A young boy holds his arms toward a book, as if he were sweeping it up into a warm embrace. There is nothing extraordinary about the setting, yet many children in Romania have no idea what a library looks like.
A team from the Curtea Veche Association in Bucharest visits rural schools once a month. Their mission is to share their love of books with school kids and to donate books to the school’s library.
Volunteers play with the children and inspire in them a passion for reading. They ask questions – questions that are different from the kind they get in the classroom. They encourage children to ask questions and think creatively. This is a radical change from the communist pedagogy where there is just one right answer – which still dominates public education.
The Curtea Veche Association and their partners, Azomureș, have donated over 60,000 books to kids and school libraries in the past four years.
Mărişel, a mountainous commune near Cluj, is located at an altitude of 1,300 meters and offers clean air to both its inhabitants and visitors. It extends across the valleys, which, in the past, were home to Avram Iancu’s brave entourage.
In fact, an oversized painting of “The Little Prince of the Mountains” nostalgically guards the great hall of the general school.
Gathered at the Cultural Center, the children enthusiastically applaud their guests, who come bearing gifts of books and toys.
After a brief introduction they are divided into groups and the workshops begin.
The Kindergarten and First Grade classes are grouped together, a total of 15 curious little faces. They happily rearrange their desks and set their chairs in a circle.
A frayed map and two presentation boards,
one featuring animals found in the Romanian mountains and the other of a local cave, are the only images on the otherwise barren walls.
The workshop coordinator, Andreea Lupescu, introduces herself as an artist, actress, and journalist. She competed on the Romanian version of X-Factor and sings in a band called Dekadens.
For the children, her green hair, with the small gold crown around her head, is captivating. It’s something they’ve never seen in Mărişel. They hang on to every word uttered from the young woman’s mouth, as if she were a fairy tale character.
The workshop begins with some words of encouragement. Words that these little ones may never have heard in the classroom: I want you to have fun, I want you to enjoy this!
With their eyes closed, they listen to a passage from the book they all receive at the end of the workshop: Alice in Wonderland. Andreea invites them to imagine the sounds of the story.
Fifteen children start to imagine a different place. First into a breeze, then raindrops, and then into the waves of a sea they have never laid eyes on. Somehow, they can almost touch it with the tips of their fingers and see it beyond their blinking eyelids.
Each time the green-haired lady asks a question, the children are eager to answer.
The bright-eyed wonder bursting out of these kids reveals their desire to be questioned.
It’s a desire for questions that demand more than simple right or wrong answers. It’s a desire for an opportunity to express themselves in a manner other than reciting memorized information.
One by one they get their say and, together, they create a story where Alice and the Rabbit are joined by Barbie, Batman, Spiderman, and Sofia, by lions and tigers, along with a wizard and his apprentice.
“The wizard’s apprentice was very ugly and had three heads and was dressed in black but his pants were blue and his boots were brown,” says a little girl breathlessly.
“Wonderful, lets give him a name since you’ve just described him so well. What should his name be?”
The little girl gazes at Andreea Lupescu’s hair, riveted, and says quietly: “Alin”.
By the end of the story, Alice becomes their own composition. At the end of the workshop, they will receive the novel so they can read it at home.
Out of sheer delight, they spontaneously write on the blackboard: We love you, Andreea. Very much.
“I’ve been doing the workshops for about two years and the results continue to evolve – I always hang on to the children’s ideas because they know what they want.
Children are very eager to play and equally eager to say whatever crosses their minds.
Every time we do an activity that involves imagining new characters, the entire story changes. They become very engaged.
Also, kids from rural communities are usually very open, very warm, and they are less constrained than those from urban centers,” Andreea says, at the end of the workshop.
While she speaks, the kids collect a layer of glitter from the ground and throw it in the air one more time. It is the first time they get to play with “fairy dust.”
In another primary school class, a scene from the Odyssey takes places. The kids are re-enacting the scene when Ulysses and his fellow warriors find themselves in a cave with the sheep and the Golden Fleece. Eventually they encounter the Cyclops. Except in this case, the warriors find milk and cheese inside the cave, because the kids have decided that the warriors must be starving.
The theatre workshop is run by Valentina Popa, an actress at the Very Small Theater in Bucharest. Alexandra Mihailciuc, an architect and visual artist, coordinates the workshop that focuses on drawing.
At the end of the day the children will receive the book their workshop was based on.
The project coordinator, Valentina Roman, says she came up with the idea for these workshops while she traveled around the country promoting the books published by Curtea Veche. She discovered that there is a serious decline in literary reading:
“We realized that if kids don’t read, there will not be a new generation of readers to come. So four years ago we began to focus on the next generation of readers.
That was when the Curtea Veche Association was established, with the mission of promoting reading among children.”
The program has reached over 200 communities. Valentina Roman was exposed to a fragment of the “other side” of Romania, in which kids have never even seen what a story book looks like.
“Often times, these kids receive their very first book from us. Apart from their school manuals, they have no other books at home.
The books we give away are the children’s version of great classics. That’s because we want kids to be able to understand and play with them.”
We asked Valentina if she had ever imagined there were children in Romania who had never seen a bookstore?
“We were recently in a village an hour from Bucharest. We went, donated books, and asked what they wanted more than anything else in this world.
Three of the kids raised their hands said what they wanted most was to see a bookstore. That was their dream.
Well, some wanted to go see another country, or to get a laptop…but these three wanted to see what a bookstore looked like.
And that’s when we realized in big cities, we walk right by bookstores without giving them a second thought. We can’t even imagine what it means to have never walked inside of one.”
She also says that the Association’s work is like a drop of water in an ocean: an NGO cannot cover the entire country.
But it can, in time, make its way through the hundreds of communities around the country, where a seed of hope still remains.
“We give them these new books, they are surprised by the smell of the pages and the beautiful illustrations. They’re amazed that there is such a thing as books with pictures in them. Most school libraries have very old books without those colorful illustrations.” (Valentina Roman)