An impulsive click of the 'Send Message' button on Facebook lead me to the Deepalaya Community Library Project in New Delhi, where children don't just borrow books but can also stay for 'read-aloud' sessions that are followed by spirited group discussions on the book of the week.
When I joined in March, I had never volunteered time or energy to anything like this before. I won't lie to you. Having no experience working with children, the idea terrified me.
But in just three short months, I've gone from a state of apprehension to being deeply committed to the project's larger mission: building a library movement that believes in transforming communities through the power of reading.
Here are 10 things I've learnt along the way.
1. Some kids devour books, others nibble on covers
The former includes the child who devotes his month to the Harry Potter series, as well as the impatient reader who converts stairwells, street corners and parked scooters into her private reading nooks. Our job is to help them find the next great story to feast on.
You know the latter has been at work when you see books with chomped-on corners and splintered spines. These nibblers are usually in the 4-6 age group. Our job is to help them to chew on stories instead of paper and thrash out ideas instead of books.
2. Lines are serious business
Whether it's forming orderly lines for issuing out titles or reading the ones that unravel new worlds hidden in books.
3. Seating plans are important
Sometimes desks arranged in a semicircle work best, while other story sessions go are best enjoyed sitting on the floor with the children. Some tales are best told by balancing a 4-year-old in your lap. Anything that draws kids into the book.
4. You come depleted, but leave refreshed
A bottle of water may or may not refresh you on a 43°C day in a crowded classroom with just one working fan, but you're still guaranteed a pick-me-up when you share a library with enthusiastic children.
Some of their sure-fire mood lifters might sound like this: "Ma'am, should I tell you how many books I've read?" or "Ma'am, will you read Ulti Sulti Amma again?" or "Sir, this is my favourite story because the little boy never gives up."
5. Voices make books come alive
Your read-aloud sessions will be attended by kids as young as 5 and as old as 16. Whether it's a goat, an old lady or a wise man from medieval China, do the characters' voices. Everyone loves hearing them.
6. Books can earn you gold stars
Some rewards are shiny, like the "honour roll" stars kids get for reading 10 books or more. Others are less visible, like the glow you feel when a child remembers you from the book you read last week.
7. When you read to kids, time contracts and space expands
If you've got a good book to read aloud, hours shrink to seconds and tiny classrooms stretch to receive every child. A bench meant for three can suddenly elongate to seat five and over 150 children can borrow books in merely two hours.
8. You grow superpowers
These include newfound wells of patience and the vigour of an energiser bunny as you manage large crowds of eager children that often exceed a hundred. Whether you're running up and down corridors or helping a child spell her name, it's a great way to strengthen your heart muscles.
9. You're never alone in a community library
You'll be sharing the library with a motley crew of kids and grown-ups from diverse socio-economic contexts, with unique interests, talents and quirks. Despite differences, you'll be bound by a common love for literature and a collective drive to build a larger library movement.
10. Everyone's story is different, everyone's story matters
Each reader reads the same book differently. For some Maurice Sendak's In The Night Kitchen is an impossible tale. For others, it's very possible. There's no right or wrong way to imagine a story. In the library space, everyone's interpretation is welcome and debatable. In fact, this is how "read-alouds" grow thinking and citizenship.
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