Awakening young readers

The first sound to greet visitors to the Thessaloniki Book Fair at the Helexpo grounds in late May was a chorus of delighted voices from the children’s corner. Group after group of nursery school and primary school children emerged from their visit full of enthusiasm to get their hands on a book. That is no small achievement in a country where a popular playground graffiti asserts, «If books are food, then I’m on a diet,» and a VPRC survey of 3,000 Greeks in January-March 2004 showed that 43.8 percent of them had not read a book from one year to the next. So how did the children’s corner manage to attract more than 5,000 satisfied visitors in four days? Magical world To start with, the space was attractive. Designed by Dimitris Halkiopoulos and Irini Vokotopoulou and painted in bright, inviting colors, it contained a labyrinth, a library shaped like a submarine, and areas for storytelling and other activities. Then there were the inspired, hands-on activities in a friendly space that won the children’s hearts and demonstrated to their parents and their sometimes doubtful teachers how storytelling, games, theater and music can open up the magical world of books to young readers. The effort and imagination of people who know the way to children’s hearts has already borne fruit. Letters and e-mails of thanks and expressions of interest in future cooperation have started coming in, Evi Gerokosta of the National Book Center of Greece (EKEBI) told Kathimerini English Edition. Gerokosta, who coordinated the children’s corner and is a member of Kouvari storytellers, is already planning for the next fair. «We’d like to cater to older children as well,» she said. «This year the dates clashed with exams for older pupils. And we plan to invite more school from outside Thessaloniki.» Taking the books of Jules Verne as a theme – hence the Nautilus submarine library with its porthole through which children could watch videos of marine life supplied by the Archelon Sea-Turtle Protection Society – the organizers had children building a globe, making music, taking part in plays and stories and using literary clues to find their way around the maze. Planting seeds Few Greek state schoolteachers have ben trained to run such activities, so the experience of witnessing them in practice – and participating – may plant seeds for more exciting lessons in the future. Writer Philippos Mandilaras, who led some of the activities, insisted that teachers take part. «At first, some of them were reluctant to use cheap materials, such as cardboard cartons as drums,» Gerokosta said, but the children’s wholehearted response seemed to get them thinking. Led by two dedicated groups of volunteers – Parodos Arts Group and Kouvari storytellers – children threw themselves into the fun, leaving the fair with unfeigned smiles and the beginnings of a new relationship with books. Parodos, formed 10 years ago by a group of teachers and artists, raises children’s awareness through art, theater and games. They have strong ties with the Greek community in Egypt and have often run activities there. Kouvari storytellers started life two years ago. The six-member group works with adults and children in schools, libraries, bars and prisons. The members all «work elsewhere and regard storytelling as the highlight of their lives,» said Gerokosta. Planning started long before the fair when the National Book Center of Greece invited publishers and schools to participate. Kedros, Patakis, Metaichmio, Papadopoulos and Fytrakis publishers contributed books to the library and organized events.

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