“Read with Me”, a Program for Enjoying Books and Childhood

For Zohreh Ghaeni, Winner of IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award 2022

By Seyyed Mahdi E’tesami

The 2022 international iRead prize was awarded to an Iranian lady, Zohreh Ghaeni, who has dedicated herself to the promotion of children’s reading in Iran and Afghanistan. In the chaos and confusion that is called children’s culture in Iran, and in the hopeless and corrupt organization that is called school, contaminated with objectification, materialism and inherent exhaustion, one is bound to be surprise at hearing such a news story. But where comes the surprise?

As many studies such as PIRLS’s reveal, today in Iran children are tossed into schools but do not learn literacy skills. Children reach the borders of adulthood and are abandoned there without having enjoyed their childhood or having heard good tales or read quality books. But there is a program called “Read with Me” which tries to give the children their childhood back as much as possible, and is hugely effective in the field of children’s culture in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

Compared with school programs, which rest on injudicious, aimless, vague and tired traditions, “Read with Me” program pays considerable attention to studies in the field of childhood and reading. In other words, in the backstage of all the activities undertaken by Zohreh Ghaeni and her colleagues, you can find a world of innovative thinking and wide-spread research.

But to be fair to a program such as “Read with Me”, it is not enough to compare it with the official educational system; it is more fruitful to compare it with other programs and institutions working in the field of children’s culture. The key to the effectiveness of “Read with Me” program in comparison with others is the way Ghaeni manages and guides this program based on well-established standards in reading promotion. She tries to make connections between lesser-known areas, such as literacy and reading stories and literary works, since she believes that good reading requires helpful tools, and that mastery of literacy skills is gained by reading non-school related books.

Another significant aspect of “Read with Me” program which has given it special credit and has attracted world-wide attention is Ghaeni’s and her colleagues’ emphasis on redefining the function of children’s libraries in underdeveloped and deprived areas. Based on their redefinition, they have turned libraries into activity-based environments rather than repositories of bookshelves. There is no library in “Read with Me” program without the sounds of loud readings and echoes of emotional reactions to the ups and downs of stories and other activities related to reading. The significance of these activities comes to light when you compare these libraries with school libraries where books are homeless and children are temporary tenants. Even in the best schools and in the rare occasions when non-textbooks are introduced to children, only skeletons of these books are present in the classes and the sensory, emotional, human and social aspects of these books are usually lost.

“Read with Me” program does not reduce reading promotion to sending a few books to deprived and out-of-reach areas; it is committed to promoting reading by designing activities around books, such as reading aloud activities, which help children taste the sweetness of reading and experience all the energies of the book. Ghaeni teaches us that reading aloud makes us aware of all the potentials of the book and helps us discover and experience all the sensory, emotional, imaginative, behavioral and experimental aspects of the book.

If we investigate official children’s institutions in Iran, such as schools, from the perspective of behavioral studies, we can see that they are afflicted with disorder and impromptu decisions. On the other side, however, Ghaeni and her colleagues in “Read with Me” program have been so organized in the course of ten years throughout Iran that they can offer a working example for the whole world in the fields of children’s literacy, reading and general good. “Read with Me” is the first program in Iran which has not only recognized the children’s right to having access to high-quality books, but also has designed acceptable standards for the quality of books. Quality is not an abstract idea but has a wide-ranging definition in this field. A high-quality book may be one with high-quality text and pictures; but such a book would not be regarded as useful for children affected by crises such as earthquake, flood and war. A significant pragmatic characteristic of “Read with Me” program is its ability to adapt to and deal with immediate situations. It pays due attention to these significant differences, and works hard to decide what books should be sent for what group of children.

Although the official educational system is devoid of justice and differentiates between children in the big cities and children in remote areas; “Read with Me” program’s priority is being highly justice-oriented in the promotion of reading and letting children in all areas enjoy their childhood.

Zohreh Ghaeni is a unique personality with multifaceted abilities. She is a master of children’s literature and an authority in historical and cultural researches. She is among the very few Iranians who are known world-wide for their activities in the field of children’s culture and reading. It is our duty to know her better, and to join her in her activities in “Read with Me” program.

This post is also available in: Persian

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