Described as the Best British Children’s Literature Blog by the School Library Journal, a pre-eminent online magazine for American Libraries, Playingbythebook.net is written by Zoe Toft. The 37-year-old mother from the UK is a trained linguist and a self-confessed lover of dictionaries. She reviews picture books with her children, and, interestingly, builds each review around an activity inspired by the book. For instance, when Toft reviewed my book, Nonie’s Magic Quilt, she merged it with a description of making a quilt for her daughter.
In 2010, Toft had an unusual idea. “We love receiving ‘proper’ mail, and wanted to participate in an online postcard swap,” she says. “There were many swaps, but none that the kids could enjoy. So I thought up a swap where every postcard would include a children’s book recommendation, because sharing a favourite book is a concrete way of making a connection. I hope to hold the swap every year. I don’t want to make the world any smaller, but I think it’s important we feel connected to each other.”
The swap is structured so that each family sends postcards to five families across the world. In turn, they receive postcards from five different families (not the same ones that they sent postcards to). The postcard can be printed or drawn, with a note recommending a favourite book. Effectively, the families find a window into each other’s lives, and share about 10 book suggestions among them. Toft says, “You can suggest the same book to all the families or – ideally – a different book to each. People often tailor their suggestions keeping in mind the recipient’s age.”
Toft’s first postcard swap in 2010 brought together over 250 families from far-flung places: Alaska, Argentina, Brunei, Bulgaria, Israel, Marshall Islands, Pakistan and Poland. “The toughest part is pairing up people, making sure everyone receives families from five different countries, with children of similar ages. The reward is hearing about the little connections they make. People who come back every year will be paired with different families.” After the 2010 swap, many families went on to become penpals.
During the swap, Toft “met” many people, including Sandhya L., a Bangalore-based writer for Saffrontree.org. Sandhya’s family sent cards to the UK, US, Singapore and Spain. Her daughter “was delighted to receive letters addressed to her. One came from the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean! In these days of instant communication, it was exciting to get post.”
Another new friend was homeschooling mom Bronwyn Lavery of Christchurch, New Zealand. Lavery says, “I set up a world map, marking the locations of families we connected with. I told my kids about the great distance each card would travel. We loved sharing our favourite books and searched for books that others recommended.”
And connections had indeed been made. When Christchurch had a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in April 2011, Toft got in touch with Lavery and heard that many families had lost their homes. Together, they paired families around the world with those in Christchurch, and, “Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we sent 565 books into welfare centres and care packages as well, so that the families would have something to enjoy as they rebuilt their lives.”
Click here to find out more about the International Postcard Swap for Families. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The last date to register is May 17.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Mint of Friday, May 6, 2011, to see it on the page, click here: http://www.livemint.com/2011/05/05220037/Drop-me-a-postcard.html?h=C