Earlier this week, up in the mountains in Kaza in Spiti Valley, a three-year-old hesitantly entered a small library for the first time with her aunt. After much browsing, she found her way to the book Pooni Pooni, Where Are You? from Tulika Publishers. As the woman at the library read out the story of a little girl’s fervent search for her lost cat, the child sat there excited, saying Pooni Pooni. The next day, she pranced into the library, picked the same book, and asked for it to be read. It was this excitement, the joy that comes with stories, that sparked the idea for the initiative, Let’s Open a Book in Spiti Valley.
The woman reading out stories at the library is Ruchi Dhona, founder of Let’s Open a Book. In 2017, after quitting her job in the corporate world, Dhona visited Spiti Valley. After this trip, along with the much talked about beauty of the valley, the lack of storybooks in government libraries lingered on her mind. Four years after going to the valley as a tourist, she returned to rent a small space with the help of a fellowship and started Let’s Open a Book, a non-governmental organisation focused on building critical readers.
“I went back after a year with donated books to set up small reading corners in the schools and did workshops for teachers. When I saw how excited the children were when I read out the stories, it reminded me of why they are so important. It shows children new possibilities and a wider world to explore, question, and understand. Starting Let’s Open a Book was a way of encouraging their imagination and dreams,” Dhona tells Lounge. When Dhona set up base, she heard almost no one read for leisure in Spiti. Today, kids go to the library diligently even during snowfalls to read at the library.
The lack of quality literature and the access to books in Spiti was unmissable, says Dhona. The closest city to Spiti is Manali, but books don’t make the priority list when people are travelling for essentials. Moreover, there hasn’t a culture of reading literature in the valley. Hence, the library is a novelty for many.
Let’s Open a Book’s free community library in the cold desert mountain valley, located at an altitude of 3,800 mts above sea level, focuses on building a safe space for children to read, enjoy stories, or just be themselves. After a two-year fellowship from Wipro, the library is currently run through fundraising.
The operation wing of Let’s Open a Book is based in Manali and is supported by volunteers. To bring a variety of books to the library, Dhona collaborates with many people from different walks of life, including authors and publishers. Importantly, it’s also about what interests the kids and what they want to read, which is respected. “We don’t push specific books onto them or force them to read. There are books all around the room, and we gently guide or encourage them, but if they don’t want to, they can do other things, even sleep. Most children end up picking up something on their own and keep coming back,” says Dhona.
Let’s Open a Book is currently focused on reading, aptitude, attitude, and advantage. For instance, Dhona explains, she and the only full-time librarian analyse whether the children are able to look at a text and read it aloud, understand what the text is talking about, and are able to critically look at information with their own reasoning or thought process.
Dhona's focus on critical readers comes from her understanding of how Spitians' ideas about development and sustainability are often not taken into consideration in their areas. While Spiti is commonly known for the serene views and peace that tourists look for, excessive tourism and economic development have negatively impacted the environment. To address these gaps, one of the aims of Let’s Open a Book is to help children grow up to be active participants in the preservation of the valley.
“It’s important to understand that initiatives like this are not about charity. It’s about ensuring people get what they rightfully deserve. Through reading and critical thinking, we encourage these children to question and help build their self-confidence,” says Dhona.