Reading Clubs, the Power of Books

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Guatemala’s Reading Clubs Show the Power of Books

At the heart of one of Guatemala City’s lowest-income communities, ATD Fourth World’s team has started a Reading Club for children, youth and adults. The project grew out of our members’ weekly presence there acting as ambassadors for literature, as well as for promoting meaningful connections between people. The Reading Club is inspired by the experience of two similar clubs in the Escuintla district (in both the Guatelinda and La Linea neighborhoods).

The Reading Club promotes literacy and access to knowledge — an exception in a demoralizing environment where just one in four students graduates with literacy skills. The program is simple: every week facilitators arrive with a backpack full of the beautiful, high quality books, and they offer participants the opportunity to borrow one. The facilitators guide the participants towards books that match their interests and reading level. The next week, the facilitators return and lead discussions around the books participants chose, and about reading in general. The books open up endless discussion topics.

Elda Garcia, one of the coordinators of the project explains: “Each time, more boys, girls, young people and adults join us. It’s incredible how children from La Linea have created a path to the world of reading. Just one book can inspire new means of interacting, building confidence, and building friendships.”

For some, the Reading Club represents an opportunity to achieve their dream of reading. For others, it is a first encounter with reading for pleasure and as a fount of knowledge. Carmen, age 22, works with her mother to sell ice cream. David Jean, one of the project coordinators in Guatemala City, describes Carmen’s engagement: “One day we thought to invite her to borrow a book. From that day on, Carmen has been a consistent reader, always waiting for us so she can choose a new book. Sometimes, she doesn’t know which to choose because all the books seem appealing – ‘I don’t know which to pick!’ she’ll say.”

David continues, “There are also children who borrow books every Thursday; others, every two weeks… There are even entire families who take books! Marisol, a participant in Guatelinda, has become a confirmed bookworm. When asked what she would say to someone who doesn’t like to read, she is firm: ‘Tell them to read a small book, and little by little, they will begin to like it!’”

Vilma, a young mother, has been part of the Guatelinda Reading Club since before her son was born. Little by little, her interests have grown and she has begun to request books on parenthood, child nutrition, and early development. She is proud to say that she has now read more than 150 books on many different topics. What’s more, Vilma shows a genuine enthusiasm for sharing her love of reading with her son.

When I was pregnant, I read aloud so that my son could hear what I was reading. That way, when he grows up, he will like books. Now, Daniel always has a book! Books are important to me and I want them to be important to my son too.

— Vilma, Escuintla

Just as Vilma brings her baby, many older children bring their younger siblings, so they can also borrow books. Elda notes, “It is a way to share a love for books. It has become very special to pass through the neighborhood dropping off books at every house. Many of the children we did not previously know now approach us happily to borrow a book. In addition, families tell us that they read together. The books help create a space of peace, tranquility, and dialogue… which is very often hard to create. The book becomes a pretext for having a good time.”

Beyond books, the Reading Club also provides a space where children, youth and adults who have been systematically excluded from learning can discover their own talents and interests. In Guatemala City, Saida is a 9-year-old girl who has long borrowed books from the Reading Club. “Her brothers recognize her as the reader of the house,” David says. “If she is not there when we arrive, she doesn’t like for anyone else to pick a book for her. She likes poetry books.” In August 2015, the Guatemalan poet Rosa Chávez organized a workshop on experimental poetry entitled “Mirar con Belleza” in the Centro Cultural de España. Saida enthusiastically explored creating and writing poetry, along with other children, young people and one mother.

I dream of a school that is fun
Where all children jump, laugh
and where no one takes away their inspiration and happiness.
I dream that my school is free of bullying and discrimination
That I have the freedom to write the beautiful things that I live in learning.
I dream that my hours of recess are my hours of freedom
To think and feel that I have the right
To a worthy education without rejection or mistreatment.

— Dalia, age 13, poetry workshop, “Mirar con Belleza”

Since the project began in 2009, more than 200 people have had the opportunity to read because of these three Reading Clubs organized by ATD Fourth World in Guatemala. Currently, approximately 80 readers participate actively in Escuintla and Guatemala City, regularly borrowing books and discussing them in small formal and informal groups that meet over the course of the year.

The Reading Clubs, along with Street Libraries and diverse cultural and educational projects organized by ATD Fourth World, are a starting point for creating spaces of participatory dialogue with people living in poverty, all towards better education for all.