Jeddah’s first public library is here!

I’m sorry did you just read that title with contempt? It’s okay if you did. I understand. I mean, how backward does a place have to be to not have any public libraries *cries floods of tears*. But, seriously, the reading culture here in Jeddah is seriously impaired. There is one tiny non-profit trying to do something to change that, and they’re called JeddahReads. And if you know me, you know my objective is to collaborate with every possible person that promotes creativity. lol.

So, of course, I was delighted when they invited me as the guest speaker at the opening ceremony of their library. Here’s the transcript of the short speech I gave, I chose the topic, “A Doorway to Wonder”:

“Come in, come in, here is a land you’ve never seen before, here is a place to hide when you’re frightened, to play when you’re bored, to rest when the world seems unkind.”

I came across these words in a book I was reading recently by Leigh Bardugo, and they reminded me again of why I fell in love with books as a child. A long time ago, I was walking down a corridor of my secondary school building and I came across these large white double doors. And when I opened those doors I found myself in a sunlit space filled with chairs, tables and shelves upon shelves of books. And that day I discovered a companionship like no other, a companionship that could teach me so much, a companionship no one could take away from me.

So today, I just want to talk a little bit about what all those years of living between the pages taught me about the power of fiction, the power of children’s literature. When you read a book, you become a traveller. You can travel through time and learn about people who lived. You can travel through space, visiting galaxies or diving deep underwater, or simply stepping into the shoes of other people, and other cultures. The exposure your child will get from reading a book, could spell the difference in how they tolerate and understand new and foreign cultures and places.

But most importantly, books can whisk you away on an adventure beyond your wildest dreams. You can find yourself inside the world of Alice’s looking glass, or imagine yourself on platform 9 ¾ , ready to board the train to hogwarts. As children, we see the world differently. We are more ready to take leaps of faith, we are more prepared to believe that anything is possible. How many of us wanted to be something when we were children, that we now consider absurd? To my five year old, becoming an astronaut is a very viable dream. He has no doubt in that he’ll be able to accomplish it. So when a book takes a child on a journey, that journey is truly special, because the child opens their heart to all the wonder that they witness. And they believe it too.

Peter pan is a classic book that has entranced people of all ages. For my daughter, Tinkerbell and the other fairies were perhaps the most fascinating characters. And I remember, one day she was scared of going to bed, scared that the lights were out. I recall wondering how I could convince her not to be so frightened and my eye fell on one of those eggs you can buy at any baqala. Now this egg happened to be glowing in the dark, and I remember picking it up and telling her a story of how one of the fairies was living inside it, making the egg glow. And if I switched on the light, she would never be able to see the fairy’s glow. I remember her eyes going really wide as she considered this possibility, and I remember that she found it so exhilarating. A fairy trapped in one of her toy eggs! And the most interesting part is, she never looked for corroboration, she kept that egg on her bedside table but she didn’t dare open it, or the fairy would fly away!

Mac Barnett, a children’s book author, called this phenomenon Wonder in his TED Talk. Books suspend our disbelief, and for a moment, we straddle a line between what is real and what isn’t, and that magical moment is so rarely found, we ourselves don’t seek to destroy it. Now, this is all very well but you could ask, what is the point of all this wonder? Other than giving your child a childhood to remember, a childhood filled with the most marvelous and exciting memories to cherish, it also has some crucial and vital roles to play in a child’s life.

The companionship that a book can offer can support your child through a trying time. And we’ve all faced those as kids. From family problems, to minor or major bullying in school. Books whisper hope and offer a sanctuary, a vacation from the real world. Books can be your child’s best friend and a great form of therapy. Also, this sense of wonder builds up your creativity, and you know what creative people become later on in life? They become problem solvers, they become entrepreneurs and trailblazers.

The most important thing though, is the truth hidden inside this wonder. These fantastical places, these unbelievable events, they’re not completely divergent from reality. In fact, they have roots deep within reality. Wendy leaves for Neverland out of compassion for the lost boys as much as out of the thrill of adventure. But she returns because she realizes that growing up is better than living a life where you forget everyone you loved. Edmund from the Chronicles of Narnia realizes the power of family when he betrays them to the Ice Queen and they still support him and help him get back on his feet. Charlie from Charlie and the chocolate factory, learns that creativity is not akin to rebellion, and as wonky as Mr. Wonka is, he doesn’t appreciate greed, narcissism or violence. And Matilda, a misunderstood child, quite literally finds solace, friendship and learning between the pages of books.

Books show children the real world from their viewpoint. They allow them to understand subtle truths about the world in a way that is not dry or boring. So when, inside the pages of a book, a child visits different places, step into different shoes, they learn to understand why things happen the way they happen. Characters who were good get trapped in difficulties, characters who are bad may seem to win, characters who made mistakes may be redeemed and it shows them the multifaceted nature of our world. It teaches them to empathize with a variety of people with their variety of flaws.

And empathy is so important in today’s day and age when the world has shrunk so much through the internet and yet we often find ourselves isolated, viewing highly curated, social media versions of other people’s lives. Every time we open the newsfeed we see either someone whose life is more put together than ours, or somewhere people are existing in a warzone. One plunges us into despair and the other we quickly stroll past because it makes us uncomfortable. We know which is which, don’t we?

Have you guys ever cried over the death of a beloved character? An ending you didn’t anticipate? We find ourselves desensitised to the tragedies of real life, since they bombard us daily nowadays, but books, books still hold the power to make us cry. Stories wind their way into our heart and somehow, they make us care. So, really, a relationship with books is the way to a life lived with wonder, creativity and compassion.

To encourage people to visit the library they’ve also started a small book club. A book is selected each month and given to the book club members to read, and then every Saturday they meet and have some activities relating to the book. So once a month, I am in charge of the drama session which, to me, is the perfect blend of art, creativity and imagination 😀

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