Thematic Reading in the Library

I work in a small school near Bangalore where the curriculum is committed to an active place for the library space as the children grow up over the years they are at school. The engagement with the space happens in multiple ways across the spectrum of ages, of which I would like to share my experience with children of the ages fourteen to eighteen. While I am not a librarian, my work is closely associated with the library, where I share my interest in books with these children as an anchor for their library programme.

The library at our school, like many others, is a traditional library dominated by books, while not being traditional when it comes to access and use of books. Books aren’t locked, are regularly looked after with care, and used in many ways by an array of readers. Many modern libraries today, perhaps some school libraries as well, have embraced e-readers and the internet but we are still debating the impact and extent to which these need a place in our library. While thinking about the role of the library in school, among the various questions that come up, I have often wondered if the library can play a role in understanding ourselves in the context of the rapid changes in society today. Have the pace of life and the amount of information in this ‘information age’ made it harder to pause and reflect on larger processes and shifts in the ground beneath our feet? How can the library be a part in understanding these changes around it? What can be the role of the librarians and library teachers in this process?

In my experience of thinking about these questions and exploring avenues of addressing them, one of the ideas that I tried was to introduce books organized by a theme. The idea was to introduce students to ideas that they hadn’t been aware of earlier, or the depth of understanding around a particular idea, using books available in the library. This wasn’t about making thematic displays of books for on particular occasions, such as for example, the world environment day, although such a process does bring greater visibility to books in that context. It was about using library resources to bring in different ways to look at important events or processes that have shaped, or continue to shape the world. This process may involve the reference section, other nonfiction, and fiction shelves across different languages, activities and workshops. I will present an example of thematic reading that I have attempted with children in the ages of sixteen to eighteen.

How do you choose a theme? I’m not sure if there is a simple rule of thumb. I chose themes of significant social, historical or environmental events. This need not be the case always. You can choose themes around particular genres or geographies of writing, such as writing on China, for instance, that can include fiction, poetry, travel writing, historical writing etc. Or the evolution of children’s writing the twentieth century. The possibilities are endless. Choose a theme that excites you. You could also involve the children in choosing the theme, perhaps with some gentle guidance!

Our first attempt at such a course was to look at the Partition of India, an event of the enormous geopolitical impact in the modern history of the subcontinent. In a typical history lesson, the facts of the event are typically related in statistics involving deaths of millions and large-scale migration, and a narrative as shaped by a few personalities and political events. But the process of Partition itself was fairly complex in trajectory, it has facets that aren’t widely known, and had consequences on individuals who faced the process and the lasting impact on the next generation as well. Our attempt was to use the resources in the library to bring a depth of understanding to the process of Partition while simultaneously introducing children to various forms and authorship of writing to bring in different perspectives to the process. After settling on a theme, one of the earliest jobs was to plot an approximate trajectory using a reading list. This process helped in giving direction to the course but kept it open to being tweaked as we went along, to include ideas and questions that emerged from discussions.

We began by using excerpts from The Great Partition1 by the historian Yasmin Khan. This helped the children to set the scene. The reason I chose this book over other historical sources was that it included stories of individuals who experienced the events around Partition, giving voice to the historically voiceless. We discussed the events and its impact on people in greater depth using Short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto2. The power and limitations of the short story, the structural differences from a novel and the writing approaches of Manto were also discussed. In a related theme on writing from conflict zones, we even discussed the need for people to communicate their stories and memories after having passed through traumatic events, and the relative lack of collective memory on record around Partition other than government-sanctioned narratives. We also discussed the challenges in conveying the meaning of the original Urdu writing of Manto in English. In different contexts, I have used such opportunities to discuss translations and even organized a workshop on translations by an eminent translator, to help the children get a sense of translation. We discussed novels by Khushwant Singh3, Bhisham Sahni4, Bapsi Sidhwa5 and Salman Rushdie6, and read parts of these novels in class, and some students read them fully outside class. In this process, not only did the students get a sense of the particular novels themselves but differences in the form that narratives could take within a novel. We also looked at poetry7,8, again to highlight the multiplicity of expression that can revolve around an event like Partition. We used excerpts compiled from various sources to create character sketches of important political personalities around Partition, and the children created a short skit around a conference of these personalities, helping them to get a perspective of the political side of the process. We also looked at powerful interviews by survivors of Partition, compiled by Urvashi Bhutalia9, that was a landmark book in the process of recording memories of the process. How did Partition shape the identities of people affected by it? It was also clear that visual media had to be part of this process as their impact can be substantial in the understanding of the process. We looked at a collection of photographs from Time magazine by Margaret Bourke-White10, and watched the landmark film Garm Hava 11. These media allowed us to glimpse at the impact of uprooting, migration and identity come to a boil in such unprecedented situations.

Typically, activities involved reading aloud short stories, novel excerpts, or interviews in full group of students and or in smaller groups. We watched Garm Hava together and followed it up with a discussion. Each student had to read a book set in Partition, and had to speak about the book to the rest of the student group on class, introduce the characters, and if fiction, the plot and character development, if non-fiction, the key ideas and their development, and finally their understanding of the book. This allowed for me to be in touch with that particular student’s learning in the course. It also allowed me to make suggestions to personalize reading for that student and to individually open up discussion points. A related activity was to read a short story or an excerpt in groups of three or four students followed by a sharing of their discussions with the whole group. Such a sharing allowed students to closely listen to each other and be open to new ideas and interpretations. On the whole, I feel that this process allowed children to get a deeper exposure to a breadth of writing; it introduced them to a new range of books and allowed them to enter realms that perhaps weren’t open to them earlier.

My role here was to research and prepare for this theme, so as a library teacher, it is imperative that you go in depth with your own reading in the process of introducing books to children. I had to be intimately familiar with the books and stories that I selected for the reading list. In the process of reading and re-reading some of these books, I discovered new facets to them in unexpected corners. These ideas came to be useful in anchoring discussions around these books, in recommending books to children, and most importantly, in creating narratives that held the course together. For instance, I was frequently baffled by the idea that people wrote about traumatic events that I thought they best forget, leave behind. In reading Primo Levi 12 I could see the motivation behind a powerful sharing of personal experience – the hope that future generations learn the follies of fascist thinking and practice that lead to such tyranny. When I shared this with a student individually, or the student group collectively, it probably facilitated a more nuanced understanding of Primo Levi’s work and the impact of creating and perpetuating deep divisions in society. Such shared perspectives are also, I feel, essential in grooming discerning readers in the library.

You can also use the process of thematic reading to select new books for the library! There maybe books that you stumble upon in researching your reading list that you would like on your library shelves. Thematic reading can be extended to any age-group in an appropriate manner suitable to that age, given the resources of the library. It also need not be curtailed by class size since you can do a combination of whole-class activities, small group and individual activities and tasks. So while such a process enriches the children’s experience of the library, it also broadens the horizons of the library teacher.

Partition of India: a partial reading list

  1. Khan, Yasmin (2008). The Great Partition. Yale University Press.
  2. Manto, Saadat Hasan & Taseer, Aatish (Trans.) (2003). Manto: Selected Stories. Random House.
  3. Singh, Kushwant (2009). Train to Pakistan. Penguin India.
  4. Sahni, Bhisham (2008). Tamas. Penguin India.
  5. Sidhwa, Bapsi (1989). Ice Candy Man. Penguin India.
  6. Rushdie, Salman (1995). Midnight’s Children. Vintage
  7. Auden, W. H. Accessed on 26-01-2017 at
  8. Das, Jibananda and Nasreen, Taslima (2002). Four Poems. Accessed on 26-01-2017 at
  9. Bhutalia, Urvashi (2000). The Other Side of Silence. Penguin India.
  10. Bourke-White, Margaret. Images of the Great Migration. Accessed on 26-01-2017 at
  11. Garm Hava (1973) by M.S. Sathyu. Accessed on 26-01-2017 at
  12. Levi, Primo (1987). If This Is a Man. Abacus
Photo credits: Nijugrapher

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