Sight to behold: Kenneth Youngstein on The Singing Tree
The Singing Tree, an illustrated book for children, emerges from the personal experience of author Kenneth Youngstein. It talks about a child who cannot see the birds assuming that the songs she heard were being sung by the tree under which she spent her time. The story then talks about the problem of refractive error, which leads to youngsters being unable to take part in group activities, and often results in isolation. Launched in India by Orbis International and Room to Read, a non-profit group promoting education for girls and children’s literacy, the book will be released in seven local languages and distributed to 75,000 children free of cost. The book was also released in South Africa, Zambia and Cameroon. Excerpts from an email exchange with the author —
There's a fascinating real-life incident about how you came up with this story. Tell us a little about the time you got your first pair of spectacles.
When I was a child, I had the ability to see the future. I looked at the male members of my family and I knew that one day I would lose my hair. I also knew that one day I would have to wear spectacles. For the first prediction, I had to wait around 35 years. For the second prediction, I had to wait only until I was five years old. It was the usual situation; I held things close to my face, I sat close to the television, when I played ball sports, I had trouble to see the ball. By the time I started school, it was clear that I was near sighted. My mother often told me the story of how, when I left the optician, with my first pair of spectacles, I looked up at the sky, and, with a cry of delight, shouted, “Look Mommy, birds!”
Sixty-five years ago, it was still believed, that wearing spectacles made a child’s eye weaker and young children were discouraged from wearing them to long, each day. Of course, today, we know this is not true. Each day, I would leave the house with my spectacles tucked away in their leather case. As soon as I was out of sight of my mother, I would immediately put them on. But, throughout my life, I could never really fool my mother, and, in time, she understood how much I loved seeing the world clearly and no longer discouraged me from wearing them as long as I wished.
How different, and similar, is it to be writing stories for children across cultures? Tell us about the things you had to consider, in terms of making the story more relatable, and approachable.
I was born in New York City, but moved with my family to Italy at an early age. At age 16, I started university, in England. When I graduated, at 19, I went to Uganda and spent 2 years living in the forest, studying chimpanzees. Since that time, I have lived and worked in West Africa, China, the Middle East and made many long visits to India, from Ladakh to Kerala. I have lived in Switzerland for 26 years. Multi-culturalism is in my DNA. So, it is natural that since I established my medical education company, 40 years ago, I have always specialised in developing international programmes, that are culturally relevant to each country.
While there are some universal truths, there are many aspects that are unique in each society. It is said that Eskimos learn to differentiate more than 20 different kinds of snow. If you look, and you want to see, anyone can detect the differences in diverse cultures. I believe that children, across the world, are much more similar than adults. We are not born with cultural differences, they must be learned. I believe that the story of The Singing Tree touches certain universalities.
All children with impaired vision, or any disability, suffer feelings of isolation and rejection. All children need to make sense of the world. So, if a child cannot see the birds singing, he or she will believe that the tree must be singing these songs. When the girl, in my story, is told she will need to wear spectacles, her immediate reaction is fear of being ridiculed by her peers. However, with her spectacles, her vision is improved, and things that held her apart are no longer a barrier to a full life. She also discovers that her concerns about the opinions of others are not true. These things are true in any society.
I first wrote The Singing Tree for South Africa, working with local artists, and consulting with local Orbis staff, to ensure that all content was both medically accurate and culturally correct. As we produced versions for other parts of Southern Africa, we asked local experts what they would like to change. The only things we were told to change were the names of the characters. Currently, for Africa, there are 8 versions, in six languages.
When Orbis India said they want to use the book as part of their REACH programme, I expected to have to make major changes. Again, I worked with local, Indian, artists, and consulted Orbis professionals with experience with local populations. In the end, we changed the names of the characters, the games the children play, the names of national heroes who wear glasses, and, we made the girl’s mother the other central character, as opposed to Africa, where it was the girl’s grandmother. I wrote the text in English. It was then translated into six Indian languages, not by a centralised translation agency, but by people in Orbis offices in each location where the edition would be used.
How have the reactions been, among the kids and their parents too? Give us your long-term vision to do with this project.
I believe that children’s books can be a powerful tool to spread ideas in a culture. It is almost viral – in the communication sense, not the medical sense. A school gets a book. The teacher reads it to the children and learns about the warning signs of poor vision, how it can be treated, and the benefit. The child reads the book at home, perhaps aloud, to his or her mother and older siblings. They may think, “My child, or my sister, also holds her toys close to her eyes and has problems to play sports. Maybe she has a vision problem. I should take her to the clinic to be tested.” In Africa, the reaction from kids, parents and teachers has been universally positive. The book is distributed widely by Orbis, Room to Read and other organizations, like the Lions, who are very active in eye care.
Orbis India conducted a Knowledge, Attitude, Practice study across districts where the REACH program is being implemented. The book will be used as a key resource, among other materials, to bridge gaps identified in terms of knowledge, attitude, and practice towards the problem of refractive error, spectacle usage and the practice of visiting an eye doctor when a child is suspected to have poor vision.
The book will be read out to the children before the screening process at their schools (school assembly or in the class room) and then distributed to children along with their spectacles. Every child who gets a pair of spectacles, also gets the book. Around 75,000 copies will be distributed Idea is reinforcement of the messaging, therefore, enabling compliance. A further 14,000 books will be distributed by Room to Read.
Most "educational toolkits" we know today are electronic or internet-based. Has the reception been welcoming for the print format?
The educational toolkits, you mention, are, in fact, electronic and internet-based. When I first started working with Orbis, six year ago, it was my intention to provide them with a collection of elements: short video segments, text, original illustrations, and photographs, that could be easily assembled to create educational programmes for any specific audience. All images were produced in layers, so that the labels could be quickly added or reduced, depending on the needs of the users, and languages changed, as required. A single film or book can never be suitable for all target groups. These materials are distributed throughout the local medical communities and are available on Orbis’s online platform, Cybersight.
What manner of advice would you offer to new medical educational programmes in India. How would you like to see more initiatives improving things for underprivileged children, especially?
Of course, the dominant media for education is digital and interactive, available for online and offline, for areas with poor internet service. These media formats allow education to go beyond text books and lectures. They can, and should, allow knowledge to be linked to real world experience in healthcare, through approaches such as simulations and game playing. When designing and producing digital education programmes, a few things should be considered.
First, most e-learning platforms were developed by the military and the aviation industry and were focused on e-testing, rather than learning. Developers of health education programmes must carefully consider their target audiences, which can be highly diverse: doctors, nurses, healthcare workers of all levels, and target the content appropriately. They must also pay attention to the quality of media – video, audio, and images. Government health agencies and professional societies should implement guidelines and standards for approving Continuing Medical Education programmes and require that all healthcare professionals must continue to learn, throughout their careers.
The approach to reaching underprivileged children must always be multi-factorial, including education, healthcare, and address social and economic pressures that can be barriers to their development. But, clearly, a child who cannot see, cannot read, cannot learn, and will become a burden to himself and his entire family. Orbis India has already developed a programme to train teachers how to identify vision problems. I will be working with Orbis India to develop a training programme to train low level healthcare workers to function as Eye Care Counsellors, working in these bottom-of-the-pyramid communities, to identify eye diseases, promote treatment and improve outcomes. 80% of childhood blindness can be prevented with early diagnosis and treatment.
In India, we still live in a very academically oriented society, although a lot about the system still appears to be stuck in a previous generation. Do you see yourself encouraging vocational-based learning, to do with the arts, in particular?
One thing I have learned, living 26 years in Switzerland, is the importance and success of vocational-based learning. It should be a model for the entire world. Fewer than 25% of students go to university (it was much lower when I first came to Switzerland), but, rather, enter vocational training programmes, supported by the government and industry. These apprenticeships last several years and combine classroom learning with work experience. There are also ways for students who leave the academic track to re-enter and go on to university, if they wish. This system accounts for Switzerland’s very low unemployment rate and high level of job competence.
With regard to “the arts”, this is always a complex issue. How do we create an environment that promotes creativity and artistic endeavour, while giving our youth the tools they need to support themselves in life? Because of the explosion of digital media and the internet, there has never been more opportunities for artists to create and display their work on platforms like Youtube and Instagram or Facebook. With now live in a world without borders and I often use talent located thousands of kilometres from my office.
Tell us a little about the Room to Read initiative. What are the challenges of getting kids to read books, as opposed to being glued to mobile devices and computers?
Soon after I began working with Orbis, my wife and I began supporting Room to Read, financing libraries in India, Nepal and Cambodia. I eventually saw a possible synergy between my work for Orbis and Room to Read, and proposed the development of a book about eyes. At first, I had no intention of writing the book. When they sent me the first draft, I made some comments and suggestions, and the editors asked me if I would write the book. I agreed, and here we are today.
Yes, I agree that digital devices are quite a powerful competition for printed books. But, despite the predictions of the death of print, books are still very much alive. I could not imagine replacing my wonderful library with a tablet. When I see children holding a real book, with compelling stories and beautiful illustrations, and I see the delight on their faces, and I am deeply touched. At this time, both Room to Read and Orbis are servicing groups that at less touched by the digital age. Books may be replaced by mobile devices, but, I hope, reading will not become obsolete.
How much of the challenge here is to do with changing old mindsets about the parents? Do you find the age-old case of ignorance being the biggest obstacle, when it comes to imparting learning?
Generational differences have always been a problem. But no change, including education, occurs in a vacuum. The rise of India’s middle class is very much tied to education, industry, and media, all of which are due to globalization and the digital revolution. Only a few years ago, in the West, everyone said that mobile devices would divide the old and the young. But you can look anywhere, and the most senior of citizens are skyping, and texting, Tweeting, and updating their Facebook pages. In India, everyone, young and old, have mobile phones, being used for a wide range of daily tasks. I believe that the digital world will provide tools that will lessen the gap between generations, not widen it.
From a research point of view, are there definite factors to measure this project's success that you can tell us about? What kind of positive results has the project resulted in so far?
Both Room to Read and Orbis have metrics for measuring the impact of their projects. For Room to Read and Orbis Africa this project is just one-year old and it may be too early to measure impact. For Orbis India, the project is only just beginning.
This is surely a great way to build bridges between cultures. We'd love to know if you plan to work on further nature-based projects, to get children to appreciate and enjoy nature in a better way.
I don’t know if I would say I plan to work on nature-based projects. I will, most certainly, continue to work on projects to improve health and promote education. For me, they go hand-in-hand. For reasons, mentioned before, I believe that children’s books are powerful tools for promoting both literacy and good health and I hope that The Singing Tree is just the first of many books I will write.
Visit orbis.org & roomtoread.org
— Jaideep Sen