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Lit meet lure and a library of hope
Schools turn a new leaf to foster reading

Fantasy fiction writer Jash Sen was taking questions from a group of schoolchildren last month when a little girl in the audience raised a hand to ask her how to tackle writer’s block.

“She said she found it easy to write short stories but would get stuck when attempting to write a novel,” recalled the author of The Wordkeepers, smiling at the thought.

The little girl would have been relieved to learn that writer’s block has plagued everyone from Dickens to Dalrymple at some point. To cure the more worrisome malaise of reader’s block, schools in Calcutta are employing multiple methods.

Celebrity authors, title launches, book readings, literary discussions — an event with all the trappings of a big, fat lit meet was organised at Modern High School for Girls on March 20 as part of the institution’s initiative to foster the reading habit.

The event, called Tale Spin, saw the release of graphic novels and books written and illustrated by students of classes VI to VII. The event also featured an adda for students of Class VI on “boarding schools”, a setting familiar to anyone who has read Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series.

“We are generally used to the idea of publishers bringing their books to a fair but we thought we could simulate the lit meet in our school. The idea was to make reading the in-thing,” said Devi Kar, director of Modern High and the driving force behind the lit meet.

Malavika Banerjee, director of the three-year-old Kolkata Literary Meet, is delighted that schools are replicating the idea. “There are so many distractions today, so children have to be exposed to some serious culture. They are familiar with Yo Yo Honey Singh, which is fine, but they should also know that there are other forms of culture and entertainment,” she said.

One of the sessions at the Kolkata Literary Meet 2014, held in association with The Telegraph last January, was at La Martiniere for Boys. Author Saroo Brierley, graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee and entrepreneur-writer Parthajeet Sarma had participated in the session titled “IT is as Good as You Want IT”.

Mahadevi Birla World Academy has a compulsory reading list for classes I to XII and each student is supposed to write a review of at least one of the recommended books. The school also has a DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) Day twice every three months, when everyone in the school — from the principal to the youngest student — does nothing except read for an hour.

Boys at La Martiniere are assigned to design book covers and members of the Readers’ Club routinely discuss what they have read. La Martiniere for Girls has sessions where the students are shown clips of films adapted from books.

The library at The Heritage School has an anteroom where students discuss the books they have read. Garden High International School has an additional period in junior school for students to take turns narrating stories.

The two La Martiniere schools, Heritage, Apeejay and South City International, among others, frequently invite authors to interact with their students.

The extra effort is because of the challenge to the reading habit from distractions such as television, online social networking and gaming. Those who don’t read despite everything end up with stunted vocabulary and limited points of reference, according to a veteran teacher.

“Students who don’t read may have fluency in language but their choice of words is limited. They keep using the same set of words and it shows,” said Joseph Chacko, who teaches English at St. James’ School.

Sunirmal Chakravarthi, principal of La Martiniere for Boys, warns that lack of interest in reading beyond textbooks could not only result in “a struggle to express coherently but also comprehend”.

Melvin D’ Souza, who teaches at St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, makes an easy distinction between the reader and the non-reader. “The non-reader invariably lacks finesse.”

Kaveri Dutt, principal of Modern High, can tell a child who doesn’t read from his or her “paucity of imagination”.

One of the ways in which schools are taking books to students is by ensuring that their libraries are no longer dark, gloomy rooms. Garden High International School has a two-storey library with an open-shelf system for the students to browse, sit and read. South City International School subscribes to about 50 magazines.

In many schools, library reading is no longer just about the usual suspects like Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. From Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Vikram Seth, Chinua Achebe to Haruki Murakami, the shelves now hold a galaxy of names. “There was a time when libraries would be loaded with classics that few read. Today, we also have popular fiction, and when I look at these books they are well-thumbed,” Chakravarthi said.

On Monday, book chain Starmark will launch an English graphic-novel version of Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Chakrapurer Chakkare not at one of its stores but at South Point School.

Meet-the-author events are popular too, giving students an insight into writing styles and tips to enhance their own skills. Novelist Jash, who read passages from The Wordkeepers at Modern High, said: “The students seemed very aware of the process of writing.”

Australian author Ken Spillman has visited South City International and Mahadevi Birla, while Vikas Swarup has interacted with students at La Martiniere for Girls. Christopher Cheng has been to The Heritage School, Apeejay and La Martiniere for Girls. “When students meet an author, they realise the link between the author and what he or she has written,” said Lorraine Mirza, principal of La Martiniere for Girls.

And if, in the process, someone picks a tip or two on how to overcome writer’s block, that’s one more potential novelist added to the list.