Libraries that live and breathe

Ria Banerjee

This year in February, during a teacher training program, a participating government school teacher asked, “How do we select children’s books?” It was right after a session where we introduced the book, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle.

I work in an educational NGO, Vikramshila Education Resource Society in Kolkata, where I am involved in content development, early language training programs for grassroot organizations and government schools. Our training is based on the groundwork that Vikramshila Education Resource Society has with children in various programs, both urban and rural. At the heart of what I do lie children and my understanding of how children make meaning of the world and creating opportunities for them to learn and grow. One such important opportunity is to help them enjoy reading. Hence, I felt more sure of understanding the teacher’s question and answering it.

Does engagement with books in the library encourage reading?
Before 2018, my world of libraries and books included reading popular novels. I joined the Library Educator’s Course in 2018 and then I experienced a significant shift in my reading awareness, reading and reading knowledge. The course was an invitation to collectively look for answers to critical questions like –
• How do we select books?
• How do we engage with children in different activities apart from reading aloud?
• Why do we need books and stories?

Translating the idea of a library into practice
Discussions and experiences of library educators during the course and my reading of two picture books stand out as an inspiration to take on this journey to spread a love for reading as a reader as well as a practitioner. One book is ‘Biblioburro’ by Jeanette Winter and the other is ‘Miss Moore thought Otherwise’ by Jan Pinborough, illustrated by Debby Atwell. Both these books share the love for reading and the passion to spread the joy of reading among children through library work.

I was determined to go beyond the comfort zone of doing something in my city, so I chose Vikramshila’s primary school in Bigha, a small village in Burdwan District, West Bengal as my field project site. A five-hour journey to this remote village once a week, despite my hectic schedule, not only gave the children a unique opportunity to explore the library space a bit differently, through book displays, read aloud and other library activities but also pushed me to read many books so that I could open them up for the children.

In one of our course readings by Stephanie Feeney and Eva Moravick, I found resonance with this, “Teachers must select books with care, thoughtfully choose when to read them, read them with understanding and feeling, and discuss them sensitively with children. No article or book gives you the specific information that watching and listening to children provides.” I found my path here of engagement by trusting the readers, my group of 18 fourth graders. My observations and interactions guided me throughout the process, giving me a better sense of their prior knowledge and interests.

Selection of books
Collection is an important element of a library. The very first task for me was to explore, search for books, and read them again and again as an educator whilst keeping the children in mind. It was definitely something I had not done before. It was a challenging task as there is no set formula on what might pique the interest of a child or a group of children. I was not familiar with the children and therefore it was a struggle to engage with them deeply within a short period of time. Hence it was essential for me to get to know them personally and gauge their interests through observation, interactions and daily note taking.

First, what I kept in mind was the age group of the children and searched for books by publishers indicating the age level. My next task was to read these books. However, I did not limit myself to this labelling. I also read texts that were beyond the age level as stated and yet found them appropriate for introduction. I constantly discussed with my mentor, friends and colleagues who are passionate readers, to jot down more options.

The initial days of interaction mainly focused on knowing what books the children usually read from the available collection in the classroom library and what interests them. I noted that Tuntunir Boi or The Tailor Bird’s Book by Upendrakishore Raychowdhury (popular Bengali children’s literature) was a common favourite. These books involve the tales of a small bird who outwits kings, and many other tales. While respecting their fascination for these stories, I chose to introduce them to a variety of books that were more contemporary, with stories having humour, wit and empathy. I was cautious not to impose my preferences on the children but to create a safe, shared space which is inclusive in nature, for them to explore and express without fear or inhibition.

On the other hand, the group of fourth graders were at different reading levels. For browsing and independent reading time, I ensured there were books for all kinds of readers, from simple to complex in terms of the language as well as themes and plots.

I chose books that would be fun to read together, books that I felt would capture their interest and those which they will be able to connect to their lives. Each book had some kind of a problem that was posed and I felt children would like to think about the problems and find possible solutions. Some titles were Adil Ali’s Shoes by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, Juta Abishkar by Rabindranath Tagore and Fakruddin’s Fridge by Meenu Thomas which were particularly enjoyed.

My reflections and learning
The field project instilled in me the idea that it is not just collection, but there are other aspects of the library that hold equal importance. It is indeed people and interactions that keep libraries alive and breathing. A library can be filled with great books but if it is not inviting enough physically and emotionally, then the very purpose of the library is defeated.

Apart from books, a world map in the library space also became an important resource for engagement. It was during one free time in the library that some children were marking the route from India to Saudi Arab. It helped me to come closer to their lived reality, where their fathers and male relatives migrate from the villages to bigger cities in the country and also move to other places for earning better wages.

Since the first days of the field project, I continued different forms of engagement, not as intensively. With the help of my colleagues, I selected literary pieces from Bengali children’s literature to read aloud ranging from authors Leela Majumdar to Bibhutibhushan Bandhyapadhay which introduced children to challenging texts with more descriptive language and layers to the stories. These books enabled in-depth conversations which the children really looked forward to.

This entire process made me and the teachers realize that even though a book might be beyond children’s reading ability, it could still spark curiosity and stir their minds when read aloud, and later they might pick the book by themselves. If there are too many difficult words and the context is unfamiliar, children might lose interest. Even though the age and grade level indicators are quite helpful for us to narrow down our options from a wide range of books, I felt it is also important to provide children a diverse reading experience and that children should enjoy the book, engage and associate with the characters and events with their personal lives.

My response to the government teacher was simply this, “To begin with, one needs to become an active reader of children’s literature, know children through observation and interaction, and also know publishers. To give children a reading experience within the limited school hours, beyond the prescribed syllabus, introduce books with illustrations, simple yet engaging stories with characters and themes that appeal to their interest.” Since LEC, I make sure that I bring books to training programs, especially those that have worked well with me and when teachers show the slightest interest, I share my recommendations. Even amid the pandemic, I share links to e-books with teachers and ask for their feedback. The biggest joy comes when I hear with confidence, “Our children will love this book.”

The author is an educator based in Kolkata and has been working with the Vikramshila Education Resource Society for the past five years. She can be reached at [email protected].

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