Young bibliophiles are in for a different sort of tongue-twisting experience when they visit the Rainbow Caterpillar, a one-of-a-kind, multilingual bookshop for children in Toronto.
Text and photo by BEATRICE S. PAEZ
You sometimes hear stories of children being dragged out to language school on weekends, with a long face and a surly attitude. A small but mighty bookstore is turning the page on that story, offering interactive literary programs and multilingual books for kids to grow their enthusiasm for learning new languages.
Situated on a quiet side street just off St. Clair West, the nearly year-old bookstore, Rainbow Caterpillar, has become a cocoon for budding polyglots.
First-time booksellers Happie Testa and Hanoosh Abbasi took inspiration from Testa’s daughter, Stella, who has picked up Farsi, Italian, French and Portuguese.
Kids these days are fervently learning new languages with as much gusto as parents have for signing them up for ballet, hockey, theatre and piano.
The difference now is the emphasis on playtime, says Testa in an interview, where it’s possible to combine the use of toys, games and books for kids to learn new words, rather than do more tests and homework.
With enough encouragement and resources, she adds, all kids can become fluent in various languages.
One would think that Toronto, where more than 140 languages and dialects can be heard, has a book nook for many of the mother tongues represented. But, unless you’re committed to shopping online from different sources, the search can be circuitous.
Testa thought other parents must have had the same exhausting runaround. It didn’t take much to convince her good friend, Abbasi, to sign onto what started as an online bookshop, then became a storefront.
The two, who met through their husbands, hit it off from the start.
“I still wonder what possessed you,” Testa says to Abbasi, feigning disbelief.
“A good glass of wine. That’s the only reason I can think of,” jokes Abbasi.
Truthfully, both had been hankering to start their own business. And Abbasi, who moved to Toronto from Iran more than a decade ago, knew she could count on her experience working in fashion merchandising for the logistical aspects of book buying.
Now avid book hunters, Testa and Abbasi scour the web and fly to different fairs in an ever-expanding mission to stock the store with hard-to-find classics in a multitude of languages. Books in French, English Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Farsi, Arabic, German, Hebrew, Gujarati, Chinese, Urdu and Turkish can be spotted at their bookstore.
If they’re not offering kids and parents book suggestions, they’re likely on their computers trying to chase down a new supplier.
On special days, they’ll host local storytellers to share narratives passed down and reinterpreted from their native culture.
Inside their small but capacious bookstore (the storytelling room is in the basement) lies a world of serendipitous discovery, fit for any curious bookworm. Here, the pleasures of page-turning still excite.
“Sometimes the kids don’t want to leave the store,” Testa and Abbasi say.
And why would they, when their imaginations reel from all the hidden riches in Rainbow Caterpillar?
On their shelves you’ll find quintessential kid lit, like Dr. Seuss, Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. You’ll also discover new characters from books by Canadian authors, like The Pirate Girl’s Treasure: An Origami Adventure, Stella & Sam and Léon; and you’ll stumble upon classics from other cultures, like Guacamole: A Cooking Poem.
There are cute knickknacks for school, sparkly necklaces and owl pillows with unique personality. The centre of the store features a child-sized table that can easily be cleared for playtime visitors.
Among their greatest treasures are the books written, bound and sometimes illustrated by local, aspiring authors of children’s books.
To encourage newcomers and hyphenated-Canadian writers to pen stories in their mother tongue, each year since its inception, Rainbow Caterpillar has held a contest for short stories that honour the writer’s multicultural heritage.
Buoyed by the support they’ve been shown, past participants have sometimes gifted self-published copies of their work to add to Rainbow Caterpillar’s shelves. Abbasi eagerly shows off two books that made their list of leading contenders, Virginia and the Forgotten Teacup by Viviana Laperchia, in Italian, and the The Wonderful Furoshiki by Mari Okumura, in Japanese.
“The point of all this is to support the preservation of mother languages,” says Testa. “It’s a whole way of telling them to give value to their language.”
Testa’s and Abbasi’s hope is that, through this initiative, Canada will have its own homegrown talent that can speak to the diversity of experiences, but with a shared resonance.
One day soon, they may need to dedicate a large shelf for books from authors they’ve helped nurture.