Proma Basu Roy
Libraries have always been a comforting place for me. When I think deeper about what made them comfortable, it is mainly the stories and the people who told me stories and recommended books. I wanted to work in this space and to enable a similar experience for many children, but primarily I wanted to understand the ‘what-why-how’ of a library and immerse myself in the world of children’s books actively. So, when Bookworm, Goa opened the Library Educators Course (LEC) door for the first time in 2017, it was a calling!
A crucial learning began with my field project. I started working at Ektara, an English medium NGO- run school for girl children in Kolkata. The organization is in apart of the city that is popular for tanneries on one side and a solid waste disposal ground on another. Children from the neighbourhood attend the school. Hindi is their home language. They understand Bengali and can read, speak and write in Hindi with some knowledge of elementary English.
One division of Ektara’s school is the non-formal unit where children out of school come for a year-long bridge course, at the end of which they are enrolled in a formal school by the organization. Children in this group are between 8 and 15 years, and are seated together in one classroom. Since this was the first time that I would singlehandedly work with children and not with a team, I chose the non-formal group since a small group would be easier for me to work with.
Beginning my field project
There was no library in the school as such, except a cupboard in the passage with Enid Blyton books, fairytales, bedtime stories, Panchatantra, Jataka Tales and many encyclopedias, all in English. So I first needed to set up a book corner which the children and I would access during our time together. Since books only in English was a mandate of the school, I shelved mostly English books and a few in Hindi. They were picture books with text simple enough for children to read and understand. Keeping in mind that some children were averse to ‘reading’, it was a conscious decision to include wordless picture books in the collection. The school gave us a book rack which I kept in the non-formal group’s classroom because children and the books being closest to one another was important to start with.
For my field project, I was going to develop book activities and do them with children. I was keen to learn the kind of engagement that such interactions brought about in children and understand what happens when reading is connected with other acts of doing.
The library time began with a read-aloud followed by an activity. The design of the activities was based on what I wanted to connect reading with and try to understand if that is a useful approach to immerse the reader into what the book was saying; that ‘reading connects and should’ was explicit during the contact periods at LEC, something that resonated with me. As I look back, I realize that some experiences and learnings from then have formed me and informed my approach to the library.
Reading and conversing
We read Chutki Ulli (Eklavya, 2006). Post read-aloud activity was to have a conversation. The discussion was on love, ‘who/what we love and why’. It was the first time that the children would ‘speak’ about love as one child said. Breaking the ice, they talked about people, pets and situations. The ‘why’ parts brought in serious pauses, and gradually, what began as responding by turn grew into collective thinking and a free-flowing conversation. Children agreed, disagreed, referred to the book, discussed if love could be counted. The more they disagreed the more intense the conversation became; the disagreement was largely on ‘what’ can and cannot be considered as love. It went on for a long time. I knew that this conversation worked well because in the following sessions, there was a tendency to break into conversations after reading books together, which meant reflecting, sharing thoughts and doing it together.
Wordless picture books are a personal favourite. I had read an article by Frank Serafini, Exploring Wordless Picture Books, a powerful article that stated boldly how wordless picture books were for all. With the children, while reading in pairs or individually, I sometimes gave them a wordless picture book – Flutterfly, Ammachi’s Glasses, A Visit to the City Market and other such. I noticed each time how this was a hit especially among children who struggled to read text. The sense of completing a book having understood the whole story was remarkable. ‘It goes without saying that young children can read pictures long before they can read words’ (Frank Serafini, 2014). This innate ability enabled the children to read the book, the wordlessness acting as a catalyst. I took this as an opportunity to introduce books with very little text, like, The Seed, Whatever You Give, Jalebi Curls, etc. They knew that it was okay if they did not read the words, they could look at the illustrations only and that too was reading. And I noticed that if not at all times, sometimes they tried to read the lines too. This became an affirmation; wordless picture books can work wonders to break the perceived reading barrier.
Connecting stories of others and one’s own
We read Mukand and Riaz (Tulika Books, 2007). The story and its intensity pushed me to plan an activity that would immerse children in the theme and involve elements that are connected with their lives. I was taken in by Paulo Freire’s article, The Importance of the Act of Reading in our LEC Compendium, where he talks about reading the word and reading the world and connecting existential experiences with text. Weaving this into a project on friendship, children interviewed friends, siblings, parents, grandparents and neighbours, about friendship present and past as relevant. The interview questions were developed together by the children. After the interview, they made a page for each person interviewed and created a booklet on friendship. Transforming their conversation into a graphic representation was a convergence of senses and crafting something completely on their own. This was the beginning of perceiving books beyond just reading and also into making. For me, it was an assurance that reading connects and should, and diverse activities go a long way in enabling this.
From the very onset, I had requested the non-formal group teacher to be around during library time to observe and join in if she liked. My plan was to draw her into the books and to children’s enthusiasm around it, which I hoped she would find useful for teaching. Not only that, if the library was to be alive for a longer time, it was necessary for the adults of the school to be inducted into it gradually.
The teachers and administrators often spoke about how children were drawn to the small library corner; not only the non-formal group, but interest was seen among some children of the primary school too. It triggered them to consider creating a library which could be accessed by other classes as well. Inching forward with plans and preparations over the last few years, Ektara now has a library for the whole school, classes 1 to 7 and the non-formal group, with around 400 picture books, fiction and non-fiction, across publishers like Katha, Tulika, Pratham, Kalpavriksh, Eklavya, Karadi Tales and others. Displays are being put up regularly. A library period for each class once a week has been integrated in the school timetable. The library is now anchored by another LEC alumni with two others in her team. I believe this is how full circles form, and I see a rainbow in the Ektara sky.
The authorworks for libraries and children’s literature with Parag, an initiative of Tata Trusts. She can be reached at email@example.com.