Many of Haiti's precious and beautiful children have been displaced by the earthquake on January 12, 2010. However, they can sometimes be found in the most surprising places--under shade trees in orphanage yards, in the alleys of packed tent cities, in makeshift classrooms in the shadow of rubble--drawing, singing, and yes, reading.
Last week, I had the honor of traveling to Port-au-Prince and reading to a group of these children "Eight Days," a picture book I wrote about the earthquake in Haiti. I read to them in one of several "child-friendly spaces" that the International Rescue Committee has sponsored in and around the city. "Eight Days" tells the story of a little boy who survives under the rubble of his house, using his memories and imagination to find hope within himself. I read to the children, showing the book's vibrant illustrations and doing a simultaneous translation in Creole (the book will be translated into Haitian Creole). Though I was afraid of upsetting the children by reminding them of the trauma of the earthquake, they were braver than I in addressing the issue at hand.
"Has someone close to you ever died?" one girl asked me.
"Yes," I answered.
"In the earthquake?" inquired another.
"Who?"a boy pressed.
I told him of my cousin and his son, who had been about the boy's age. Our family house had collapsed on top of them, and they did not survive.
"Has the earthquake changed you?" the boy asked me.
Not expecting that question, I stuttered.
"It's changed us all," I ventured, before turning the question back to him.
"M te konn renmen lapli. I used to love the rain," he told me. My late cousin's son had loved the rain, too, as does the fictional boy I wrote about in my book. It is a common memory for all of us--the memory of a head turned upward, and a mouth opened toward a once-benign sky.
I then learned that the rain has now become this boy's enemy, a kind of terror. Rain now means that the floor on which he sleeps turns to mud. Rain now means sometimes standing up all night long in fear of floods. Rain now means lightning, which struck and killed a baby in what was supposed to be the safest displacement camp yet.
I learned of other things that have changed in the lives of these brave children.
"Nou pa t konn cho kon sa. We were not always so hot," some of them said. "We did not always live in a tent."
In the midst of such sadness and turmoil, why read to displaced children who live in tents and fear the rain, like the passionate Haitian readers of the Port-au-Prince-based Li, Li, Li! (Read, Read, Read!) program do every week?
"We read to these children for the same reason people read to all other children," the readers say. "We read to them to help them grow their imaginations, to teach them about the world around them. And beyond them. We also read to them to learn from them.
Could books ever teach children to love the rain again?
I hope so.
To find out more about Li, Li, Li! and the International Rescue Commit-tee's child-friendly spaces program, please visit their website and The IRC's website. "Eight Days" is Ms. Danticat's first picture book, published by Orchard Books/Scholastic Inc.
When you look at some of Haiti’s children today -- their playful eyes and wide smiles -- you might never know that they lived through one of the worst disasters of recent time. More than 1.5 million people were made homeless by January's earthquake and about half of them are estimated to be children. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
Most of the homeless are living in vast settlements or makeshift shelters outside their destroyed homes. From a distance it's hard to see the devastation, but when you walk through neighborhoods like this one, it's painfully clear how precarious their lives are still. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
Many Haitian children are making their way back to school now, but tens of thousands have no schools to return to or little or no money to afford the schools that do exist. Projects like this one, which is sponsored by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), are making sure that these children still have structured places to do fun things and catch up on learning. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
I visited one of the IRC’s "child-friendly spaces" on my most recent trip to Port au Prince. It's called Les Hirondelles or The Swallows and it was set up in a camp called Le Refuge. The center may not look like much from the outside, but it truly is a welcoming refuge for children from the chaos and uncertainty that surrounds them. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
At Les Hirondelles, I had the chance to read my new book, "Eight Days: A Story of Haiti," to the children in both English and Creole. I'm very pleased that my publisher, Scholastic, will be donating $10,000 in connection with the book to the International Rescue Committee to continue programs like this one in Haiti. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
"Eight Days" is a story about a little Haitian boy who was buried under the rubble of his home for eight days after the earthquake. It's a story of hope and survival and I could see how it struck a chord with the children that day. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
Afterward we had a question and answer session and I had so much fun talking to the kids. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
I was lucky enough to meet Oveline Mercius there. She's one of the IRC's lively "animators" who run programs at the child friendly spaces. She writes songs and teaches them to the children. I was treated to a welcome song, while Oveline played the drums. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
That day, I couldn't help but wonder how many of those children lost members of their family during the earthquake or have yet to find them. It's believed that thousands if not tens of thousands of children were separated from their families or orphaned. The good news is that every day families who lost each other and scattered in all directions are still being reunited. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
The IRC is one of the groups in Haiti working to identify separated children and trace their relatives. We were able to visit a family in Port au Prince that was recently reunified. The story is amazing but not so unusual. The IRC found this boy in an orphanage where he was placed after the earthquake. It wasn't known if his family survived. Local IRC caseworkers took up his case and began scouring the streets, following up on clues and searching for his mother. Months went by, but eventually they found her. She told me that she thought her little boy had died and she finally gave up looking. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.
I gave a copy of "Eight Days" to the family. It was wonderful to watch this child study the illustrations and page through the story about another little boy, just like him, who was rescued and returned to his family. His mother looked on with such joy. Scholastic is planning to publish a paperback edition in Creole to be distributed for free in Haiti. I'm looking forward to that. Photo Credit: Brandan Odums for Scholastic.