Chris Cheng's commitment to literacy: during the holidays and beyond

IMG_3047Australian author and literacy ambassador Chris Cheng was recently awarded the 2009 Lady Cutler Award, given by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, for his services to children’s literature. One of the ways in which Chris has gone/goes above and beyond his call is by bringing literature to children himself, both through scheduled school visits and more informal, spontaneous connections. His commitment and enthusiasm can be gleaned from the following notes, sent per my request, about reading Christmas stories to children these past few weeks:

One of the joys of being a children’s book author (and a teacher by profession) with a wife who is a teacher librarian, is that I am able to drop in to her school on a regular basis to read to the children. One of my favourite classes to read to is Kindergarten. Reading to little ones daily is one of the things I miss about not being a fulltime classroom teacher.

This year I have visited them quite a few times, simply to have the thrill of reading aloud and getting their reactions to the books. I love the fun of making the characters’ voices (if the text says ”he screams”, I will scream!), of making the sounds to accompany the text, of “reading” the pictures with the children… In the past few weeks I have spent a few afternoons there, reading Christmas stories. Since it’s a Catholic school, it is very easy and appropriate to share the religious significance of Christmas with the children through books. Some books focus on the traditional story of the birth of Jesus; some are told from the viewpoint of the animals in the manger; others celebrate the more secular Christmas images—the reindeer, the present laden sack; Santa Claus; snow…

In some Australian Christmas books Santa Claus appears not in a red thickly lined suit, but in board shorts and sun hats (there is definitely no snow Downunder at Christmas time!). He drives a car, instead of a sleigh, pulled not by reindeer but by kangaroos. I like to expose children to both traditional and non-traditional Christmas books.

In addition to reading the stories aloud, I talked to the students. I asked for their impressions, opinions, perceptions, interpretations. We talked about the illustrations and the words used in the books. This year they talked much about presents. Not just receiving presents, but giving mums and dads presents. I really loved it when, inspired by the books we read, the children started talking about their own experiences and plans:

“We go to church the night before Santa comes.”
“I’m giving a present to my mum.”
“We light candles.”
“I’m getting my dad a present.”
“I’m making my own present and it’s a secret, but I can tell you.” (It’s a wonderful privilege to be let in on their secrets!)

Now the school year has ended in Australia. The classrooms are all packed, along with the Christmas decorations. The children are home on holidays—and busy, I imagine, making those secret presents. And it’s a nice, comforting thought to know that, through books, they will continue to learn about the joys of Christmas in all its widely different interpretations—and when it comes to helping spread the joy of reading these and other books, they know they can count on me!

For more on Chris’ work and his reaction to receiving the award, check out his website, and Susanne Gervay‘s (winner of the award in 2007) post about this year’s award dinner, which Chris “attended” via skype from Hong Kong.

60 Australian Poems, edited by him, came out this year by Random House Australia.

5 Responses to “Chris Cheng's commitment to literacy: during the holidays and beyond”

  1. Marjorie Says:

    Thank you, Chris, for sharing these experiences with us – as I look out at a very snowy landscape, it’s hard to imaging Santa in his beach gear!