Building Libraries

How children are learning to read books in a new way at a library just for them

Writing a book report is teaching 12-year-old Shivani to hear the voice in her head that helps her understand a story.

Chewing and swallowing without ever tasting, is that a good analogy for reading without opening oneself to meaning? Yes, the reader who reads listening to one voice – a voice sounding out syllables joined into words  strung into sentences bypassing punctuation (because punctuation is after all  where groups of words pause, allowing us to collect their meaning) is almost certainly reading in a monotone.

Or, if she is not reading in a monotone, it is because, like 12-year-old Shivani, she is reading in the sing-song tone in which she has been taught to read at her school. 

Shivani is reading from a sheet torn from her notebook; it is the text of her first ever book report. She has learned how to write a book report at The Reading Project , held twice a week at the Deepalaya Community Library in Sheikh Sarai, New Delhi.

The library is run by a group of two dozen volunteers from all walks of life. And they make the claim that the ten-by-fifteen space, formerly a classroom, from which they circulate their collection of three thousand books is the beginning of a movement. In a corner of the library room, three boxes of books are marked as the beginning of collections destined for other rooms in other neighbourhoods.

The leadership of Deepalaya is convinced: they are mobilising resources and identifying schools and communities which need community libraries, and they want to see this project spread beyond their NGO. Other volunteers will have to be found before those other libraries are up and running.

But the group at Sheikh Sarai is committed to the idea of getting books in the hands of children who are growing up without access to books. They are also convinced that it is their methods or pedagogy that will best serve these children. The library needs as many as volunteers as it does because a giant portion of volunteer energy is devoted not only to circulating books but also to reading aloud from them.

Shivani is nervous as she reads facing a camera, which is being used to record her so that other children can learn from her.

It is understandable that she has reverted to the familiar practice of sing-songing her way through reading. In fact, she knows the meaning of what she has written, and as she warms up her voice loses some of its sing-song and finds its way through many registers to express the dry and factual (My name is Shivani and I study at Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya) and the ardent, the longed for (I like to read books because they teach me about other places, countries and states, and peoples and how they live and the foods they eat). In between, she recounts the plot of the story she has read: the story of a battle between an old lady and a crow that tries to steal her roti.

Shivani’s ability to report on the book she has read is proof of her ability to hear the second voice in her head, the voice all readers access when reading for meaning. It is this second voice that interrogates the voice of the text, asking constantly of the text: but what does it mean? It is this voice that tells us not only the plot but also the purpose of the plot. At its most sophisticated, it will tell us if we will embrace or if we will loathe the argument made by the story.  It is this second voice, then, that tastes the story that was chewed and prepared to be swallowed by the first voice.

The story Shivani retells in her book report is clearly one she finds funny and entertaining.

It is not a story strung only from syllables , then words, then sentences. It is also a story filled with meaning, meaning that Shivani gathered to herself from the syllables and words by listening to the interrogative second voice in her head.

Michael Creighton is one of the volunteers who week after week reads stories out loud to Shivani and the hundred or so kids who attend the Reading Project. He describes Shivani as low hanging fruit. That is, she has already been taught how to read using the first voice. She knows how to string syllables together. He and his fellow volunteer are in the business of teaching her to access that second voice.

When Purnima Rao reads Kamla Bhasin’s Ulti Sulti Amma or Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny, she demonstrates both voices to the twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds seated facing her in rows of hard classroom benches. She reads the text and interrogates the text. Her hands gesticulate, her arms sometimes flay about, her eyes warm or blaze or narrow in accompaniment with the meaning of the story.

She hits the rhymes hard in her reading, waking the room to their presence and thus to their pleasure.  Sometimes the meaning of what is read fetches laughter from the room. Heads shake in rebuttal when a reading provokes disagreement. Some readings provoke arguments: should Putul have saved the dolphins when they were needed as food in her family?

The books that Rao chooses to read aloud are always lavishly illustrated and she always holds them open to the room as she performs the rather acrobatic trick of reading text that is faced away from her. The fourteen-year olds know these books are meant for younger children, but without having to articulate it, there is an understanding in the room that the meaning within belongs to everyone.

As readers, the children learn from Rao and her colleagues to think as they read not only about what has just happened in the story, and not only about what might yet happen in the story, but also about what is happening in their lives. If the ulti sulti amma in the story they have read is likeable or unlikable for being exactly like or completely unlike their mother, what does that mean about who they are and what they desire from life?

No reading goes unpunctuated by the question: what do you think?

And no volunteer begins from any other premise than one which sees the children in the Reading Project as thinkers. It is just the case that very few of the children have ever been invited in their lives to bring their thinking selves to the act of reading.

Shivani’s book report has now reached the point where she tells the camera it is important to not steal. It is quite possible that if Shivani had never attended the Reading Project she would have come to the same conclusion at the end of reading this particular book. It is after all the canned conclusion – the paath or moral of the story - an unthinking reading of this book might have produced.

But in this instance, the still nervous Shivani is concluding only as she ever could. There are not too many children more earnest than Shivani in the Reading Project. It is this earnestness that has earned her a place on the Student Council, and this same earnestness brings her to the library on Saturdays where she offers, “Ma’am, Ma’am is there any work to do for the library?”

In the democratic spirit of equal thinkers, children and adults gather most Saturdays to clean and card and shelve donated books . On this Saturday Shivani finishes her book report and joins other children – Nunihar, Simpy, Sumit, Sahil, Amrita and Gungun.

They sort books, some for their library and some for those other libraries still waiting to be founded. On Monday, the library will open and volunteers and as many as a hundred children will stream in to read aloud, to listen to stories, to think about the ideas within them, to discover and taste the meaning of themselves.  And in a corner will sit three boxes of books, waiting the day they are carried elsewhere.

Mridula Koshy is a writer of fiction, and a librarian and community organiser with Deepalaya Community Library and Reading Project. You can volunteer at the Reading Project by contacting her.

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