Going Beyond Books

Venkatalakshmi Vikram is a parent and an interior designer who takes a very active role in introducing her child, Vania, to books. She founded and runs Beyond Books, Chennai, a book club for parents looking to discover new literature for their children. Both she and Vania are also very enthusiastic participants in our storytelling events. Here, we interview her about her book club, and her experience in building a love of books in Vania and the impact it has had on her.

Could you please tell us how your book club, Beyond Books – Chennai, started and how often you meet?

I looked for a book club in Chennai for children, but I couldn’t find one, so I started one myself. We meet once a month and each parent takes turns hosting sessions at their respective residences.

What kind of library activities do the Homeschoolers’ Guild children engage in? Do they look forward to them and participate willingly?

When we’re at the library, we play “What’s in a Library?” The children are asked to state words that come to their mind when they think of a library. Then, they’re encouraged to ask questions about libraries in general. The activity ends with the children discovering a variety of resources that are usually found in a library!

We play the “Sad Book/Glad Book” game, through which kids learn the rules of the library.  Children are also taught to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction using a game we call “That’s Fiction! (Or Not?)”

On our dictionary hunts, the kids learn how to use a dictionary, find guide words, and decide whether they need a dictionary, a thesaurus or an encyclopedia. We also have library scavenger hunts—the goal is to find specific items at the library, like a book with a picture of a cat on the cover, a book with recipes, a fairy tale, and so on. Sometimes, the children work on stacking books to create different structures, like clocks and Christmas trees, or looking through a kids’ magazine and finding one fact that they didn’t know before.

After the first few library sessions, the children showed interest in learning something new every time and eagerly looked forward to the next session. While Wednesdays are our library days, the children started to visit the library on other days as well!

How would you say books have affected the way Vania looks at the world? What is the origin story of her love for books?

When I was young, I used to borrow and read books from my school library because it was compulsory. My father insisted that I read The Hindu—especially the Know Your English column—along with the Chambers Dictionary and a Roget’s Thesaurus. That’s how I learnt to speak, read and write English! But later, I never found the time to read books despite being a member of Eloor Library.

We didn’t want that to happen to Vania, so we started to read to her when she was three months old. Initially, we used audio books and waterproof books. One thing led to another, and she started attending storytelling sessions when she was two, and is still doing so. We have a mini library at home—we’ve been buying her books since she was born.

We do not have a TV connection at home (we stopped watching TV when I conceived). This makes a huge difference because we had to find other ways to keep the child occupied. Introducing her to books was the first choice. We do allow screen time of an hour once in two months, which is again rhymes, songs, or short videos of Shrek or Peppa Pig. Her current favourite is GGBB! She gradually got hooked onto Kutti and the Mouse after listening to the audio book, and one fine day, she narrated the whole story. She was three then.

Vania has a picture memory and was fascinated by logos, so she’d easily identify publishers upon seeing their logos in her books. She was glued to books about ballet; we even took her to a ballet show. We even threw her a birthday party based on her favourite book’s theme! She gradually started to relate the pictures she saw in books to real life.

Once, when she was able to relate to a book after attending a story session, we asked her questions, typed out her answers verbatim and posted it as a review on a library website. One of her reviews was featured on a UK website!

How have you and the other parents in your book club dealt with children who are (at least initially) not interested in, or are daunted by books or reading?

Most children from the book club are busy with their academics and tuition classes. They’re used to watching cartoons on TV. So in the first session, I chose three different stories that could be connected with each other—Dosa Amma Dosa, The Lion’s Feast and The Enormous Turnip. I played the Karadi Rhymes Sambhar Song audio and video to get their attention, and followed it up with a pretend play of pulling a turnip! Later, I read out the books and ended the session with an activity involving sticking pictures of turnips. All this had a great impact: the kids were talking about it at home and looked forward to attending the next session.

I also figured that introducing phonics would help them read on their own. Each of the parents took turns every month, focusing on four letters per session, and introduced sounds with different activities like clipping the right word, sticking the right picture, or playing hopscotch using the alphabet. The parents in our club did a fabulous job of coming up with new activities every session. The result was the children associating each letter sound to one of the parents.

It was so good to see the children reading on their own at the end of 8-9 sessions! It brought a sense of accomplishment to both the parents and the children. I’d say that keeping children interested in reading is a continuous process. Parents have to not only expose children to different books, but also innovate and come up with book-related activities to sustain their interest.

What has writing stories and poems done for Vania in terms of her imagination and the ability to express herself?

Vania does image reading, and we observed that she was able to come up with her own stories! She did this first with the book Something’s Moving. She participated in an online travelogue contest and plays hide-and-seek with her father often, so we combined the game with one of our trips to Gandikota, typed out her words verbatim and converted pictures of the trip into animated illustrations—and her first storybook was ready! It was appreciated by a publisher and is soon to be published in a children’s magazine.

As for poems, I was always under the impression that poetry is for children of high school age, but I chanced upon an article that changed my entire perspective. We had only one book of poems at that time, and Vania would giggle as she repeated verses from it after me. She seemed to like rhyming words, so when we picked more poetry books, she was glued to them and asked us to read them out over and over again! The author of Something’s Moving mentioned in a Karadi Tales blog post that her interest in poetry was reflected in her book—this post really helped in the process.

There was an online poetry competition for older kids. We wanted to give it a try and checked with the hosts if Vania could participate, and they gladly accepted. After reading characters in the Bob Books list out rhyming words, she came up with her own rhyming sentences and monostich poems. She got a beautiful certificate and a book as a prize! We also worked on an acrostic poem for the topic, “summer.”

Can you elaborate on your visits to various libraries in the city? Which libraries in Chennai do you prefer/seem to be most child-friendly?

I always wanted to take Vania to Eloor Library, but unfortunately, they shut down. When we first read about Anna Centenary Library (ACL), we didn’t know it had a beautiful children’s section, but we discovered it a year ago. The books are new, there’s plenty of variety, wonderful ambience, and it’s very inviting for both adults and children. We got hooked! We prefer ACL and we think it’s the best.

We attended a catalogue workshop at Madras Literary Society (MLS), followed by volunteering at ACL and MLS. In the process, we learnt more about the functioning of the library. The Homeschoolers’ Guild was involved in cataloguing books for the newly opened children’s section, which Vania inaugurated!

Other libraries we’ve visited include the District Library in R. A. Puram, Connemara Library (we visited the old section which is open for few days a year during World Book Day) and the British Council library. We also visited a new library in Tiruvallur set up by the Asha Foundation. We have been to a few private libraries, The Book Office and Reader’s Cove. It’s always good to visit different libraries to get exposed to different types of books and ambience.

Have you noticed your child using the vocabulary she learns from books in everyday speech? How would you say books have affected her use of language?

Vania always uses the right words in the right situations, even if she doesn’t know what they mean. At home, her father speaks to her in English only, and I speak to her in Telugu (our mother tongue). This has helped her a lot, and when Vikram and I converse in English, it’s easy for her to pick up words. We spell out certain words if we don’t want her to know what we’re saying, but she figures them out most of the time—she was all of two years old when she knew M-I-L-K was milk.

She associates certain people with the characters in her books. The other day, a carpenter by the name of Raju came to our house for repairs, and Vania told him the story of The Case of the Stolen Smells and what Raju does in it. Recently, she’s been hooked onto the collective nouns in A Tangle of Brungles. She took us by surprise when she looked at her dad and said, “Dada, you are the king of my heart and I like your grotesque and dastardly style!”

When I was angry with her about something, she said, “You are wickedly vile, Mamma!” We burst out laughing and still wonder if she actually knew what those words mean!

Sometime back at her sports school, Vania’s coach was staring at her. We didn’t expect Vania to say, “It’s hard to see you stare and glare, Sanjana Aunty.” This line is from her favourite book by Janaki Sabesh, The Jungle Storytelling Festival.

I could only converse in English in the fifth grade! I’m incredibly happy to see Vania speak in English and am forever grateful to the Karadi Tales team, to the writer-storyteller Janaki Sabesh, and writer Lakshmi Mitter for supporting and encouraging Vania in her reading journey!