The Storymaker factor

Sowmya Ravindranath

The Goan sky in July was the same shade as the poster that was being created by a group of five library educators. In three days through texts and videos, they had journeyed into the life of children’s author Ezra Jack Keats; learning about the man who challenged the idea of representation in children’s books of his time. Later that week, they completed the bright blue poster and went on to perform and read aloud Keats’ books to the visitors of a café.

I was one among the five. This was a special experience all round.

Doing an author study seeded many sprouting thoughts and views on library work. Doing the Library Educator’s Course by Bookworm Trust was the beginning of a purposeful quest of a library life. The course has made a lasting impact on my understanding of self, reading, libraries and education.

The experience of deep reading Ezra Jack Keats’ books introduced us to the story of the storymaker. Although I had previously read some of Keats’ books, this activity facilitated looking at his books anew, engaging with his works more closely and researching about his background and inspirations. Author study brings about a feeling that one is privy to the goings-on in the creator’s life. Knowing the contexts of Keats’ time, intent and influences afforded a more connected reading experience. Peter – the endearing African-American character Keats created, is now more than just a protagonist in a children’s book. I have seen him through the lens of Keats’ sensitivity and met him on the pages with predilection.

As adult readers, we may seek out information of authors whose books interest us. The reverse is just as true – we could get interested in books whose authors fascinate us. I wondered about the latter – how would children respond to books when they know the story of the storymaker? And thus, began a five-week field project that proved to be a wellspring of ideas.

Shelf knowledge
It is not uncommon for young library users to forget the names of authors whose books they may have read and liked. Only an engaged and interested child may be able to remember and recollect authors’ names.

Barring book talks and reviews where it is essential to mention the author’s name, readers (unless oriented) may miss associating a book with its creator. By drawing focus on the author, the book is rendered as someone’s creation – therefore humanizing it. It is a significant movement in a reader’s journey when the engagement goes beyond and behind the contents of the pages.

By connecting books with their authors, library users are also nudged towards using this information – particularly in the act of browsing. In libraries where the collection is organized in alphabetical order of authors’ names, it becomes a handy skill to enhance shelf knowledge and browsing independence.

Collection
A school library is a confluence of thoughts on reading – that of the curators and of the community. Books and memories collected, shelved and shared are but the most precious of human experiences for a thinking community.

One of the first sessions in the Library Educator’s Course was about understanding the elements of the library: Collection, space, people, interaction/activities, administration. When asked about which element would take precedence over the other, every single one of us participants had our own rationale – each rooted in conviction and early experience. The discussions that followed left us all in a deep sense of deliberation.

This field project gave an opportunity to explore the aspect of collection. As I wrote down preliminary prep notes, it became evident that the project would be meaningful only if I looked beyond the frequently borrowed books or book series.

To arrive at the list of authors, the following steps were employed:

  1. Understand borrowing patterns by observing students’ library behaviour and accessing library logs.
  2. Identify and make a list of authors who are not read as frequently.
  3. Shortlist authors who don’t write book series.

As I deliberated on the long list, I was drawn to consider the multifold opportunities – while this project will bring Collection to the forefront, it will be an exercise to observe the dynamic interplay of elements. It will also be a pursuit held and hosted by values placed on the act of reading itself. I had to brace myself for the more reflective aspect of the project.

To further narrow down the list of authors, the filtering process included answering these questions:

  1. To discover rich and new reading experiences → Does the author have a body of work for this age group?
  2. To ensure access to a group of 35 students → Does the library have a minimum of eight books (unique and multiple copies) of the author?
  3. To understand and facilitate the exploration of these books → Is the library educator familiar with the books of these authors?
  4. To consider the aspect of values espoused by the author and examine one’s own feelings of affinity → Is the library educator excited about bringing these books and authors to the forefront?

The Storymakers in spotlight
After multiple rounds of discussions with my mentor, Sujata Noronha, I set out to examine the shortlist and a final list emerged. From this point on, the weeks were filled with reading and more reading.

Authors chosen for the field project:
Eva Ibbotson
Michael Morpurgo
Zai Whitaker
Shabnam Minwalla
Ranjit Lal

Focus group: Students of grade 5

The groundwork for executing this field study included:
• Collating books by the five authors.
• Reading background information about the authors.
• Accessing materials available in public forums that inform and help form an idea of the author’s life.
• Reading and dipping into unfamiliar books of the author.
• Making notes of distinct writing styles and affiliations.
• Using notes to plan author introductions to students.
• Choosing excerpts from books to read at sessions.

In the next weeks, these five authors occupied center-stage at the library. Each week opened with an introduction of the author, reading an excerpt and engaging with a curated display of books. Together with my students, we learnt about the creative, intellectual and spirited lives of these authors. From discussing their childhood to learning about their rejections, pains and parallel careers, we traversed into their worlds, with involved excitement.

I witnessed a blossoming of interest. My students were delighted and curious to know more about these authors. We discussed and deliberated, agreed and disagreed, speculated and pored over books and their creators. The library reverberated with purposeful chatter and a heightened sense of browsing and borrowing. Books vanished into eager hands, leaving scores of them in wait listed-disappointment. We saw books that were not read as much, in a frenzy of circulation.

While some were instantly struck by Ibbotson’s childhood fear of darkness, others were excited to learn that teachers could turn authors too (Morpurgo and Whitaker). Tales of friendship and tween banter (Minwalla) won them over just as much as the author (Lal) who lives next to a cemetery and writes humour and books on social issues. For many students, this was their very first book of the authors. Previously unknown, in a matter of weeks the authors became more than names they see on book spines – they became people who live and lead fascinating lives. As we read their books, we paused to note the influences in their writing – how their lived experiences had shaped the characters they created or settings they knew intimately poured into their books. For reluctant readers interested in the conversation, it seemed like books snuck in through the back door.

Even amongst students who did not actively engage, there were conversations like, “who is it by”, “has she written other books”, “I think the books will be here”. Knowing one’s way about in the library is a significant step towards becoming confident and engaged library users.

At the end of the project period, I was convinced about the tremendous power of knowing the stories of people, the stories of storymakers and the backstories of books. This field project magnified the spirit of library work; of the creative process, the rhythm and resonance of discussions, the quintessential value in seeing each other as human. This experience has inspired me to find and fill my pockets with stories of people. It has nudged me to look out for a connect; to understand that we connect if we strive to see it.

Connection
This field project was a remarkable journey to understand how history affects the consumption of a story. Through the five weeks of the field project, what resonated the most was the sense of connectedness. Whether it was the students connecting to the author at a more human-level or the shared reading experiences appealing to their kindred sensibilities, the library became a composite unit that enlivened and enriched the coming together of people. I access this feeling long after the buzz of the weeks lifted.

The author is a Library Educator at the Valley School, Bangalore. She can be reached at [email protected].

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