If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. ― Albert Einstein
Live fiction and write the truth. ― Helen Weinzweig
Back in the day, there was a groundbreaking book series entitled Best in Children's Books published by Nelson Doubleday. The series ran from 1957 to 1961. My parents bought the subscription through their local grocery store. Every month I waited breathlessly for the “mailman” to deliver the peanut butter colored unassuming cardboard package. But so much treasure inside: stories that sparked hours of imagining and exploration. Leading artists of the day contributed the artwork- artists like Maurice Sendak, Andy Warhol, and even Charles Perrault’s Cinderella! Forget Prince Charming, I loved the Godmother with those magical powers.
Every volume contained a mix of genres. From Poetry, (traditional and contemporary), to adaptations / abridgements of classics, folk and fairy tales, mythology, legends, biographies, history, science and geography. Best of all were the pictorial maps with information on different countries: Let’s visit France! Let’s visit Japan! I still remember my father’s thumb pointing to a mountain range and the word beside it. "Say it", he'd say, "yes, just sound it out." ... "Him-a-lay-as". Yes, a book is where my wanderlust began.
To me, each book was a microcosm. Every book a world, an entry point to many worlds all connected to the bigger world of dream and far away places. Pure magic for an imaginative child on Johnson Avenue in Moncton, N.B., a kid who almost inhaled those pages. Some day, I thought, I'll go to those mountains called the Himalayas. I just will.
I got older and busy and worked—I put those exotic travel dreams aside for a time. Besides, there was enough to see in our own country.
In 1997, when I was 41, my children seventeen and twenty-two, I was at my desk when the phone rang. "Do you still do readings and writing worshops? " "Yes." "Would you like to do readings and workshops in Bhutan?"
"Bhu-where?" I think I remember asking—but I wasn't the only one who'd hadn't heard of this beautiful country at that time. People still ask me where the country is but more often than not these days they've heard of the country—the country where the concept of gross national happiness exists, the country many compare to the mythical kingdom of Shangri -La.
And so it was... through the Bhutanese Ministry of Education and an extra-ordinary teacher and educator, Nancy Strickland (who I'd first met in Pond Inlet in the Arctic) I was invited to give readings and offer writing workshops in the country of Bhutan.That first trip was funded partially through CEDA and held in co-operation with the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick.
The day I stepped off the plane in Bhutan the landscape didn't seem strange or even unfamiliar. It seemed inevitable. No, I wouldn't go as far as to say it was deja vu but more like yes. Finally. Here I am. I am here. Am I here? Yes.
We travelled through the mountains on roads with views that did make me stop breathing. No lie.
But I learned to breathe.
We travelled from the capital of Paro in the west to Sherubste College in Kanglung in the east. We travelled—visiting schools, doing readings, giving workshops to teachers and writers.
Reading Sleeping Dragons in Druk Yul, Land of Thunder Dragon, 1997. Am I dreaming?
It was a celebration and it seemed almost historic because we travelled during the country's first ever national reading week.
I met so many gifted storytellers and writers in the writing workshops and years later, I was also fortunate enough to teach creative writing to Bhutanese students who attended the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. There has been a rich educational exhange for years between our countries.
I came away in 1997 knowing there's so much talent and culture, legends and history.There's an abundance of stories yet to be told and books by Bhutanese writers, books for children and adults yet to be published.
Gilles and I celebrated our third anniversary on that trip and to say our time in Bhutan was a life changing trip would be an understatement.
Those are clouds behind us. We joke it's been all downhill since then. Not really, but we fell in love with Bhutan and hoped to return. I felt it would happen if and when it was meant to be.
I've never written about Bhutan partly because I'm still processing the effect the experience has had on my life. The kindness. The pace. The peace. The prayer flags. The prayer wheels. The Stupas. The Trek to Tiger's Nest.
I have unfinished pieces—poetry of a kind—in scribblers. We have personal film footage from our trip—at the time there were strict rules about taking and showing film outside the country. But we were allowed for personal use. In fact this first trip was before television had been introduced in the country, although radio and media studies were thriving.
I wondered often how life in Bhutan had changed since 1997. I wanted to know what was happening in the world of children's books in Bhutan. I also felt in need of "a little happiness," I confessed to my husband one evening this summer. A heart heavy year it's been. Two days after I said those words out loud an email arrived. Out of the blue. Again.
So I'm leaving this week and will be in Bhutan for a bit, working again with Bhutanese writers, again to help develop indigeneous children's books for early childhood education centres. Through Save the Children, we are embarking on an ambitious project that will span a few years. This year, ten books will be the result. Five in English and five in Dzongkha. Sydney Smith will be along and he'll share his experience and wisdom as artist in the field of children's book illustration. It should be a wonderful creative time for all of us.
Children's books and the stories we receive in childhood, the ones we hear through our ears and have read aloud to us are important on so many levels and yes, crucial to the cultural landscape, national literary heritage, spoken and written arts and education of our children.
Also—children's books are for dreaming. Children's literature as Steig once said. "is largely a literature of optimism."
Children's books bring happiness.
The timing of this trip at the end of this year is a gift to me. I am so honored to be invited back. I look forward to the work and travelling with Syndey.
I wonder if I'm eight and still dreaming.
The soul is healed by being with children. — Fyodor Dostoyevsky