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Bookstore owner brings passion for reading to rural areas

China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-22 10:11
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Visitors chat at a rural bookstore at Weichang Manchu and Mongolian autonomous county in Hebei province in early June. [Photo/Xinhua]

XI'AN — Jiao Meining, 47, took a particular liking to a picture book titled That Book Woman, based on the true story of female librarians traversing mountains to deliver books to children in the rural United States, which went on to inspire her own life.

"Even in snowstorms, these librarians would deliver books on time to rural households in the mountains, allowing children in remote areas to read," she says.

Following in the footsteps of the librarians in the story, Jiao has provided picture book classes to at least 100,000 children in more than 400 schools over the past nine years, with many located in remote rural areas of Northwest China's Shaanxi province.

Born in a rural part of Lintong district of the provincial capital of Xi'an, Jiao developed a passion for reading at a young age. She soon realized that rural children had less access to quality reading resources than their peers in big cities.

When she became the owner of a bookstore offering some 14,000 picture books, she began thinking of ways to help. A lecture she attended in 2015 gave her the direction she needed.

"In late 2015, during a lecture at the Shaanxi Library, I saw Japanese picture book author Tatsuya Miyanishi and listened to his story of persistence in providing picture book classes to children and parents in Japan for more than 20 years," she says.

Motivated by his experience, Jiao sprang into action. About a month later, a local primary school invited her to try her hand at an on-campus class. Once it ended, she felt that her confidence was boosted by the children's enthusiastic applause.

In 2016, Jiao visited the Muzhai Central Primary School in Lintong to read stories to the pupils there. When she finished, the children were eager for more, but she had already read all the picture books she had brought.

"When I was about to leave, a child called out to me, 'Teacher Jiao, can you bring 10,000 books next time?' I felt sad, and I thought that no matter what, I must persist in this work."

Having worked as a docent at several scenic areas in Lintong, which is now a popular tourist destination, Jiao is able to read picture books aloud with passion.

"When I tell stories, I try to be an actor and do my best to perform using my facial expressions, voice and body movements."

"For a long time, under the illuminating presence of the sun and the moon, the stone seemed to come alive. And one day, with a thunderous crack, it split apart!" Jiao pronounces, mimicking the sound of the stone shattering and the piercing screams of a group of monkeys. She was telling the story of the birth of the Monkey King, a tale from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, to a group of children at another primary school in Lintong.

To broaden her listeners' horizons, Jiao reviews various materials and prepares early for each class. When she tells animal stories, for example, she also talks about how entomologists conduct their research.

"In class, I don't define the children's understanding of the stories as right or wrong. I encourage them to dare to think and speak, even if their thoughts and words might seem absurd," she says. "Maybe something I say or a plot I tell will trigger their curiosity and ignite their thinking."

Her storytelling classes have been well-received among students. Some children in the schools she visits have even memorized her license plate number so they can rush to surround her with excitement as soon as she arrives at the school gates.

The effects of these classes have gone beyond the classroom. Han Lei, principal of the Renzong Central Primary School, says that many children have become bolder and more confident as a result, and are developing improved lifestyle habits.

Under Jiao's influence, more than 10 parents have joined in her work.

"I hope I can be like the female librarians in That Book Woman, planting the seeds of enthusiasm for reading in rural and mountainous regions, and illuminating the hearts of more children," she says.

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