"There is Something Universal in How Children Connect with Stories" Bahram Rahman on Literacy, Equality, & Collective Memory
It's easy to forget how powerful reading can be, but when the right to literacy is denied, it is a chilling reminder. The children in Bahram Rahman's The Library Bus (Pajama Press, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard) know this all too well as they gather to receive books, notebooks, and pencils from the brave woman driving the titular bus.
Inspired by the real, first ever library bus in Kabul, Afghanistan, the story is told through the eyes of Pari, whose mother drives the bus and distributes the books. Mama, as she is called, explains to Pari how important what they are doing is - and how not long ago, Pari, as a girl, would have been denied the chance to learn to read and write. In a country rocked by war, Mama's creative solution to educating girls in villages and refugee camps makes a world of difference to each child she reaches.
In writing the book, Rahman drew on his own experience growing up in Afghanistan during the civil war, under the Taliban regime. As a child, he witnessed his sister being denied learning opportunities because of her gender, and The Library Bus is not only a story of hope and resilience but an important reminder to never take for granted the importance of education and literacy.
We're honoured to welcome Bahram to Open Book today to talk about The Library Bus as part of our Kids Club interview series. He tells us about how books can help preserve collective memory, how he hopes the book will inspire "a sense of curiosity about other places and peoples", and about the books and stories that inspired him as a child.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
The Library Bus is the story of Pari, a pre-school Afghan girl, who helps her mother for a day in her mobile library/school. They visit different places around Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and help girls who are outside the formal education system.
The story is told from Pari’s perspective as she sees and tries to understand the challenges girls face in accessing education. There is also an intergenerational aspect to the story which highlights the fact that some of the barriers for girls and women in Afghanistan have been ongoing for decades.
The idea of writing a book came to me when I was visiting my parents in Sri Lanka. It was a family holiday, and I was seeing them for the first time after many years. We spent a lot of time reminiscing about the events that our family has gone through over the years. We wondered how the new generation of my family – mostly born outside Afghanistan – could possibly understand or relate to the circumstances of growing up in Kabul. So, that was the impetus for my decision to start writing children’s books – in a way to help bridge the gap in the collective memory of my family as we all continue with our lives outside Afghanistan.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
My goal with The Library Bus from the start was to open a small window, a realistic window that is not overly exaggerated, for readers outside Afghanistan to see how children access education and relate with books. I think there is something universal in how children, regardless of where they live, connect with stories and each other. I hope The Library Bus readers establish that sort of connection with Pari and the other characters in the book. I also want kids to enjoy looking at the beautifully detailed illustrations and develop a sense of curiosity about other places and peoples.
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Did the book look the same in the end as you originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
The first draft of The Library Bus was a very different story. It was a children’s rhyme told from the mother’s perspective. In a sense, I wanted to tell the story of Pari but didn’t really know how to. My editor and publisher – Ann Featherstone and Gail Winskill from Pajama Press - saw the potential in The Library Bus and provided some great suggestions. So, I rewrote the story from Pari’s perspective, which made it more relatable and impactful. I am very grateful for their support and encouragement.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
In a way, I do feel close to the character of Mama. It could be that I see her to be around my age, or that when I was writing her character, I was really thinking about my mother and sister. My mother was a teacher and my sister a student when the Taliban captured Kabul, where we lived then, in 1996. Their lives were harshly restricted. When I think about those days, it feels like something straight out of dystopian fiction. Women had no control over their bodies or any fundamental rights. I think years of war have impacted every Afghan in one way or another. Still, I have no doubt that children and women have suffered significantly more compared to men.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I have a very demanding full-time job and I am also doing my doctoral studies in health sciences. So, the most important things that I need to write would be the mental space and time. Once I have those, writing comes easily. I love stories and have always been fascinated by family stories and folktales told by my grandparents or an elderly aunt or uncle, which is a big part of how collective memories are passed from one generation to the next. So, I hope I find time to write more of those stories.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
I think tough points are the moments to celebrate, because those are the moments that we have another opportunity to polish our story. It is obvious in those moments that something is not working. So, my strategy is to accept the setback as it is and spend the time on something that I like to do. I like going for long walks in the ravine close to where I live. I spend a lot of time observing the shape of the trees. The way their branches extend or the texture of their trunk. I find it calming, and it helps me creatively. But I suppose every writer has to find out what works for them. They don't have to stare at trees; it might get boring after a while.
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids’ books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
A plot that is not overly worked or stylized. For picture books, I think it is very important to have harmony between the story and the illustrations.
As a child, I grew up listening to and reading lots of poetry on morality, folktales, and ancient Persian mythology from Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Both are very different from what children might read in North America. However, if I were to pick two English books, they would be The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis from The Chronicles of Narnia and El Deafo by Cece Bell. Both are great books for kids and adults to read. I re-visit them quite often as a reader and find inspiration in them as a writer.
Bahram Rahman was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and grew up during the civil war and the Taliban regime. He earned a medical degree at Kabul Medical University and a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Erfurt, Germany, while also working as an activist in Afghanistan in the areas of gender equality and youth political participation. Bahram came to Canada as a refugee in 2012, and today he is a senior policy advisor at the Ministry of Health in Ontario. He wrote The Library Bus, his first picture book, to document the struggle for education experienced by the women in his own family and to draw attention to the barriers that still exist for millions of children, especially girls, living in war torn countries today.