Our journey with books

Nimesh Ved and Anshumalika Rai

We are associated with a school, catering to 300 students, in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Together with colleagues we have undertaken an invigorating journey over the past two years. A journey to bring children and books closer to each other. This we share below.

Phase one
To begin with, the library was located on the first floor while the classrooms were on the ground floor. Also, most of the time it was behind a closed door; a door with two big locks. If you entered you would come came across a board that said, please be silent. The library did not have a friendly ambience.

Colleagues associated with the library clearly did not possess the love for books. It was a responsibility and distant. Another colleague, during the initial days, suggested that I go and buy books since we had a budgetary allocation!

A range of these books adorned the shelves in the library. These were books that senders wanted to get rid of and not those which children would want to read. Most of the books were in English (ours is a Hindi medium school) and it seemed as if neither the teachers nor the students had even cared to flip the pages. Neil Gaimon in his Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming writes of this, “Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature”.

On the one hand we had too many books and on the other, few that children would want to read! These few more often than not got lost amidst the lot. Books that had been donated were a major issue. Against this scenario, we decided to shut the library temporarily.

Phase two
Together with a few of our colleagues we planned the course of action for the months to come. We agreed that while customization (based on our needs) and learning from recent developments elsewhere (of books and children) were pertinent, we also would need to be flexible and allow space for course corrections.

A few of us took a closer look at the books on hand and the condition they were in. These books were then split into three categories. Some were kept on the verandah for two days – children were free to take those they wanted. Many children in our school belong to families that are into fishing or weaving; reading is not a part of their lives at home. And the financial distresses of recent years have not helped. The second category was of books that were to be disposed; i.e., handed over to our sister unit to use in a different form. Our school is part of a larger organization (housing multiple units) and located in quintessential peri-urban north India. The final category was retained in the school. This again was divided into books that teachers and children would be interested in. Books meant primarily for children were further segregated according to age and moved to classrooms. Each class, 3rd standard onwards, now boasts of a small library. Our school has classes till 8th standard. Books meant for teachers were kept safely – for the time being – at another place.

We got some fresh books. But soon realized that many of these were not of much help. The ones in English espoused a context that the students could not connect with and the issue with few of those in Hindi was the quality of translation. We learnt what we did not need and realized that we needed to be better prepared.

Phase three
The posters arrived. Some we had purchased, others a friend of the school sent. With their easy to comprehend hindi, non-preachy content, cheerful demeanor and poetry, these posters altered the appearance (and feel) of walls. They helped us initiate conversations on poetry with teachers and fun activities with children, amongst others. These posters got the proverbial (new) ball rolling. Cursory reading led us to understand that a lot of fascinating actions were taking shape in the world of children’s literature. We got keen to meet people well versed on the topic, to know of books to read, avenues to procure the books from and more. To learn of the processes involved in the creation of books. To get the flavor of the changes taking place – for example the libraries were being perceived afresh and many of the illustrations were unlike those we had previously come across. One of us joined a course on library education (spread over few months) and the other participated in a week long workshop on children’s literature and art.

There were eye-opening trips as well. One to a government school in a neighbouring district and another to a Madarsa in town. Both had enthused children amidst colourful books and of course – palpable energy. Each of these helped set the direction. From ‘what we did not want’ we moved towards ‘what we wanted’.

We began to agree on how the library should now be. We would have it at a more accessible location, refrain (for the time being) from having books catering to adults, have seating on the floor to allow movement, songs, dance and of course space to laze around with books. We also agreed on the need to shift to a more accessible room. This would ideally be one with multiple windows that brought in light, fresh air and also enabled those inside to savour glimpses of trees. We decided to call it ‘book room’. This was also to do away with the seriousness the term library connotes. Gaimon again puts this succinctly, “But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information”.

During the initial days, the focus was on books in hindi. And, of course, books that the children would enjoy. We successfully applied for a book-grant and also visited book fairs. These books are a welcome addition to our collection. The new collection also warranted basic systems to keep track of what we now had. We also agreed that getting children to connect with books was the objective and we were fine with some books getting lost and torn. In other words, the rules would not be prohibitive.

Phase four
The book room got ready and did not take long to become the preferred place for teachers to get together.

Activities around the books slowly picked up. Lending for example was one which took time to gather momentum, given the number of books and willingness of the teachers to lend to younger children. Children have since proved the teachers wrong – they have not only begun to make lending cards but also take the onus of multiple actions at the book room. Then there are the dumb charades, co-reading, singing, loud reading, making book-marks, book auction and more actions taking place. The display of books is altered each month depending on the theme. Recent months have seen ‘food’ and ‘sports’ as the themes. Activities have spilled in to the school’s morning assembly as well. Children read stories and recite poetry on a pre-decided day!

We have far more clarity on the kind of books we need. Stories that highlight gender sensitivity, for example, are welcome as are bilingual books. In response to the interest shown by teachers for poetry, the book room has made an exception and added fresh books on poetry! All these have led to teachers coming together to discuss books, reading, poetry and more. More on this some other day.

The Book room is slowly but surely dovetailing towards meeting larger needs of the school as well. These include buttressing language learning (English and Hindi) and activity based learning. It is evolving into the ‘happy space’ the school was keen to create. A space which is colourful and bereft of many of the ‘rules’ that classrooms have to follow. One where the children can let their imagination fly. And, more importantly, getting the team together.

Together with colleagues we look forward to more fun time with children and books. As one of the colleagues remarked, “kitabon ke saath mauj masti”.

The authors enjoy being amidst children, books and children with books. They can be reached at nimesh.explore@gmail.com and anshumalikarai@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply