Making collections speak to everyone

Kuheli Sarkar

Our privileged status has provided many of us with the opportunity to be surrounded by all kinds of books in our childhood. I am sure many of you will agree that the stories we were told and those we read in our childhood were the ones that shaped the ‘I’ and the ‘We’, that we are today. And therefore libraries and the world of stories, have a huge role in expanding our world view and making us who we are. Yes, storybooks have moulded us, but have the books changed in terms of content? We continue to find the lived experiences and narrative of dominant communities aplenty in storybooks. But sadly, little has changed when it comes to the representation of narratives of the marginalized communities.

As a library educator I have had the opportunity to curate a collection for children of underprivileged communities. It has been a challenge and a struggle as my childhood experiences and the experiences of the children in the community with regard to lived experiences, stories and their representation in storybooks are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I was clear that the children needed a collection of stories that would enable them to identify their community narratives and tales in the words and pictures of the storybook. But since the mainstream storybooks are crowded with dominant narratives, the most challenging concern for me was to curate a collection representing the ‘I’ for children of the marginalized communities.

My recent engagement was with a library at the one of the communities in Kolkata where children of minority communities of low-income groups reside. I had to scourge the bookstores (online and physical) for stories which they could relate to – from the characters to the conversations, to the images displayed in the books, so that while reading a story they could say to each other, “Isn’t this character just like your Ammi?” or “Look, this lane just looks like the lane next to our home!” My search did not disappoint me.

A refreshing change in the representation of diverse communities in children’s literature has been visible in recent years. I gathered books such as Nabiya, Fakkruddin’s Fridge, Ismat’s Eid, Adil Ali’s Shoes and shared them with the children. While I read aloud Nabiya to them, a little girl said “Now we have this library where we can read storybooks, I wish Nabiya too had a library near her house.” After listening to Ismat’s Eid, the children engaged in a conversation about the Eidi they received and what they would do if something like what happened to Ismat happened with them? I realized, yes, maybe children found a little of the ‘I’, their life, their community and themselves in these stories.

The next point to consider was, what was being talked aloud in the community? Does it get represented in the storybooks that the children read? For children in Sunderbans in West Bengal, community narratives are ripe with stories of wild animals such as tigers, snakes and crocodiles! A collection of stories where wild animals meet children, similar to what they have directly or indirectly experienced can strengthen their self-image and make the stories their own. Reaching out to them with stories such as Tiger on a Tree, Catch that Crocodile, and Putul and the Dolphins has helped community narratives come alive in storybooks. But who was I reading to? A group of Bengali speaking children. And what language was I reading aloud in? English! As a matter of fact, many such stories are available only in English and in case a translation is available, it is often a literal translation where the language and the context do not sit well together. So, for whom are these stories actually written? Definitely not for the children of the Sunderbans. Therefore, the dilemma was whether these books could be a part of the collection. If yes, then how to carry these stories to the children. Will the children see the ‘I’ in these stories especially when there is a mismatch between the language and the context?

Every community’s identity is embedded in its traditional folktales that have been orally propagated across generations, and the children thrive on them. In the Sundarbans, the oral tales of Dokhin Rai and Bon Bibi, are told by every grandparent or parent to their children across Muslim and Hindu communities inhabiting the mangroves. So, it is quite natural for a child from the same community to experience joy and a sense of belonging upon reading a version of the story in the picture book Bon Bibi’s Forest. Thankfully there is representation of a traditional tale, but which version of the tale and who decides which tale finds a place in the storybook? Are the narratives and views of the community reflected in the pages of the storybook? Or is it a tale woven by someone distant from the community? Yes, we are glad that children are seeing their very own Dokhin Rai in a storybook, but are we sure it is the Dokhin Rai they have imagined while listening to the story from their aunts and grandmothers?

There are several communities that have been excluded from mainstream society by dominant groups despite inhabiting a geographical location for a long period. Their narratives find no representation in the domain of children’s literature. While working with the children of the workers in the tea gardens of Assam, I realized the dearth of stories written in Sadri (a dialect of Hindi spoken by tribals in the Chotanagpur region and tea gardens in Assam) but I also unearthed a rich reserve of traditional oral tales. My thoughts revolved around how to make these stories a part of the collection of the library we were building for the children in the community. I had heard and read about the Human Library* and it triggered the idea of inviting elders of the community to narrate traditional stories to the children in the library. Our team had to convince the storytellers and boost their confidence till they agreed to join us in the library as human storybooks. We could not script the stories and place them on the bookshelves but we could nestle them in the library which helped not only the children but the entire community to identify themselves, their lives and stories with the library. Thanks to the efforts of people interested in legitimizing the stories of the marginalized communities, traditional stories such as Sotur Leeta# – a folktale about a cunning fox, popular among the Sadri speaking tribes have been written and reached the children. A little bit has been done, but a lot more is yet to be done to enable the children of such communities to find the ‘I’ in the library.

A collection in a library does not intend only to enable the readers to identify with themselves in the stories, but the stories are to be a sliding door and a window for the children as well. To find a part of themselves in the stories from different cultures and parts of the world is also something that a collection intends to enable. Children of the Sundarbans can be introduced to the sandy beaches across the world through the storybook Stories on the sand. The recurrence of a certain theme in folktales across different parts of the world can help them see themselves as individuals strung together on a thread of similar stories. The tale of Shiyal Pondit from Thakumar Jhuli to tales of the fox from Panchatantra or Aesops Fable to the The cockerel and the fox are many faces of a single story, which in a library makes the children feel one with the near, their community, and the far, the communities across the world.

As a library educator, my scant experience of trying to curate collections for children in which they will find the ‘I’ and the ‘We’ and therefore become a part of the identity of the library has been challenging but exciting. It has given me a sense of the present scenario, what is missing, what is possible and what can be done to make libraries vibrant. The road is difficult and there is a need for carving new routes but with the collective effort of minds and hearts working for the best interest of our beloved children, nothing is impossible.

* Human Library, https://humanlibrary.org/tag/india/

# A new leaf: books to teach tea garden children about their own world, https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/assam/a-new-leaf-books-to-teach-tea-garden-children-about-their-own-world-5375047/

The author is a development professional and has worked in designing and implementing programmes to reach quality education to children of underprivileged communities. Her love for art, books and children now drives her to work with children in different libraries in Kolkata. She can be reached at [email protected].

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