It is nearly 2.30 pm, and my four-year-old is jumping around. “Is it time, is it time?” she squeals excitedly. “A couple of minutes more,” I tell her, as I check the Instagram handle. Soon, my daughter is sitting in front of my phone, engrossed as freelance graphic designer Shradha Mohan reads aloud from Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne. I get 10 minutes of peace and quiet to drink a cup of tea.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, fractious children — and parents — are more home-bound than they are used to. But that does not mean story time stops. A number of storytellers are taking to social media, especially Instagram, to do online reading sessions.
“Parents are feeling the pressure in having to engage their children in meaningful activities while balancing work, leaving them with very little ‘me time’,” says Dipna Daryanani, educator and co-founder of the children’s clothing brand Love the World Today. So Dipna decided to use storytelling, something she incorporates in her theatre and dance workshops, to help out parents by doing readings online.
Shradha has been doing informal storybook readings since last August. “We usually meet at someone’s home, where I read a book out loud and then do an activity based on the story,” says Shradha. “But when schools closed down early due to COVID-19, we decided to stop the meet-ups.”
But the kids missed the stories and since she would read a book (or three) to her five-year-old daughter, Aadhya, everyday, she decided to read on Instagram instead, so that other kids could join in. And so started Happy Hour Reading. “So many kids tune in,” says Shradha, “They send me voice notes after, which is my favourite part, telling me what they liked and felt about the book.”
The kids seem to love the readings and want more. When Janaki Sabesh, in collaboration with Lil Trails, did an enactment of Gajapati Kulapati by Ashok Rajagopalan on Instagram, the response was immense. Avanti Natarajan, an architect and one half of the Instagram handle Lil Trails, which she runs with her husband Rajavel Sundar, says, “We had 500-odd views during the Instagram live and, when the video went up, around 6,000 views over two-three days.”
Writers to the fore
It’s not just storytellers, even the Indian children’s book community has come together to keep kids entertained and engaged. Bijal Vachharajani, a children’s book writer, says, “With everything going on and all the unease, I wanted to see if we could do something to help. I put the word out on a children’s book group, asking if any writers and illustrators would like to read online.” Almost immediately, Bijal had nearly 15 volunteers.
This led to #ThodaReadingCorona (the hashtag is the brainchild of author Roopal Rashomani Kewalya). As part of the line-up, there’s children’s book author Venita Coelho, author and illustrator Anupam Arunachalam, author Anita Roy, and illustrator Krupa, among others.
“They will all be reading from their own works,” says Bijal. “And after the storytelling, there will be an activity the kids can do.” While some of the readings will be for the little ones, there will be a few for middle-graders as well. The sessions will be on Instagram and Facebook. The initiative will go on for the next month at least, as more children’s book creators have signed up to participate.
The online storytellers plan to keep things going as well. Lil Trails has collaborated with Golpo – Tales Unlimited to host Online Story Fest, where Avanti and Rajavel will be interacting with Janaki. There will be storytelling, dramatised readings, and sing-alongs. Dipna will be doing storytelling thrice a week and will nominate others to read as well. For the foreseeable future, Shradha is planning to read a children’s book out loud every day, along with her daughter, and will also share insights about the book’s design and illustrations.
As Dipna puts it, “You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child. In this case, it’s a digital village lending a hand.”
In these confusing times, our kids need stories more than ever. Bijal adds, “We are all in this together and will overcome what’s happening. And in the meantime, we hope books and stories will be a safety net for children to retreat into and allow them to be in their own world for a bit.”
- Shradha Mohan reads every day at 2.30 pm on the Instagram handle @happy_hour_reading (Age 3-6 years)
- Dipna will be doing her readings on the Instagram handle @lovetheworldtoday.in at 11.30 am every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. (Age 3-8 years)
- The Online Story Fest, hosted by Lil Trails and Golpo – Tales Unlimited, will take place on the Instagram handles @liltrails and @maajanaki every evening at 5 pm till March 31. (All ages welcome, from toddlers to grandparents)
- A host of children’s book authors and illustrators will be doing readings as a part of #ThodaReadingCorona. Find them on Facebook at The Reading Racoons and on the Instagram handle @bam_books, every day at 11 am. (Toddlers to 12 years old, depending on the book being read)