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Why development workers should read children’s books

Why development workers should read children’s books

Certain trends inexplicably come into vogue every now and then. Take the current one of reading young adult fiction. Whether it’s Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Three Cups of Tea, it seems people everywhere are turning to fantastical works of fiction, to satisfy their desires for escapism into an unrealistic world.

Cross the line from adult fiction into reading children’s novels however, and you’ll be faced with a different reaction. “What can you possibly gain from a book written for children?” people ask.

The answer is simple. You can learn to think and be like a child again. This is a process that others have dubbed “unlearning” – letting go of what we have already learned or acquired.

Unlearning is a process of liberation, and it’s crucial for helping yourself to learn more. A fantastic metaphor is stripping the existing paint off a wall, so that you are able to lay down new paint over the top of it. Stripping the paint is a more arduous task than painting a new coat, yet we seem to focus more on the latter than the former.

I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. The story centres around the adventures of a young boy named Milo, who is too bored with life to even look up from the pavement on his way home from school. For Milo, the world is full of facts and figures, which to him seems irrelevant.

The Mathemagician, who firmly believes that numbers are more important than words.

However, an unexplained package arrives at his house and inside is a cardboard tollbooth, which when set up, is a portal to another world ruled by two opposing kings. Azaz the Unabridged is the King of Dictionopolis, and his brother, the Mathemagician, rules the kingdom of Digitopolis. Both brothers are embroiled in an ongoing battle over which is more important: numbers or words.

The only solution to the problem is for a brave soul (you can probably guess who that is) to climb the Mountains of Ignorance and rescue the beautiful princesses Rhyme and Reason from their prison in the Castle in the Air. Rhyme and Reason were banished to this place because they refused to choose between numbers and words and thus infuriated both kings.

Along the way, Milo jumps to Conclusions, which turns out to be an island, swims in the Sea of Knowledge, meets the Whether man, who asks him whether or not it will rain, and spends time in jail with a Which, a kindly old lady who turns out to be nowhere near as scary as Milo imagined.When Milo orders a “light” meal during King Azaz’s banquet, he is served a plate of lightbulbs. When Officer Shrift, a police officer who is twice as wide as he is tall, wants to sentence Milo to jail, he asks him if he would prefer a long sentence or a short sentence. Milo replies that he would prefer a short sentence, to which Officer Shrift pulls out a piece of paper, writes “I am” on it, and hands it to Milo.

The heavy moralising tone of The Phantom Tollbooth sets it apart from other children’s books of the time. The message is clear; that the imagination is limitless. That experiencing new things with an open mind is ongoing, no matter who you are.

As you read the book, you cannot help but feel more and more childlike yourself. You want to be imaginative. You want to see the world as a child does. You want to appreciate simplicity.

I couldn’t help but feel how these attitudes are beneficial working in development. Taking a step back, the very concept of working in development is fairly audacious. It is quite bold to believe that you can take resources, whether they be human, financial or knowledge, and bring them to another country and culture to affect change.

We have an obsession with knowledge and learning in development. The much maligned phrases of “capacity building” and “trainings” indicate a willingness to impart knowledge that we have gained on other people. Armed with Masters degrees and limited experience in our countries of origin, we hope to bring what we know for the benefit of others.

But what if we were to approach these situations with an attitude of unlearning? What if, like a child, with eyes and minds open, we were ready to learn?

I was recently asked by some Cambodian colleagues to run a workshop on the social model of disability. This involved talking about how the definition of disability has changed, from a medical model, which highlights the impairments on bodies, to a social model, which emphasises the barriers that society places on individuals. Shifting the focus onto barriers is always an interesting exercise. We start to look towards society to see what barriers are erected by the community at large.

Milo meets Tock, a Watchdog, who helps him to unlock his imagination.

As a “trainer”, the implication is that I impart knowledge onto “trainees”. But if I allowed myself to “unlearn”, to strip back the paint off my own wall, then there was the real possibility that I could learn something valuable myself.

During this workshop, I always ask participants to collectively identify barriers that exclude people with disabilities from society.

When I held this training in China, participants tended to emphasise the physical barriers that such as lack of ramps and railings that prevented access to places for people with disabilities. However in Cambodia, the emphasis appeared to be more on stigmatisation and discrimination. In other words, attitudinal barriers seemed to be more disempowering.

Anyone who has spent considerable time in either of these two countries may not be surprised to hear these differences. But as a relative newcomer to Cambodia, this kind of information helped me to navigate working in a country and culture that I was unfamiliar with.

This is the value of reading children’s books such as The Phantom Tollbooth. They remind you that even as a so-called “expert” in a foreign country, at times, you’re more effective by relinquishing the baggage associated with what you have learnt. That seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and embracing that inner child within can help you along the way.

All it takes is ten minutes to remind yourself of the benefits of this attitude. As a start, I’d suggest heading over to read An Awesome Book, by Dallas Clayton, online via this link (thanks to Julianne Scenna for the recommendation). It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of dreaming big.

Next, you can purchase The Phantom Tollbooth here. I wish I’d read this book decades ago, but I’m thankful that I’ve read it now.

What children’s books have you read recently, and what did you learn?


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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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16 thoughts on “Why development workers should read children’s books

  1. I did read The Phantom Tollbooth decades ago, and I am still appreciative of the brilliant teacher who saw its potential way beyond just entertaining his class. Beyond the great ideas a book like that can offer, I think it also offers us an example of better method. Perhaps more adults could use creativity, narrative and metaphor in training and in getting points across. Bland and simple language doesn’t necessarily make a point more simple or better-understood.

    Unlearning, or being open to learning, may be exhausting and hard at times but I agree it’s worthwhile. I endorse efforts by people be more conscious of learning rather than assuming they’re an expert. As someone who knew you beyond this website during your time working in China, I think you, Weh, could have been much more open to learning and not drawing authority from assumed expertise at that time.

  2. […] this points directly to a relatively recent post by Weh Yeoh over at WhyDev about Why development workers should read children’s books, which I highly recommend. But what if we were to approach these situations with an attitude […]

  3. The two aspects of my live are development activism and literary, especially children’s. In fact, I recently quit development work to write fiction full time. So I was so very happy to see you put these two topics together in a post, and also happy to read the comments with so many sharing about books that have touched their lives. For me, “I, Juan de Parjea” really stands out. It’s a Newbery Medal winner written in the voice of a slave to a Spanish artist, but somehow it is one of the most spiritual and dignified books I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  4. Reminding us of the value of “unlearning” is something too oft forgotten. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

    Recently I was introduced to “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. I was not aware of the apparent controversy around it, but as a message of unconditional love/friendship, I found it pretty good. Take that into the perspective of our work, and there’s also the element of taking care of yourself to be able to take care of others.

    1. Wow, I had not heard of that book but having read a short summary it sounds fascinating! I’m going to have to track it down. Thanks so much shazjameson!

      1. Firstly, apologies for the late reply.
        You’re welcome. I had not heard of it either, unfortunately!
        I’ve reblogged this post, and there’s a link to an old-school video of Silverstein’s. I’m going to have to give the Phantom Tollbooth a try!

        1. @Shazjameson, I just got my hands on the Giving Tree. Simply superb. I felt like crying at the end of it. Thanks so much.

          1. You’re very welcome. [Apologies for the late reply – Happy Holiday!]

  5. This is great, Weh. Imagination, thoughtful vivid literature and worldly concepts – some of my favorite things. Some of many people’s favorite things. There is a universal appeal in “looking up from the pavement” and taking in the sights, smells and sounds around you and letting your mind go – especially when stuck. Stuck individually or stuck as a country or global economy. That’s why I reckon the popularity of children’s books with an adult appeal have been on the rise as of late. From a literature and advertising standpoint, it is risky to have your target audience too broad, but these books – An Awesome Book, The Phantom Tollbooth and a few more before and after their time – have struck gold in their universal allure: encouragement to go back to the basics, to rid ourselves of the unnecessary mental clutter and physical clutter that society has forced us to work hard to attain, and to look in awe at everything and everyone and to recognize beauty and opportunity.

    Might I take this a step further and link it to international volunteerism? In this post you say you can’t help but feel that this raw, unlearned approach would be a beneficial to have in development work. Isn’t that what (the majority of) international volunteers bring?

    1. That’s an interesting point about whether international volunteers bring a raw, unlearned approach. I guess what you’re saying is that they’re looking at an old problem from a new perspective? Do I get the impression you’re going to continue your line of impressive posts on this topic??

      1. Ha! Well I don’t like reversing over roadkill after already running it over, but perhaps down the line I will. Really liked Brendan’s recent post “Voluntourism: What you need to know before signing up” – will let that resonate with readers for a while, and if I happen to find a new way of looking at the subject or a unique approach, will go for it.

  6. Anna

    I had similar feelings reading The BFG and Wind in the Willows in adulthood. This will be a perfect recess from rhetorical academic stuff. For Milo, or Sophie, or Alice in Wonderland, life doesn’t operate according to one’s expectations. You either embrace that or wind up stuck at monster size in the rabbit’s house. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the wonderful reminder of the BFG and I’m in the midst of downloading Wind in the Willows now – one of my all time favourites!

  7. Alison

    As a passionate lover of children’s books, thank you so much for this Weh.
    I recently read Rose’s Garden by Peter H. Reynolds. A reminder to all that a single seed of imagination is all it takes to change reality and begin to change the world around us.

    1. Thank you Alison – I have not read Rose’s Garden but am sticking it on the list now. I LOVED how you used the words “a reminder”. It is something we know as children but forget more and more as we get older. Thank you so much for your comment.

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