The best part about book readings at schools is the surprise element. No two readings are ever the same, and kids invariably pick up on things that we adults think of as totally unimportant.

For an ‘Expert Talk’ a few weeks back, I was roped in to address Grade 3 (CMR NPS) on writing. I picked a short story I’d written for a textbook, about a puppy and a panther cub becoming momentary friends. And my picture book ‘A Pair of Twins’ (Karadi Tales).

To give the children some background about how stories get written, I told them about growing up with dogs, which is why dogs somehow get into many of my stories. I told them that my first story for kids, “Bando, the Dog who led a Double Life” was about a lovable Labrador, who was a combination of all the dogs I’d loved as a kid. The point I was trying to make was how much our own lives influence our stories. In doing so, I told them about growing up in the hills, where panthers roamed and we had to be particularly careful about our dogs, who often got picked up by the cats. And it was all those memories that had inspired my story.

What’s most interesting during a reading is how the story triggers a whole lot of conversations midway. In many ways, this is the best compliment to a writer… it means the kids are soaking in the story, enjoying it and feel completely free and confident to talk about what’s happening as we read along. The conversations ranged from wild cats they had seen on safaris, to dogs the kids owned or liked.

After the story, I fielded questions about writing. “I want to write about my dreams, so is that okay?” I was asked. I reassured this very serious child that it was. Others asked me about stories they’d written or wanted to write. One child grumbled that she could start a story but struggled when trying to end it! That sounded like a problem I sometimes face, even now. I told the kids to leave that story aside for a day, and come back to it later. That works for me, but not all the kids looked convinced!

But much later, when the kids were trooping out, one worried child  cornered me and asked, “But what about your parents?” I was flummoxed, wondering what he meant. “Are they still living in that place where the Panthers roam? Will they be okay if they’re alone in such a place?” he added. I hadn’t expected this! I had to convince him that they were fine, and far from where the big cats lived, before the worry lines on his forehead relaxed and he joined his friends!

A couple of years back, while launching my young adult book ‘Trapped’, I visited schools. The book has a bunch of kids who turn their teen angst into verse and then set that to music, which they perform as the school band. So I would turn the reading session into a writers’ workshop, and get the kids to write on a wall, graffiti style, about what made them feel ‘trapped’ in the course of their lives. The interesting ideas could be turned into rap or verse. Sessions like these brought out their hopes, worries, some disturbing stories of bullying, but the one I remember vividly was one girl writing about being ‘Trapped by Gobi Masala’!

It got a laugh out of the others in the audience. But when I asked her what she meant, her answer didn’t seem so funny. Apparently, every single day, the lunch packed for her was gobi masala – and she never could gather up the courage to ask for a change. It turned out that both her parents work, so it was the maid who packed her lunch and this girl was too scared to ask for a change or complain about the maid to the parents. That was disturbing, somehow. But it started a conversation amongst her peers…on how to tackle this unique problem.

I guess that’s what books do. They help us make sense of our own lives. And they start important conversations.   

Kavitha Mandana

As the Language and Reading Coordinator at Ekya, Ms. Kavitha aims to enliven the library, making it more inviting, link its resources more integrally into the every-day curriculum and use it to help our students become independent learners.

A self-confessed bibliophile, Ms. Kavitha holds a graduate degree in English Literature from Coimbatore. Having written and illustrated for Deccan Herald and its supplement for over 20 years, Ms. Kavitha has also penned stories across genres – fiction and non-fiction, catering to a readership between six-year-olds to young adults. Her books have been published by Penguin/Puffin, Karadi Tales, Rupa and Pratham Books, and her short stories anthologized in many collections and English readers.

Ms. Kavitha believes that the Indian education system is limiting as it curbs children rather than setting their minds free – emphasizing on rote-learning than the joys of exploration. Prior to joining Ekya, she worked full time with a tech-publisher, editing articles. She parents a high-maintenance Labrador and is fascinated by art and history.

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