Frontlist | The children’s library almost closed down, who helped it?
How The Book Shelf founder Haripriya Bathula fought to keep her library alive through the pandemic.
As a child, Haripriya Bathula remembers fighting with her four siblings over the latest issues of Russian children’s books. “Whatever our financial condition, my father always ensured that there were books at home.” she said. “In the ’80s, they were our only source of entertainment, and we devoured Russian literature. Especially Misha magazine, Dunno’s adventures, Teryosha, Byelorussian folktales, books by Nikolai Nosov published by Raduga and Mir Publishers.”
All five siblings grew up to be voracious readers. During her time in Singapore, while studying for a Masters in Biological Sciences, Bathula spent a lot of time in the university’s library. She read Indian authors, and grew especially interested in Indian children’s literature.
“The community libraries in Singapore are as big as Indian malls, and I would often observe children at the Marine Parade public library, engrossed in and excited by the books around them,” she said. “This reading culture really surprised me, as it was something I had never experienced back home.” Bathula also realised that books, especially picture books, could instil in children a lifelong love of reading. So, when she moved back to India, she began reading aloud to her three-year-old niece every night at bedtime, and recommended young-adult fiction to her twelve-year-old nephew.
“We visited the British Library, bought books almost every week, which my niece and nephew would finish reading in no time,” Bathula said. “I began to understand what it means to raise your child to be a reader. I was now convinced that reading is a fundamental habit that should become a part of every child’s daily routine.”
“Libraries are about Freedom,” said Neil Gaiman. “Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”
The Book Shelf took shape in 2016. It was set up in the first floor of Bathula’s home in DD colony, Hyderabad. An initial collection of 1,500 books was stacked and arranged according to reading-age groups in a two-room space, with colourful wall art. There is a sitting-area outside, and interactive sessions are usually organised in the open courtyard.
The library focuses on children’s and young adult literature, and has an eclectic collection of picture books (both vintage and new) and handpicked classics, meant for children between two and sixteen, adding up to over 8,000 books. Bathula brought back carton-loads of books from Singapore; she also gets books shipped in from the US, and regularly scouts the second-hand stores and pavement shops at the famous Hyderabad Sunday book market.
Her running joke is that she always has glue and tape at hand, and has re-bound many a book falling apart at the seams. Once, despite running a high fever, she jumped aboard a 5 am train to Vijayawada to reach a Russian literature stall at a book fair, returning the same day to ensure she wasted no time in distributing the books.
At the library, she offers guidance on selecting books and helps readers discover new authors. “I have one thumb rule for kids,” she says, “one book of your choice and one of mine.” All the books in the library are showcased with their covers face up, so that they can speak directly to the reader. The Bookshelf also conducts read-aloud sessions at the library. Children, parents and grandparents meet on a Sunday to read and discuss picture books in the courtyard. The library also has other initiatives, such as story extension activities, a book club, creative writing workshops and readathons.
A year of possibilities
The year 2020 started off on a positive note for The Book Shelf. In January, Bathula performed a Puppet Sing-along with Storyteller Meghana at the Hyderabad Literary Festival. Like every year, World Read Aloud Day was celebrated on February 5, and Mother Language Day, February 21, at the library.
Next, the Book Shelf won the Kidsstoppress Award for the year 2019 for the best library and bookstore in Hyderabad. Bathula was planning to celebrate the award with a tree walk at Sanjeevaiah Park and outdoor games. She was also working on a plan to expand library services to other areas of the city. She was keen on adding manga titles to collection, something she had resisted all these years owing to their high cost.
All of this, of course, came to a halt in the last week of March. “We were clueless about what was happening around us,” said Bathula. “We could not comprehend the future of the library either. The only thing that kept me busy was a course in child psychology I was studying for at the University College for Women at Koti, Hyderabad.”
The library shut down for obvious reasons, although reading was an ideal pastime for children during the lockdown. Initially, Bathula was unsure what the future would bring. The entire world was adapting to this new situation, and online classes became a sudden necessity. Since the library did not endorse reading on gadgets or apps, they did not organise online sessions. Haripriya felt helpless for a long time.
“I heard about famous bookstores and libraries closing down,” she said. “As a self-sustaining library I had to take a call. I began conveying to members that we were planning to shut down completely. This did not go down well with the children. I received many calls and messages, and it was heartbreaking to have to explain to them the reality of what we were going through. The library had become a big part of all our lives and it was a very sentimental decision.”
Bathula spoke to friends and librarians across the country. Anisha Tulsian Bajaj from Kidzalaya, Mumbai, and Hari Madala of Bookmagic from Vishakhaptnam made her reconsider her decision and motivated her to keep going. Online reading groups like The Reading Raccoons and The Bookwallis also encouraged her not to give up.The tipping point was when her mother reminded her that she wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. Eventually friends and acquaintances who knew her work and could not access her library activities encouraged her to take up online sessions.
To replace the read aloud sessions, the library introduced a new programme in the form of am online readathon, a 21-day picture book reading programme. “For one hour every daywe read books, recited poetry and played fun games apart from reading five picture books. We received positive feedback for our first sessions and continued with the program with minor tweaks. Being online meant we could also reach out to children who couldn’t access our library and activities.” The program is currently in its fourth run.
Slowly, Bathula started revisiting the events that made the library a success. A year ago, they had organised a special Harry Potter event, Pottermania. It was a big celebration, with children dressing up as their favourite characters and participating in Harry Potter-themed quizzes, dramatisations and other activities. All the children received printed Hogwarts admission letters in tea-stained envelopes, which were tied to balloons with owls drawn on them. This year, the children still dressed up for the occasion to attend an online event.
The possibility of going global made the sessions enticing. When fans of the graphic novel series “Amulet” enquired about the release of the next and final book, Bathula reached out to the author, Kazu Kibuishi. A week later the children were talking to him live online. The library also invited Vivvaan Bajpayee of VivieReads, a child blogger who reads and reviews books on social media, for a lively session.
When the government came up with guidelines to reopen restaurants and cinema halls, the library took a chance and reopened this November. Operations were restricted to the weekend so that there was enough time to sanitise the books returned during the week. The children were delighted to be back and browsing.
After the pandemic
“I have observed that people have begun reading during the lockdown,” Bathula said. “More and more parents are enquiring about becoming members and are willing to spend time visiting the library. Since screen time for children has gone up considerably due to online classes, parents want their kids to stay away from devices at other times.”
The online sessions have helped the library organise author interactions, which would otherwise have been impossible. And the library is hopeful that the weekend reading and storytelling sessions will soon be resumed. Bathula is clear that while she might not make enough money with the library, she will continue to pursue this passion.
But the pandemic has made her rethink her strategy. Earlier, she was convinced that a child needed to walk into a space crammed with books and actively choose their own. Bathula is now considering customised plans and delivery options to spread services across the city. And yes, her plans for 2021 include buying a collection of manga comics.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.