Blog post by: Shenaz Kermalli

Anyone who has kids will tell you that they could probably fill a whole book of outrageous and poignant things they say. Some are best forgotten (Mommy, why is that man so fat?”), while others are just plain amusing:

“Mummy, can you eat clouds?”

 “No.” 

“I can”. 

“Really? What do they taste like?” 

“Cotton candy”.

Those were some of the questions I recorded in a journal called My Quotable Kid that I bought soon after my son Ali started talking.

Now, Ali’s 11 and the questions have taken on a decidedly different tone. He takes a keen interest in current affairs, and loves to do impressions of political celebrities (he can do Donald Trump eerily well and a decent imitation of Bernie Sanders). Anyone who knows Ali well knows him to be fairly politically literate. One of the first chapter books I bought him was an early learner about Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani teen hero who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in retaliation for her activism of female education. Since then, we’ve spoken candidly about things like 9/11, US-Mexico border tensions and the stifling sanctions in Iran. And he has asked thought-provoking questions in the past, but nothing I felt I couldn’t answer. Until last week.

We were in the car driving to school and talking about an upcoming documentary screening about Jerusalem I’d bought tickets for us to attend. 

“So who was in Israel first anyway? The Israeli’s or the Palestinians?”

I sat in stunned silence for a few seconds, wondering how to answer. How on earth could I relate the history of one of the world’s longest-running and controversial conflicts in the four minutes I had left before reaching his school? But I knew I had to try. (And I have to admit: As a journalist with a focus on Middle East politics, I loved that he was asking).

I’m not, however, proud of my jumbled response, which started with: “It’s not really a question of who was there first… because of the common Abrahamic roots Muslims and Jews share.” 

I came back home feeling unsettled, and made a mental note to look up some kid-friendly, scrupulously balanced books about the conflict that could better inform him. Which I did. One of them was a book by Deborah Ellis, the award-winning author of The Breadwinner, called Three Wishes: Palestinians and Israeli Children Speak. Ali had loved reading The Breadwinner, which is about an 11-year-old girl who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001, and dresses like a boy to support her family.

While I was at it, I also decided to order a few copies of a book my six-year-old daughter owned titled Greta and the Giants to gift to my niece and a friend’s daughter (you can tell my online shopping weakness!). Greta and the Giants is a beautifully illustrated book that retells the story of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg in leading a global movement to raise awareness about the world’s climate crisis.

That exchange with Ali, and the book order that followed it, prompted me to recall how meaningful of an initiative Project 99A is. Our mission is to elevate global literacy through the collection and shipment of second-hand books to communities in need. It’s such a simple act of charity, with such far-reaching effects.

I’ve always felt that there aren’t many better gifts you can give someone than a good book – new or old. Canadian author Margaret Atwood put it so well when she described the feeling of gifting something you treasure so much: “Gifts pass from hand to hand: they endure through such transmission, as every time a gift is given it is enlivened and regenerated through the new spiritual life it engenders both in the giver and in the receiver.”

It was my uncle in California, a doctor and avid reader of all subjects, who introduced me to the beauty of book-giving. For over 15 years, he sent me dozens and dozens of books through the mail  – some new, some gently creased, accompanied with a loving,  hand-written letter. Some of the books covered theology and politics, others were about poetry and mysticism. Receiving each package in the mail was such a thrill. There’s no doubt that feeling may be shared by recipients of the books sent via Project99A.

Like a child’s funny and astute questions, some books are priceless. This, perhaps, is what was running through 83-year-old Joshua Goldhar’s mind last month when he finally decided to give away the 12,000 books collected in his Toronto apartment to Project 99A – an apartment filled from floor to ceiling with stacks and stacks of books.

“I will give them away with a certain sadness, but also aware that I will bring the book a new friend and a new lover and someone who will enjoy [it], which is what the book and author would really like,” he told a Global News reporter.

At its heart, Project99A is an initiative that recognizes the power behind reading. Heightening global literacy is not just about increasing literacy rates; it’s about giving those less privileged than us the opportunity to learn, to reach higher ground and to find solace and inspiration.

Shenaz Kermalli is a Board Member of Project 99A and freelance journalist. She teaches journalism at Ryerson University and The University of Toronto.

Click here to learn more about donating books or funds to Project 99A