Sitting with children is like sitting in a time machine. It takes you to your own childhood days. I had the good fortune of spending a good part of 2019 with children, eversince I was awarded the Big Little Book Award (BLBA) in 2018 for writing for children in Kannada. This award has been instituted by Parag, a Tata Trust initiative.
Never had I imagined that winning an award would actually suck me into the effervescent and energetic pool of children’s world. All these years, as a journalist, I was just dishing out whatever I imagined could be of interest to children without actually probing their requirement.
BLBA changed my perspective. After the award ceremony I was taken to some schools in Yadgir District (the most backward one in Karnataka) where Kalike, associate organization of the Trusts runs libraries in schools. All my life I had been striving to show the children how the outside world looks like. But now there was a role reversal. Yadgir was the place where actually the children taught me how a city man should look at the rural world. We exchanged stories. They told me hilarious incidents about buffaloes and egrets and I told them stories about plastics and plastic surgeries. They made me read my book and I asked them to weave a story on weaver birds. It was fun all the way.
Children in many schools hate books because they remind them of compulsory assignment and punishment. It is a burden to be carried everyday from school to home and home to school. Often the books are a source of humiliation both at school and at home. The feeling of dislike and disgust towards textbooks spills over to other kinds of books. But in those Governments schools of Yadgir, books have become a source of joy, a friend to keep company with. I have seen children dash to the library room and grab their favourite book during the library period. Books for them is a window for the unseen world, a telescope and a magic mirror. A book takes them to an imaginary world where crows talk, frogs laugh and lions squeal in front of a rat. In schools like Chandriki and MT Palli the library room itself is an attraction with large wall paintings of trees, birds, spiders, enchanting pools and so forth. Children are taught how to maintain neatness and care for the library. They quietly pick a book, enter the name of the book in a register and sit down for reading without the presence of a supervisor. At the end of the reading period they place the book in its designated slot and walk out after reserving another book for next day’s reading. They seldom need a supervisor.
Book Reading Sessions
My experience with book reading for children was remarkable. The background is this – I was assigned to translate four english books published by Kalpavriksh into my language, Kannada. All four were children’s books on wildlife and environment of India. The books were well received and I was invited to different schools and colleges in Karnataka for book reading sessions. As the books were for children from age 5 to 15, I had to visit a range of educational institutions from primary school to high- school and college. For the teenage student community at a government college in Tarikere in Chikmagalur district wildlife fiction itself was a new topic. For them a power point presentation was arranged to show that the stories in the book ‘People and Wildlife’ were indeed fictionalized real incidents. It engendered a barrage of questions. Few students came up with their own ideas of converting real events into stories with some imaginative episodes thrown in. Though there was very little actual reading, it was fun interacting with them. The Teaching community too participated actively in the debate, particularly linking wildlife decimation with climate change.
Small creatures and their big fans
In case of High School children it was a different experience. The place was Kottanuru, a suburb of Bengaluru where the students had no direct exposure to the wildlife in real sense. Crocodiles, leopards and otters were all just imaginary creatures. A different book (Critters Around Our Homes) was chosen for them and the reading session was followed by a quiz. Because the topic of small creatures in and around our dwelling was so familiar to them every student took part in the quiz. Each one came up with so many varieties of ants, spiders, frogs and wasps that I felt it is worth writing another book on the same subject. For that I may have to take apprenticeship with many of these kids! It is possible that because of the absence of mega fauna in their neighborhood these kids had time to pay much more attention to the existence of small critters in the nooks and corners of their dwelling units.
Pangolin as a cuddly animal?
Interacting with primary school children at an informal school by the name Vidyakshetra in rural Benagluru was the most exasperating exercise. They were so exhuberant and so inquisitive about anything ‘wild’ that it was difficult to contain them. When the story about pangolin (ant eater) was read out to them, one of the kids wanted me to show how the baby animal cries during distress. That kept my mouth shut because I didn’t know the answer! How does this animal with scales all over his body scratch itself when itching? What a confounding questions! One girl wanted to know whether a cuddly doll of a pangolin could be available in a toy shop. Whoever would come up with the idea of creating a cuddly toy of a scaly and thorny animal, I wonder! The reading session was quite chaotic because some kids wanted me to read slowly and others wanted me to show the pictures in the previous pages while a few others wanted me to skip reading and show all the pictures at once. I wish I had enough time to a have a one-on-one reading session.
The fifth and final session was conducted in the peri urban (a couple of villages near Kengeri, Bengaluru South) environment. It was a government school in a village called Sulikere. It was an open air session where children were competing with birds and squirrels in chirping. They could not believe that the snakes had no ears and that they do not drink milk. Children in these villages are so steeped in mythology and superstitions that it was difficult to convince them about the scientific facts in one session. They were ready to jump the fence and bring some termites so that I could show them that the critters had no eyes. How can one show what is not there? Any way, one lesson I learnt in this session was that it is essential to carry a pair of binoculars and a magnifying glass while talking with children in open air.
Here is the strange fact: Unlike the schools of remote Yadgir District many of the schools located right in the shadow of the state capital were devoid of libraries and reading rooms. Many children did not even have their textbooks. Yet the kids were so hungry for stories and story books that some of them were seen smelling the books that were on display there!
There is plenty of scope for extending the kind of Kalike service to these schools on the model of Parag libraries, Tata Trust.
Nagesh Hegde is the winner of Big Little Book Award 2018