Ragini Lalit
OUR LIBRARY by By Raviraj Shetty. Illustrations by Deepa Balsavar Pratham Books, , 2023, pp., INR 80.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

Our Library is a warm hug of a book. It’s audacious in its vision, gentle in its narrative. The picture book follows the usual rhythms of a library, but in so doing, it paints a beautiful conception of a library that is all of ‘ours’, a library that has room for all of its members’ dreams, desires and explorations and that nurtures safety, joy and freedom. It’s a library that deeply cherishes each of its visitors and in visualizing such a space it invites us readers to dream up our versions of libraries as places to thrive in.
Our Library is a visual treat, with each page unfolding a different facet of the space and people’s relationships with and within it. This library is not a quiet, didactic space of surly adults who hush the young readers; instead it’s a space of whooshing, tumbling, chattering and laughing. It’s a library that belongs to its young readers, i.e., in a true sense–‘our’ library, since the young readers form the main cast of this book with adults who help them, sometimes make reading tables, sometimes make quiet reading dens, and other times translate books to make them more accessible.
Without hitting you over the head with it, the library as portrayed in this delightful picture book is a safe haven for queer individuals, for neuro-divergent and disabled folks, for all those who need a safe space and their caregivers to thrive. It is, for instance, a retreat for Marriam to explore race-car magazines and Parmeet to read with magnifying glasses, a space for Amrita and Kumail to mend books with care, for new stories to be read and written, and for close friendships formed over stories being translated to braille. This book doesn’t follow a traditional narrative arc of having specific protagonists who are faced with a conflict or a story with a beginning, middle, climax and end. Instead, it is simply a sweet book about an ordinary day in the library, developing a vision of what a children’s library located across the corner from one’s house could look like.
Thoughtfully written by Raviraj Shetty and illustrated by Deepa Balsavar, Our Library is available in multiple languages in print and as with most of Pratham Books’ publications, accessible on the digital platform StoryWeaver. Consciously making it inclusive, the layout of the text in the book would ensure that it’s a very comfortable read for those being read to as well as those learning to read independently. This is a picture book which is carefully written, not making it too wordy and instead allowing the readers and the illustrations to interact with the members of this library, their activities in it and the feelings each of them carry to the space and each other. The illustrations are vivid, detailed and realistic, and they breathe life into this library. The library entrance on a busy street of a close-knit community, the colourful display shelves, the hastily removed chappals at the entrance, the books, games and cushions scattered about, the quiet corners for watching light dance on pages and (my favourite double-page spread) the big carpet with the motley gang of children and adults all tuned in to the story being read-aloud make imagining this vibrant, living, community library all the more possible.
For far too long, our understanding of children and childhood in children’s literature and picture books has been trapped in neat little boxes of what is ‘appropriate’ for children to know and passes the norms of what is socio-culturally ‘good’ for them. Dominant narratives that feature most popularly on bookshelves categorized as children’s fiction are more often than not stories of upper middle-class, savarna, Hindu, cis-heterosexual, neurotypical and able-bodied children and their families.
The few stories which do deviate from this in any small way are often categorized and marketed under diversity-themed books, stories to open up ‘difficult’ topics or labelled inclusive literature. They often fall short, stopping at promoting acceptance and hopefully garnering empathy from the so-called mainstream readers. The stories that offer honest portrayals of under-represented realities and marginalized lives in rich and sensitive ways occupy a very small proportion of the larger children’s literature market.
Our Library is one such book that doesn’t stop at making small signals of inclusion. It is a love-letter to libraries that are woven with all our needs in mind without justifying and explaining its existence, or becoming another story that stops at acceptance and coexistence. It is an unrestrained jump into a world where we all have spaces of joy, safety and reciprocal relationships of care, simply because we must. For those of us who know the magic of a library that feels ours, this book will make you smile with its promises of homemade food smells, laughter and chatter in an accessible, inclusive, community library; and for those of us who are yet to discover the magic of community libraries, turning the pages of Our Library will be a window into the many possibilities that libraries as places offer.