Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Dodo Vole, empowering books for little hands

Everywhere children should be granted the right to have access to books reflecting their own world, books in which their cultures and languages find dignified expression. However, this right is often denied to children from poor regions, where, if in place at all, libraries are stocked with donations from rich countries. To the convenience of Western libraries and publishers, who can easily get rid of their surplus books, NGOs and charities of various kind organise containers to be shipped to the regions in need. Yet, even if donated in good will, these are books that locals have not had the option to choose, that are often irrelevant or inadequate for them and that, with their sheer presence on the shelves, side to side with poorly crafted local books, reproduce the unbalanced relation of dominance between North and South. Local publishers seldom find the financial means to counter this situation with viable alternatives.
Dodo Vole, from Madagascar, is more than an atypical quality publisher producing beautiful books for the pleasure of both children and adults. It is a political statement and a project of empowerment.
Led by writer Johary Ravaloson and his wife, and partly sustained by private and public sponsors, Dodo Vole was initiated by a community of artists wanting to offer venue to the expression of endangered cultures, silent minorities and promising artists from the south-western regions of the Indian Ocean. Its name symbolically brings back to life a local bird that, for not having the ability to fly, underwent extinction as a result of human predation and of the introduction of other animals on the islands during the period of European explorations and early settlements. The same must not happen to local languages and cultures. For these, and for local children and youth, brave projects like this one provide both roots and wings.
The current catalogue of Dodo Vole features board books for both children and adults, bilingual books for children and youth as well as fiction, chronicles and testimonies.  What all these books have in common is that they are based on three pivots and respond to high aesthetical, poetical and ethical standards. The board books are a treasure for all hands: coupling lyrical texts with artistic images of great beauty, they give children the opportunity of enjoying art from a very young age and adults the pleasure of plunging in a narrative both local and universal. Bilingual books in French and Malagasy preserve and offer to the large public stories from the oral tradition and are beautifully illustrated by children themselves. For Malagasy children, having the opportunity to read stories from their own culture in their own language provides a sense of self-worth that any child needs for their healthy development. For children everywhere else, and especially for western readerships, the Dodo Vole books are a window on a fascinating culture as well as an opportunity to get out of the self-referentiality of dominant cultures and to reverse the unidirectional spreading of knowledge of neo-colonial dynamics by becoming receptors rather than donors.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany Johary Ravaloson takes the time to sit with my two children and read to them stories from the wonderful books he publishes. I’ve brought my pre-school boy and girl here in search for role models. I want them to see that people who look like them and who, like them, perhaps have not had it easy from the start can get far by the magic power of storytelling and can provide others with the power to fly. The weekend is successful. We have the chance to meet and talk with many prominent Black authors. My children have their books signed by Dany Laferrière, get an autograph and a picture with Alain Mabanckou and spend a good moment glancing at books from many countries at the Africa stand. Most precious and empowering, though, is the time spent with Mister Ravaloson, a time during which they are introduced to the Malagasy mythology, can enjoy gazing at paintings by artist from the Indian Ocean formatted for their little hands, and have a glimpse into the crafting of books done by children who (yes, they are pictured on the books) look very much like them. For two children who were born in Haiti and now live in Germany, sitting here listening to Malgasy stories is enough of a proof that the dodo is alive and well, and that, indeed, it can fly.

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