Gayane Aghabalyan

AIWA Presents Inspiring Program on Children’s Literature

278
0

LOS ANGELES — “Thank you for moving our hearts,” was the concluding remark of moderator Alice Petrossian at the “Beyond The Book: Transforming Armenian Children’s Literature” webinar, organized by the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) to celebrate International Children’s Book Day. And move our hearts is exactly what the participants did. Gayaneh Aghabalyan and Laura Gaboudian, two young authors from Armenia and the United States respectively, and Mimi Zarookian, who has lived and taught Children’s Literature both in the US and Armenia, had come together to present a topic that is, more often than not, regarded as “lesser than.” “You’ve never been told to pick up a children’s book and read it,” deplored Zarookian.

“That’s for children,” is a derogatory comment we have all heard. Naturally, an adult’s world is different from a child’s world and consequently the experiences of the characters and the themes explored in literature written for adults are different from those in literature written for children. That difference, however, does not constitute an opposition and a hierarchy, a fact the participants were well aware of. Indeed, the three women succeeded in putting children’s literature on par with literature written for adults. Their aim was, in Gaboudian’s words, to “spark the joy of literacy in students,” not to categorize.

With their expertise and commitment to their careers as educators, the participants could have awakened anyone to the value of children’s books. All three articulated the importance of what they were doing effectively. Their rhetorical sophistication could match that of any student schooled in theories of writing and composition. It was a joy to listen to Aghabalyan, teaching associate at the American University of Armenia (AUA), talk about her revision process. “Distancing myself has been a challenge,” she avowed, “because something to revise always comes up.” The budding writer understands, however, that the process has to halt at some point.

Laura Gaboudian

The disarmingly gentle manner in which Aghabalyan expressed her anger at our culture’s reluctance to address “diversity and special needs,” themes she tackles in her stories, made her presentation even more compelling. Sunny Cook, her debut children’s book, is about a young man with the Down Syndrome that even teachers do not want in the classroom because he looks different. In her story, this “unique and wonderful” young man ends up with a loving family where exclusion is no longer an issue.

Gaboudian’s goal, on the other hand, is to expose others to Armenian culture and history, more specifically to the Armenian Genocide, “a difficult topic,” by sharing her grandparents’ stories of survival with the world. Her debut children’s book, Under The light of The Moon, is the true story of her great-grandmother. Gaboudian travelled to Western Armenia and actually climbed the cherry tree Uncle Stepan teaches Lucy how to climb in her fictional recreation of the memory. When a publisher rejected her submission with, “This is not essential history,” confessed Gaboudian, “Her curt rejection made me want to publish even more.” She humbly admits to “learning as I go, the whole publishing process.”

Gaboudian currently serves as the Glendale Unified School District’s English Language Arts and English Language Development Specialist.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

No less appealing was the authority of Mimi Zarookian, adjunct lecturer in children’s literature at AUA. “With the current global upheaval and turmoil, with wars raging around the world, children’s literature could help children understand and adapt,” said Zarookian. “Children’s books could be a transformative agent for societal change, especially for Armenians,” she affirmed. With unmasked joy, this career educator revealed the book of stories produced by her students, a course requirement, ready for publication. “There are a hundred more ready to publish,” she said with visible pride. However, she lamented the fact that because of the lack of funds, “publication caliber books by so many promising writers will never see the light of day.”

All were agreed that children’s books help children better understand themselves and the world around them, insights typically associated with adult literature. Indeed, the sense of the magical and the fantastic associated with children’s literature may very well be the ingredient needed for “a fuller understanding of life.” While dismissed as unreal, the magical, that which makes the impossible possible, could help us find meaning where meaning has pretty much been lost. At a time when it is difficult to be hopeful, a fantasy world, a world where what is offensive does not exist, could restore our faith in the promise of a life that goes beyond the deception and the greed that have become the new world order. It is not surprising that French author Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince, has for decades been a best-seller enjoyed by children and adults alike. The sense of wonder, unique to children, is what makes the world go round.

Mimi Zaroukian

In fact, creating a fantasy world that bypasses the restrictions and the judgments of society, as Kenneth Grahame does in his tale of the adventures of four small animals, The Wind in The Willows, described as “a classic of magical fancy,” could be a step towards the creation of the world we fantasize about but deem “impossible.” Sometimes, even “problematic” behavior that creates conflict with authority — Pippi Longstocking’s attempts to stand up for the weak and the oppressed in the eponymous series of children’s books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren come to mind here — could help expose unfair and unkind behavior and bring awareness to the need to create a more compassionate and good-natured world.

Children do things because they enjoy doing them. Rather than dismiss their fun and play as “childish,” meaning immature and irrational, we could use the element of fun to create the “better world” we dream of. Fun need not be the opposite of seriousness. Not all fun is “wrong” either. Fun can in fact be a great teaching tool. Research shows that when students read for fun, they develop better reading skills and are more apt to succeed in school. I am beginning to appreciate the wisdom of my son’s, “A children’s book is better than any science in society.”

Evidence of growth in the popularity of children’s literature is encouraging. Talented writers are increasingly turning to younger readers for an audience. There are also many awards made to authors and illustrators of children’s books.

The mood of the webinar was one of wonderful inclusiveness. The fantastic had been made part of the “real.” Children and adults, seriousness and play, were no longer diametrically opposed. Topics considered taboo, such as the mentally challenged and the “different,” were confronted boldly. “Acceptance and tolerance are fundamental to pursuing our lives,” asserted Zarookian. These pioneering women, inspired and inspiring, were determined to “transform the world.” They moved more than our hearts. They moved us to take action.

The focus of the initiative was on Armenian writers whose insights could be extended to any culture. There was a call to global women’s networks who share awareness. It was all in line with AIWA’s mission “to connect and elevate Armenian women globally.” On a slightly different note, I would like to add that I am thrilled to learn that books written by classic and contemporary Armenian writers are now part of Sweden’s largest collection of foreign language children’s books.

Alice Petrossian

Alice Petrossian, a multiple-award-winning educator, led and moderated with grace and authority, generously including her students every step of the way. Her “No doubt they will succeed” had no doubt at all in it. But funds are needed, which is where AIWA’s leadership comes in.  Launching a fundraiser to support these young authors could very well be the next item on AIWA’s to-do list.

 

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: