“You’re missing the view!” my parents used to scold me as we drove through beautiful English countryside on holidays as a child. I couldn’t see it because I always had my head buried in a book. I never minded rainy days on our summer holidays as it meant we ended up looking round shops and then I always got a new book. Stories were an escape, like diving into another world.
I devoured books as a child although our house wasn’t full of them – on the shelf next to my Dad’s armchair there were the essentials; a dictionary, a car manual and an atlas. But I grew up in an environment with respect for books, and encouragement of reading. The town library was a part of that. It was a lending library and each visit you were allowed to borrow five books. I always had a pile in my arms from which I had to choose which ones to take home. It was a hard decision, but there was this – I always knew the ones I put back would be there next time.
I took my son Daniel to the library in Kadikoy when he was eighteen months old. Toddlers are often astonished – nearly everything is new to them – but the look on his face when he realised there were all these books, ready to look at, was such a pleasure. I tried a few times that summer to go back with him, but every time, the bus-boat-bus journey seemed daunting. It started me thinking that with all the children in Istanbul, we needed a library on the European side. So I got in touch with Esra, who started the project in Kadikoy, and now we are working to establish something similar on this side of the city. I’m publicizing our work as widely as I can through social media, helping to edit the English part of the website, looking for potential sites and reaching out to municipalities to find people who also believe a facility like this is vital for our communities. I have a clear picture in my mind of story-tellings at the library – I’m positive it can become real. I believe that one day there will be community libraries in every area of Istanbul and we look back and wonder how once there weren’t any at all.
My son is lucky. He has parents and relatives who can afford to buy him books. If we want we can pay to go to activities at one of the ‘children’s cafes’ that have sprung up recently. But what about the children whose parents don’t have those means? Who don’t go to school yet so don’t have access to a school library? Don’t they deserve the chance to come and hear stories, and play?
A library isn’t just somewhere to read books, especially for young children. It’s about having a place for children and parents to come together, to feel part of a community. It’s about creating an environment where discovering something is the norm.
I know that early literacy sets the foundations for learning, for academic success in the future. That’s certainly important. But for me, reading a book is also a way of entering another landscape, of seeing the world through another’s eyes. It encourages imagination, and it develops empathy. To my mind, there can’t be anything more valuable than that.