Capital Tales: Books Get Voices to Reach More Children

New Delhi, Jul 19 (IANS): It is 9 a.m. on a Saturday. A group of nearly 100 schoolchildren aged 5-16 waiting at the gates of the American Centre in the capital is impatient. Their "Saturday Story Time" - a monthly story-telling and informal learning session - is about to begin.

The exercise begins with story-telling and screening of animation films, after which the children are questioned about the movies and the stories they have heard from the moderators.

Books are reaching out to children in new ways to make reading more attractive.

Several new initiatives in the capital are using the road-tested methods of story-telling, group activities, audio-visual aids and workshops to promote reading as a hobby among children. The initiatives have a larger social scheme: they are trying to bridge the intellectual gap between students from elite schools and government schools by putting them together in group exercises and outreach activity.

"What is a UFO," the moderator at the American Centre asks. "Universal Flying Object", a kindergarten student shoots back. "Wrong. Unidentified Flying Object," his peers fight to correct him.

The children are then split into groups to "unscramble" complex words. The scramble game is accompanied by lessons in history and geography - mostly related to the US.

"The children were assembled in mixed groups of English-speaking and non-English speaking students," a spokesperson for the American Centre said.

"We try to engage with children to promote the English language, library sense and enhance their communication skills once a month with Saturday Story Time," Kala Dutta, the director of the American Centre Library, told IANS. "Our objective is to reach out to those who are very young and underserved and bring them together with the affluent children. We want them to come to our library."

Dutta said several children who have attended the Saturday Story Time sessions had never visited a library before.

The American Centre has a Book Club for youngsters aged 16-35 years as well.

"It meets once a month to either discuss a book chosen by the American Centre or the participants bring their own books. The discussions cover a variety of subjects. India and the US also figure in their discussions. It is an effort to promote friendship and mutual understanding between India and the US," Dutta said.

The children's literature movement can be traced back to the 1950s, when leading cartoonist and illustrator Keshav Shankar Pillai set up the Children's Book Trust to publish illustrated children's stories.

The National Book Trust, the government's publishing unit conceived by the country's first prime minister, Jawahralal Nehru, a children's book lover, is expanding its children's book section by digitising hundreds of titles in the e-book formats so that the act of reading becomes interactive, its director, M.A. Sikander, said.

Sadly, the arrival of animation, easy-to-read comic books, action cinema, Internet and video games has severely constrained attention spans of children - relegating leisure reading to the margins in developing countries where the level of literacy is still poor, says a capital-based child counsellor and newspaper columnist.

Even so, story-telling as a medium of children's literature has gained popularity in India with non-profit projects like the Katha for Children led by Geeta Dharmarajan and children's writer Paro Anand's Literature in Action workshops.

Anand's workshops - a total of nine composite sessions, including "Drama of Storytelling", "Performance Story telling", "Bringing Library To Life" and "Creative Writing for Adults and Young Adults" - try to use story-telling as a pedagogical tool with interactive aids.

The workshops also impart tips to teachers and librarians to take away the fear of library from children. Katha, on the other hand, uses India-specific stories as a holistic approach to children's education and welfare.

In the last three years, Bookaroo, the largest children's bookfair in the country held in the capital, has moved away from conventional reading, display and sale of books for children to story-telling, performance and interactions.

It begins with a fortnight of outreach programmes in the middle of November as a run-up to the literature gala at the end of the month. Organised by M. Venkatesh and Swati Roy, the fair this year will begin its school week around Nov 15 with a line of international and national children's authors, story-tellers, performers, pop-up artists and illustrators of books, a member of the organising committee said.

The focus will be on both elite and government schools in the capital, where the Bookaroo will set up "Swap Bookshops" to allow children to exchange old books for new ones. The literature outreach programme will involve more than 10,000 students in the national capital.


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