James W. Parkinson during the SIBF on Monday. Parkinson is famous for being part of a lawsuit against ‘Big Tobacco’ firms. Image Credit: Atiq Ur Rehman/Gulf News

Dubai: American literacy advocate James W. Parkinson urged children to take “personal responsibility” for their own education during the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).

Parkinson, who also gave talks at UAE schools during his visit, told Gulf News in an interview that students must themselves want to learn. He said children have to be inspired to read, write and practice an aspect of a profession they like every single day.

Parkinson, now 69, revealed he had been “a terrible student” at school, but a trip to Argentina as a young adult had set him on a course of lifelong achievements.

Parkinson taught himself to speak Spanish to learn the local culture and ended up doing a major in Spanish at university. Parkinson then became a successful lawyer.

Landmark case

When asked about a landmark case he was part of — which in turn was part of a series of cases against major tobacco companies — Parkinson said, “‘Big Tobacco’ had never lost a case in court anywhere in America at the time we brought our lawsuit, around 20 years ago”.

Big Tobacco is a term used to refer to the biggest tobacco companies.

In the cases, the tobacco companies, which included Philip Morris, settled for around $200 billion (Dh734 billion), to be paid out to various entities over 25 years. The payouts continue to this day.

Parkinson and others had argued that the companies were wrongfully targeting children in advertising by using cartoon characters, among other wrongful advertising practices.

“What Big Tobacco did is that they absolutely targeted children. You don’t have cartoon characters and aim them at 69-year-old men like me. And in movies, for example, they would pay movie stars half a million dollars to smoke cigarettes in some movie. So the damage being done to America in terms of health costs is extraordinary,” Parkinson said.

Two decades on, Parkinson, who still does “a little lawyering”, spends his time giving inspirational talks to children, especially on reading and writing. He has written a book titled Autodidactic: Self-taught, which talks about the power of vocabulary, reading and writing.

Parkinson said a prisoner in the US once told him to convey the message to children that “they matter ... You’re not here to take up space, don’t let anyone tell you you cant do it”.

Parkinson, who reads “100 books a year”, is currently around halfway through My Early Life, an autobiography of His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.

Inspired by Ruler

“In my life, never have I been more impressed by a human being more than I am with His Highness [Dr Shaikh Sultan],” Parkinson said.

He highlighted various achievements of the Sharjah Ruler, such as SIBF, furnishing homes with small libraries, writing books, and encouraging children to read.

“[Dr Shaikh Sultan] has said ‘an open book is an open mind’. He said [at the opening ceremony of SIBF] he had decided 40 years ago ‘I don’t want to build just buildings, I want to build minds’ … I told students today [Monday] you have this inspirational leader, Dr Shaikh Sultan.”