Aikansha Chawla had never written a children’s book – let alone one in Spanish. But that is exactly what the Science student did this semester. And soon, her book, along with more than 125 others created by fellow classmates, will come to life in the hands of school children in Holguín, Cuba.
The pursuit is all part of a Spanish for Beginners course project that looks to increase language skills for Western students, while increasing access to books for primary school students 2,500 kms away.
“It was a little daunting at first,” said Chawla, who penned Qué puedo ser? (What Can I Be?) along with classmates Ashmita Singh and Alexandra Tan. “But the fact that you know a little child is going to be reading this – and probably knows more about the language than us – is really nice. We’re kind of on the same page with them learning wise, just in another part of the world.”
Providing words to existing storyboard images, the trio created the story of a young boy imagining what he could be when he grows up. But before the writing began, there was an important question – Will these kids connect with the stories?
“It’s one thing to picture what kids here would like. We’ve also grown up in that environment, so we would know that. But because they are in such a different environment than us, would these stories even appeal to them?” Chawla wondered.
“When we actually had to do it, the concept was really exciting,” added Singh, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student. “The book was not going to be just an assignment we do for a class and then forget about in the future. There was a lot of mentorship and feedback along the way and, with that, we knew it would be great.”
Tan, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) student, said she could not remember the last time she read a children’s book, but once she and the others saw the photos they were working from, the story quickly blossomed.
“It was hard, at first, trying to make it interesting and relevant to children,” she said. “You want to do well in the assignment, but at the same time make sure the children understand the story you are writing.”
A similar book pilot project was launched last year with a small group of students, explained one pf the class instructors Ana Ruiz. This year, however, close to 400 students created more than 125 books.
“We are not only having the students write the books to help with their Spanish, but they will be sent to Cuba,” said Ruiz, adding students from the Advanced Spanish course will be delivering them in person this summer. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with the community and also to write a book for those who haven’t written a book, even in English.”
Ruiz would like to see the book idea continue, not only for the purpose of the students and their learning the language, but the fact young kids, who have limited access to books, will continue to receive the books. “There was a lot of excitement from the students. They could use their imaginations to create and then be part of a Cuban school’s growing library.”
FIMS student Maliek Love, who had taken Spanish in his first few years of high school, authored El Amor Incondicional de una Familia (The Unconditional Love of a Family) with Social Science student Seth Etkin-Silver. The story tells the adventure of Erico, a precarious young prankster who emphasizes the idea of the unconditional love of his parents.
“It was hard at first, not knowing what kids are reading these days. So it was a process to determine what they would actually want to read,” Love said. “We didn’t want it to be a fairytale-type story but more of a life lesson type of story.”
While Etkin-Silver had a desire to learn Spanish, the idea of writing a book was intimidating.
“But once we sat down together and started spit-balling ideas, using the Spanish we had and the Spanish the children who are going to reading our book can understand, it came together pretty well,” he said. “When you sit down and realize you need a book written by a certain date, that’s where it became work.”
Students bringing the books to Cuba this summer plan to take plenty of photos of the children reading and enjoying the stories. Etkin-Silver looks forward to seeing that.
“The photos will put it into perspective and give us an idea of what the school is about and who the children are,” he said. “Seeing them reading the books all of us wrote will be pretty cool.”