As we say goodbye to 2017, a heartwarming story from Kolkata, India, home of the world’s biggest book fair and home of some of India’s worst slums.
The Times of India reports a new children’s library has just opened in Kolkata, created for children, by children.
Siblings Manadwi and Suhasini Dugar, respectively 12 and 9 years old, enlisted Mum’s help to create a 1,000 title children’s library for local kids.
Initially the pair wanted to just distribute books to local children, but quickly realized that would reach very few in need, so instead they opened a free-to-use library, operative Mondays to Saturdays, 11am to 7pm.
In itself this will barely make a scratch on the problem of illiteracy in India, but if the existence of a children’s library encourages slum-dwelling children to take an interest in books and storytelling, that’s great.
India has a strong tradition of oral storytelling, and the rise and rise of accessible audio and video offers opportunities for authors to reach non-reading audiences, a topic close to my heart.
During my travelling years it was always a toss-up between my settling in the slums of India, Brazil or West Africa. West Africa won, not least because The Gambia had cheap tourist flights for half the year (a fraction of the cost of getting to Brazil or India) which meant I could flit back and forth with goodies for the children.
Among such goodies were enlarged (A2) copies of illustrations and text from children’s books. The enlarged copies could be put on the wall or shared around among groups of children while the original text was read out by competent narrators in the appropriate local languages.
This had to be done on a very small scale because of copyright implications – there was no commercial gain but still copyright needs to be respected – but as the project proved successful I began producing original works with localized content.
What really came home from this was the keen interest of children – most of whom never had the chance of attending school – not just in the stories they were hearing and connecting with through the illustrations, but in the desire to learn to read so they could consume more, on their own terms.
In a tiny country like The Gambia (population 2 million) books are a rarity, bookstores pretty much unheard of, and book fairs an alien concept.
In India, by contrast, books are big business. Not necessarily big money by US terms – prices are much lower in India – but still potentially lucrative, and the demand for literature is insatiable.
As reported last week, India seems like one continuous book fair sometimes.
As I write this, two Indian book fairs are just coming to a close, that ran through Christmas, and next month we’ll see two of the world’s biggest book fairs taking place – both in India, with a literary festival (Jaipur) squeezed in between, just in case anybody finds the New Delhi and Kolkata book fair crowds (2 to 2.5 million visitors apiece) too much of a jostle.
And yes that’s the same Kolkata where the two kids have just set up their own children’s library.