Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dogs of India

I am mostly over being sick. Mentally, I am way WAY over it. Physically--well, I'm on my third different antibiotic, and this one's a weird one but seems to be doing more good than the first two. I took prednisone for more than 30 straight days, a new record for me, and I'm still using some extra inhalers and a few other random things. I'm also still coughing, though not nearly as much or as violently--I'm actually on an airplane as I'm typing this, and I will tell you, just now nobody loves anyone who coughs on an airplane. I've thought about wearing a sign saying "I do not have Coronovirus. Promise." around my neck. So far I've mostly just glared at people.

As I said, I'm over it.

I'm still thinking about how to write about India. India's a very big place--1.6 billion people, a large chunk of land, and cities simply on a different scale and density than we're used to. When we were in Varanasi, our tour guide called it a "small city." I asked what the population of Varanasi was. "About three million," he said.

Mostly when I think about India, I think about gorgeous saturated color. The saris of saffron and deep orange and violet. The open bags of spices in the marketplace, and the piles of vegetables and fruit. The wildly decorated wedding pavilions. The garlands of marigolds.

The other thing I think about is peace. India isn't quiet, but it's peaceful. There's a sense of happiness there. Drivers honk non-stop on the roads--you would too, out of sheer defensiveness-but there isn't a hint of road rage. No one is cursing. Cows wander the streets, placid and happy; people cut grass for them to eat, or offer them water.

Then there are the dogs.

They're everywhere. They look the same--cross a coyote with a fox, you'd get an Indian dog. Medium to short reddish or tannish hair, dark eyes, alert ears. Never barking; almost never jumping on people. May or may not have mange, but always seems to be well fed. They approach strangers politely, even hopefully, but they don't beg. I don't think they have to. Several times I saw people feeding dogs out on the streets. Dogs would come trotting over until a great pack surrounded the person with the food, but all of them waited patiently for their turn. No hostility, no shoving, just a sense of calm.

I grew to really love the Indian dogs. I was fond of the monkeys too. You had to be a bit more careful with them--they're wily thieves not above sneaking into open hotel windows--but they were fun to watch. I asked one of the men working at a hotel what sort of monkeys they were. He seemed surprised by the question. "Just, you know," he said, "basic monkeys."

Friday, February 7, 2020

Yesterday at the Book Fair

I went to India for two weeks. It was extraordinary, and it was complicated, and I'm left with the feeling that I'm not ready to write about it yet. I'll need to break bits down into smaller stories; so far, it's still all one bright swirl in my brain.

The air pollution there was horrific, which I knew going in. I anticipated having a hard time, because my asthma is exceptionally sensitive to air pollution. I actually packed a small air filterer in my luggage--and someone, somewhere, in one of the airport security checks (Atlanta to Amsterdam to Delhi) pried it apart and broke it. It probably would have been a big help, especially during the part where we were on a boat sailing the Ganges, especially as we got close to Kolkata. As it was I got pushed right to the edge of what my lungs can take. If my trip had been any longer I probably would have cut it short. I was as medicated as I could get away from a hospital, and I wore a high-tech mask--even to sleep in, some nights--and my breathing was a mess, and and still is.

I'll get better. But for the first time, I've been somewhere I know I won't go back, unless they fix their air pollution. I liked an awful lot about India and I'd love to explore it further, and I won't, and that's a little sad. I'll write about all of it eventually.

Meanwhile, we've entered into Book Fair Season with a vengeance. Thanks to the whopping grant Appalachian Literacy Initiative received from First Book, we're going into all the schools on the Virginia side of our town, and giving out gorgeous shiny new books.

Yesterday we were at an elementary school, PK-grade 5, a little over 200 students, 98% of whom qualify for free lunch. (At that point, they give everyone free lunch, and breakfast. But imagine it: four kids in the school whose parents make enough money that they don't qualify for free lunch. Four. Kids.) The school is actually doing a great job teaching the students--the principal was away yesterday getting a big national award for how much the school has improved. The teachers and staff are dedicated and proud.

The library is dire. Many of the teachers told me that they have classroom libraries--and we were able to let the teachers all chose a bunch of books for them at the end of the day--but the library--I have no words. I have a photo I took of one of the shelves--I didn't stage the photo, I just took it. Here:

One of those books--not the story, the actual physical book--was printed after I was born. ONE. I'm 52. And while I love A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park's Newbery winner, none of the rest of the books belong on a modern elementary school shelf. 

If you want kids to read well, you have to give them the proper incentive to practice and master the skill. And the incentive that works isn't Accelerated Reader points, free pizzas, improved test scores, or teacher affirmations. It's stories.

We love reading because we love stories.

We're in a golden age of children's literature right now. Some of the best, most vibrant, diverse, exciting books ever written have come out in the last ten years. Where are they in that photograph? They're the missing books, the ones the children should have access to.


We brought stories.

Each student chose three books to keep.

There's a thing about low-income kids I hadn't realized until yesterday. Their more affluent peers take things like books for granted. A book isn't a big purchase, of course they could have a book. Three books? Great! Middle-income kids can all picture, pretty clearly, what it might be like to be given some books. 

I already knew, of course, that low-income kids face significant challenges in getting access to books. If you can't afford rent, you aren't buying your kids books. If you can't afford school lunches, books probably aren't happening. The public library might be far from where you live, or maybe you can't check those books out anymore because you owe back fines, or because you don't currently have a fixed address. The school library might have shelves like my first photograph. It's why I started ALI; it's why we showed up yesterday with all the beautiful new books.

Anyhow, in nearly every class, when the students came into the library and I gave my speech ("three books, any books, I don't care what you choose or why, take your time") a child would raise their hand, and ask, anxiously, "Money?" Or, "We gotta pay for these?" Or, "We gotta give them back?" When I said, no, free books, no money, no giving them back, it was met not only with cheers, but with relief. These kids know there isn't extra money in their lives. They don't expect to be able to have books.

It was so much fun watching them chose. The photograph above is the big chapter books, but we had shorter chapter books, graphic novels, picture books, and lots of nonfiction. One child gleefully scooped up three books about planets. One black girl saw the book Don't Touch My Hair and said, "Oh, uh-HUH." Kid after kid after kid would select their books, sit down on the library floor, and start reading right away. (I wanted to take photos, but I don't share identifiable photos of children.) When the teachers came after school, to pick out books for their own classroom libraries, several of them reported that they'd given in to student demands and spent the entire afternoon reading. 

One child, walking out of the library, said to another, "This is, like, the best day ever."

So many people have supported ALI. I am beyond grateful to you all. Yesterday was very good. 

You can read more about ALI here and donate to us via PayPal here.