Education

Bennington children’s library offers bilingual books for Afghan refugees

Linda Donigan, children’s librarian at the Bennington Free Library, with an English-language book that has added text in Dari for Afghan refugee children in Bennington on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — The Children’s Room of the Bennington Free Library has thousands of books, including picture books, poetry, fantasy, biographies and science fiction. Since springtime, that collection has grown to include nearly 20 bilingual books in English and Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan.

The bilingual titles, grouped under “Stories Across Borders,” are kept on their own shelf. All were published in both languages — except for five books that the children’s library translated into Dari with the help of volunteers.

People familiar with children’s books in the U.S. are likely to recognize five classic titles: “Anno’s Counting Book” by Mitsumasa Anno; “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Bill Martin Jr.; “Rosie’s Walk” by Pat Hutchins; “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle; and “Yellow Ball” by Molly Bang.

On each page where English text appears, readers will see the Dari translation printed on a sliver of paper taped to the page.

People familiar with children’s books in the U.S. are likely to recognize popular titles including “Rosie’s Walk” by Pat Hutchins. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“You will find these titles in most preschool classrooms,” said Linda Donigan, a youth services librarian at the Bennington library, explaining that the books taught basic concepts such as numbers, colors, positional words and days of the week.

Donigan said she decided to start the English-Dari book project after two local residents, Brenda MacDonald and Jeanne Davis, asked how the library could support the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the county.

So far this year, 33 Afghan adults and children have moved to Bennington County. They’re among an estimated 260 Afghan refugees who have resettled in Vermont, having fled their native country after the Taliban regained control of the nation’s capital. The Taliban has since expanded its control to much of Afghanistan.

“I knew that most of the families had very young children,” Donigan said. “In order to support the learning of the youngest members of these families, I wanted to reach them with bilingual books.”

Largely using grant money from the Vermont Early Literacy Initiative of Vermont Humanities, Donigan ordered the books and other children’s learning materials.

She said a student at nearby Williams College, in Massachusetts, translated the five “classic” English titles into Dari. MacDonald and Davis then helped her cut up the printed translations — a modified form of the Arabic script — and paste them on the book pages.

Some of the books and learning materials went into kits that the library has been distributing to local teachers who work with Afghan children. 

This summer, Donigan created audio versions of the five books with the help of an Afghan woman who has resettled in Bennington County. Donigan read the English text while the woman, named Basiqa, read the Dari version.

The audio recordings are ideal for Afghan preschoolers, who cannot yet read, as well as some Afghan adults who have difficulty reading in Dari. The audio files are available upon request at the Children’s Room.

A reading of the "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle in English and Dari from the Bennington Free Library

Basiqa, who asked to be identified only by her first name due to safety concerns, said she was excited to participate in the project and was looking forward to doing more of the same. She believes the bilingual books are essential to Afghans who have resettled in the area, because the large majority cannot read English. 

“There are many Afghans coming here,” Basiqa said. “It is very good for them. It is important for them.” She said assisting with the project has also helped improve her own English skills. 

This type of community program has a two-pronged impact, said Eduardo Melendez, spokesperson for the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a federally contracted resettlement agency that has placed Afghan refugees in Windham and Bennington counties.

First, he said, having books in their native tongue helps refugees integrate into the local community because it makes them feel welcome. And second, the bilingual books can help families preserve their native language.

“It presents parents of a younger generation of refugees the opportunity to continue to teach their children about their language, which is something immigrant children quickly lose as they adapt to the language in what becomes their new home,” Melendez said.

Besides the Bennington Free Library, the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro has also this year acquired nearly two dozen bilingual titles for that town’s new Afghan residents. Housed in the Children’s Room, there are books in English and Dari, as well as English and Pashto, an Iranian language spoken in Afghanistan.

Some of the books were purchased using library funds while others were donated, said Lindsay Bellville, the youth services librarian in Brattleboro.

The Vermont Department of Libraries said that under one of its grants, funded by the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services, the department encouraged public libraries around the state to create or enhance collections that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“They could pick and choose what they needed, depending on what their local needs were, but we did highly encourage that they add diversity books,” said Janette Shaffer, assistant state librarian for advancement, “and some of them would include other languages.”

“I knew that most of the families had very young children,” said Linda Donigan, children’s librarian at the Bennington Free Library. “In order to support the learning of the youngest members of these families, I wanted to reach them with bilingual books.” Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Right now, Shaffer said, the Bennington public library is the only one the department knows of that created its own English-Dari books. She described it as a “fantastic” project.

With the importance of basic language lessons in mind, would it come as a surprise to learn that the most popular bilingual book in the Bennington children library’s collection is the English-Dari picture dictionary? 

Donigan said the book is sought by schoolteachers who have Afghan students, Afghan adults who are taking English lessons, and the volunteers who tutor them.

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Tiffany Tan

About Tiffany

Tiffany Tan is VTDigger's Southern Vermont reporter. Before joining VTDigger, she covered cops and courts for the Bennington Banner from 2018 to 2021. Prior to that, Tiffany worked for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota and spent more than 10 years working for newspapers and television stations in Manila, Singapore and Beijing.

Email: ttan@vtdigger.org

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