book, he asked in an awed tone, “Where can I get such a book?”
The reaction of Indonesian teachers to Eric Carle’s masterpiece was similar. One teacher, who immediately grasped the beauty of the book’s simplicity and its educational value, highlighted the lessons embedded in the story as she turned the pages: “Colours, numbers, days of the week, food, biology…” Millions of children have enjoyed the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar without even noticing that it was teaching them so many things. What a gift Eric Carle has given to generations of wide-eyed children.
Like many children in Indonesia I had little access to books as a kid growing up in the Australian bush. However, I was lucky enough to be given the gift of story by an aunt who sent books each Christmas, knowing that my parents could not afford such luxuries. Those beautifully bound books of literature classics gave me hours of reading pleasure, escape from my real world, a love of stories and probably extensive education that I was not aware of at the time.
That love of stories stayed with me and led me to oral storytelling and writing. I feel privileged to be able to use my skills to give the gift of story. Although I would not attempt to emulate Eric Carle’s magnificent picture book I hope that children reading my chapter book, Trapped in Gondwana, will benefit from the pleasure of reading a good story and escaping from their real world while being unaware of the lessons they are learning about the evolution of the earth, the environment, threatened species, personal growth and more.
I wonder if Trapped in Gondwana is the book that I boasted about to my mother when I was still a scrawny bush kid in the early 1960s.
“One day,” I said to her, “I’m going to write a best-selling book.”
My mother replied, “One day I might give you something to write about.”
It wasn’t until after her death almost forty years later that she gifted me her story by leaving papers, previously hidden, for her children to find, which revealed her secret. When I put together the pieces of the puzzle presented by the paperwork, I remembered the promise she had made to me. At the same time I recalled one of her favourite sayings: “You can say anything you like about me when I am dead.” That was how I knew she had given me permission to write her story and the licence to write it as I saw fit. Her legacy to me was the gift of story. Perhaps it is her story Whisper My Secret and not Trapped in Gondwana about which I heralded great success with my grandiloquent boast. (Fingers crossed for both!)
Whatever the fate of my books in terms of sales, I do believe that the gift of story is one of the most precious gifts we can give, not only to children, but to each other. Apart from bestowing books whether print, electronic or audio, we can also give the gift of story in other ways. Sharing our stories, whether by telling and listening or by writing and reading, is a profound gift which binds families, communities, friends and nations through the creation of understanding, empathy and a sense of connection.
Until next time…JB