Published: 14th April 2021
How this little Cuddalore children’s library is teaching lessons on inclusivity and diversity
Banumathi Jagadeesan runs Reading Space, Belongg Library’s Cuddalore chapter, from her own home where she houses about 400 books
The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man
― TS Eliot, Poet and Playwright
The library is also the most democratic of spaces, often the birthplace of great ideas that have changed the world. What is better than a library is a free one, especially when it is set up in small towns, providing people — children primarily — free access to hundreds of books that are bursting with ideas, stories and knowledge. So what 32-year-old Banupriya Jagadeesan accomplished when she set up her own little library for children in her hometown of Cuddalore was to give young minds the opportunity to drench themselves in words that perhaps could change their lives and lead them to change others. Banupriya runs the Belongg Library’s Cuddalore chapter called Reading Space from her own home where she houses about 400 books.
Belongg Library is a network of cultural and literary spaces across India that seeks to promote diversity and inclusion and so, besides offering children’s books, Banupriya also offers books that bridge gaps between communities and raise awareness on how we can create a more diverse and inclusive world. While she was mostly exposed to only Western children's books authors growing up, it was only during her Arts Management course at DakshinaChitra Museum that she discovered children's books by contemporary Indian authors. The young lady facilitates weekly story sessions for children in a NGO in Puducherry that works with underprivileged communities. Thus, the idea of starting a children's library.
Excerpts from an interview with Banupriya:
Can you tell us how you became involved with Belongg Library Network and how you set up Reading Space?
Over the years, I was using my books only in my classes with children. When a few of my friends continued to buy me books, it gave me the courage to start a library. And Mridula Koshy's talk about free libraries shaped my decision to offer free memberships.
I came across Belongg's post looking for library chapters to include books on diversity and inclusion. I wished to have inclusive books in our library, so I reached out to them. I didn't think about a section for adults initially, but I am excited about this collaboration with Belongg. We now have books on caste, religion, gender, sexuality, feminism and disability. One of my friends also helped me buy Tamil books on these themes.
What future have you imagined for Reading Space? Do you have any immediate targets you'd like to meet?
I certainly want to reach out to diverse communities and make books accessible to people in different places. I deliver books to some children living in small communities here and in Puducherry, presently. Schools, colleges or organisations working with children are also welcome to borrow books from our library. But if you are asking in terms of numbers, I think there is no need for any such target.
Why do you think it is important for children to read about diversity and inclusion?
When we read diverse books, we are able to understand things better about people different from us and their contexts. It helps us be more aware of things happening around us, ask questions and talk about complex issues.
How do we strengthen the reading movement in the country?
There are many organisations that are doing incredible work to engage children in reading. Libraries like The Community Library Project (Delhi) and Bookworm Trust & Library (Goa) have various programmes to make books accessible and exciting for children. Many people have started community libraries across the country. Eklavya (Bhopal) has been developing educational materials including children’s books and magazines.
Literature festivals like Bookaroo, Neev, Peek A Book give opportunities for children (and adults) to know more about the variety of books being published and can meet different authors, illustrators and artists. Small bookshops in different cities and towns also organise events with authors and illustrators.
What are the kind of books that are stored in your library? What are the must-haves in children's libraries?
We mostly have books by Indian publishers. I admire the work of Young Zubaan, Tara, Pratham, Tulika, Duckbill, Eklavya, Kalpavriksh, Red Panda, Adivaani and Pickle Yolk. We have picture books, chapter books, short stories and novels by these publishers. And there are simple stories in Tamil published by Books For Children and Thumbi.
It is interesting to see the collaboration between Karadi Tales and PARI to publish books based on real-life events in rural India. Talking Cub and Harper Children's also have diverse books, but we don't have these books in our library yet.
Tell us about a book that has changed your life?
Many books and films have changed my beliefs and the way I think. So, I would rather mention two books I loved reading last year — Jasmine Days and Year of the Weeds.
How has the pandemic affected the functioning of the library?
Mostly, I don't see people taking the time to visit the library or bring their children here. So the pandemic hasn't affected our work much. Generally, there is an indifference to reading and literature.