IBBY Canada is thrilled to nominate Zohreh Ghaeni, Founder of Read with Me for the inaugural 2020 IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award.
In the fall of 2018, IBBY Canada President Mary Beth Leatherdale attended IBBY Congress for the first time. “At the Hans Christian Andersen Awards dinner I found myself sitting at a table with a lovely woman, Zohreh Ghaeni. Over the course of the evening, I learned about her work with the Institute for Research on the History of Children’s Literature in Iran and the Read with Me program and was deeply impressed. Many of my IBBY Canada colleagues have known Zohreh for years and in less modest terms explained to me Zohreh’s extraordinary impact in the lives of children and young adults in Iran. As iRead committee member Merle Harris said when Zohreh’s name was put forward for the IBBY-iRead Award ‘I remember Zohreh telling me her aspirations when she was beginning Read with Me… I am in awe of what she has achieved… She so deserves this.’”
A lifelong activist, Zohreh Ghaeni was twice arrested and detained for her political beliefs, journalism and human rights defense work which focused on youth education. During her second eight-year-term in prison, Zohreh had enough time to think about her aspirations and future. She vowed that upon her release, she would empower children to help themselves through literature.
In 2010, Zohreh founded Read with Me.
Read with Me makes high quality books accessible to children in Iran and Afghanistan who normally don’t have access to books, such as street and working children, young adults or those living in remote and deprived areas and those living in crisis due to unrest and, more recently, natural disaster.
Read with Me focuses on reading aloud aiming to create a joyful experience for children. In addition, the program’s intent is to empower teachers, librarians and volunteers in remote areas, through training workshops, regular mentoring.
Funded by donations and run by volunteers, Read with Me has reached approximately 100,000 children in 21 provinces in Iran and about 5,000 teachers and librarians have been trained to promote quality children’s books around the country. In Afghanistan, the program reaches more than 1,000 children and has trained 48 teachers and tutors.
“Zohreh believes in high quality literature as the cornerstone of children’s literary and literacy development. In fact, she insists on it.
She does not want the children she serves to have anything less than the best literature to feed their souls and nurture their development. She believes in exposing the children to the world, a world beyond their daily lives, and one that is meaningful to them now and for their future …”
— Junko Yokota, Professor Emeritus, National Louis University (Chicago)
What sets Read with Me apart from read aloud programs is its innovative approach and its ambition:
• Related art and craft activities are an integral part of all book reading sessions.
• Role paying and drama are also used as follow up activities to the read aloud in order to encourage children’s self-expression, self-confidence and creative thinking.
• Books are selected for their potential to have children associate reading with joy as well as to cope with the stress, frustration and anger that can too often be a part of their daily lives, so that they emerge with a sense of self-control and hope.
Speaking about Read with Me and bibliotherapy, Zohreh says: “Our bibliography team has prepared a list of quality books just for children in trauma. We train the local people to read books to children and speak with them about the stories.
We have prepared handbooks for most of these books to help volunteers to help children in trauma. We send the books, handbooks and materials for related activities to the regions.
The trained local volunteers take these book bags to small libraries and to different places and share the books to group of children. These books help children to speak about their problems, about their fears and many, many other things.”
Words from Zohreh Ghaeni: Impact of Read with Me
… There is no way to have change except starting with children, to help them to change their lives themselves …
I remember two children in particular.
Hesam had two younger brothers and one older sister who all came to a learning centre established by an NGO to teach them literacy. Hesam had to work hard to earn money for his family. His father suffered from addiction and didn’t work. Hesam and his siblings came to the centre for two hours a day. I wondered how these children who experience assault and violence during the day can learn their boring lessons that were being taught at the centre. They came to the centre, but they didn’t learn anything. We started reading quality books with them and doing drama after the readings. Hesam loved drama, and he wanted to play a role in class. He was so fascinated by role playing and didn’t want to work, but rather stay longer at the centre for more of the activities. His father became angry about this. One day we went to the centre, and Hesam didn’t come for a while. It was so sad. His father wanted to hit Hesam. He escaped, but fell down from a roof. He broke his feet,but nothing could stop him from coming to the centre to have a joyful time there.
Fatemeh is another example. She is going to finish primary school next year and has to be married, like other girls in Sistan and Balouchestan. She experienced a very special time in Read with Me this year. She took over reading storiesto the other children in the class when her teacher was stabbed on his way to school and could not come to the centre for two months. She wrote to us to ask if we could do something for her to help her continue her lessons. Whether she can or cannot is still unsure, but she won’t be the same person anymore because of her experience. She will now live in another way.
These are only two examples, but we deeply believe nothing could change these children’s lives except literature and quality books. The books that we read to them and discuss with them can help find solutions for their difficultlives.
We want to give children something they can have for themselves even if they cannot return to the centre. Miracles happen through literature. But sending books is not enough; they need to live those books and experience life through books.
And for the future, my colleagues and I are building a model that will continue and grow through the teachers in the regions.
I have always been committed to the children of Iran. Read with Me will empower them for their future.
Born in Tehran, Zohreh Ghaeni worked as a teacher in rural parts of Iran, and studied Librarianship and Information Science (M.A.) at Open University in Tehran. Her dissertation topic was The Responses of 4-6-Year-Old Iranian Children to Picture Books.
Currently, Zohreh is the Director of the Institute for the Research on the History of Children’s Literature in Iran, which she co-founded.
Zohreh Ghaeni was an IBBY Executive committee member (2016-2020)
To learn more about Read with Me click here.