Don't you just love when the same book lends itself so beautifully to different age groups?
I never marvel at the magic spun in the pages that draw out a myriad of reactions from children.
This book is one of those magic weavers...
THE MIRACLE AT SUNDERBAAG STREET Author: Nandita da Cunha Illustrator: Priya Kuriyan
When I first heard about this book in one of Funky Rainbow’s online Book Buzaars, I thought…”Hmmm...interesting.” But all through the 2020 lockdown, I had bought myself way too many books, so I thought this one could wait.
Then, I read a newspaper article about THE MIRACLE AT SUNDERBAAG STREET and I was gobsmacked in more ways than one. I had to have this book, and I had to have it now.
I loved the story, when I read it, I felt inexplicably happy.
Secondly, what I had read in that newspaper article was that this book was inspired by a real garden in Bandra, Mumbai...which happened to be the garden that is adjacent to the building where I grew up. I’ve known this plot of land my entire life and my parents still live next door. I saw it go from an overgrown plot of land when I was a youngster, to a park where my kids would play, when on holiday with their grandparents...the one we called 'Macchar' Park because of the mosquitoes, till we eventually stopped using it. Then it evolved into this... Dream Grove, a wonderful community initiative, that brought volunteers from beyond our lovely friendly D’Monte Park Road Community.
Now needless to say, I was hugely biased about this story and so decided to hold off writing about it until I could take it to my students. I wanted to see their responses, wondering if I was way too sentimental about it.
When I took this book to my students, I planned to read it to my mixed age group (MAG) 2/3/4th graders. The reaction from them was so heartening, and they felt so much of what I did, that I shared it with the MAG 5/6th graders whose reactions made me see the scope of using it with grade 7 as well.
Zara lives on a gloomy street with gloomy grey-faced neighbours. She prefers sitting in the dump yard amongst the garbage, rather than interacting with her neighbours. When her school craft teacher begins to come to the dump yard too, Zara knows that it is the end of her solitude. While Miss Gappi’s non-stop chatter annoys Zara, she is curious about all the up-cycling that Ms. Gappi does with what she finds in the dumpyard. But Miss Gappi happens to be crafty in more ways than one. She plants a tiny seed in Zara’s mind that sets Zara off on a mission of sorts, one that brings the whole community together.
The students echoed my thoughts...:
“This book makes me feel happy/ joyful/ alive.” The children expressed again and again how this story made them feel joyful...their word not mine. They felt that joy is exactly what the volunteers must have felt as they came together to work the garden and as they watched the garden take shape. They felt the volunteering turned the ‘grey-faced’ people into happy smiling people by the end of the book.
“Together you can do anything...” “The neighbours came together to create a garden, and when they did so, they began spending time with each other and making friends, Aunty.” “When you work in a group, the work is not so hard.” “They volunteered because they’d get free snacks.”
“They gave their time…” ‘...and they gave it happily.’ ‘When you do that, you feel good because you have helped others.’ A few children shared stories about volunteering and how it made them feel.
Miss Gappi was... ‘...clever, to nudge Zara into creating a garden.’ ‘She was a teacher, teachers do stuff like this...encouraging children to work.’ ‘Maybe she did it because she loves to up-cycle and she wanted the garden from a long time ago recreated to spend her old age happily.’ ‘No, I think, she wanted to encourage the youngsters.’ ‘Hmmm, said another, she was cracking her knuckles...means she was getting ready to work...she wanted something to do, Aunty!’
“They helped the earth…” ‘By planting more trees, they provided the earth with more oxygen.’ ‘They did not waste even the dried leaves.’ ‘Added to the beauty of their surroundings.’
“Nature helps humans in so many way’s Aunty…” ...it gives us oxygen. ...it gives us food like the mulberries ... joy when we see the butterflies and birds, ...plus it brings humans together. "They connect, Aunty."
“The story inspires…” ‘It inspires me to do the same...I know a place in my apartment complex, where I can do this.” ‘I like how they are not wasting things...I like the idea of creating things from ‘old stuff’.’
“ Reducing food waste….” One child shared about her mother's zero-waste kitchen, how veggie and fruit peels go into a variety of preparations. Another spoke about how they have experimented with growing veggies from ‘waste’...the tops of carrots and planting celery roots. How veggie waste headed into the compost bins.
With class 7 we also spoke about citizenship and what it may mean... They felt that contributing to the community by following rules may be one way. Wearing the masks during Covid times and each one of us being responsible for the welfare not just of ourselves but of others around us as well.
Following traffic rules, not littering, being conscious of our water and electricity consumption are all ways to contribute without expecting a reward or recognition.
With this older group the discussion also went a bit philosophical...are we volunteering to make ourselves look good? Or is it to help the other person feel good? Just because we are in a position to help, does that make us better than others who may be on the receiving end or who may not be in a position to do so?
The older children, grades 5+ we able to recognise and appreciate the metaphors used by the author.
They felt that the illustrations contributed to the theme of the book and appreciated Priya Kuriyan’s collage idea and how she up-cycled newspaper and scraps of paper and cloth. Aunty, “The illustrator must care a lot about the environment!!”, was the refrain.
The children felt inspired to recycle and up-cycle...very clear about what the terms mean as the school had encouraged this in a ‘Greenival’ planned last year.
A few children brought out their up-cycling projects to share with their classmates and others brain stormed ideas.
As you can well imagine, every one of the 9 sessions in which I read this book, went overtime. The response was overwhelming and I felt the book offered the children much to explore.
(The responses above did not all happen with the same group of children. Each group’s discussion took their own path, resulting in the range of responses above.)
Pre and post reading:
As I started the read aloud of the book, I encouraged responses to the word ‘miracle’ and the meaning of ‘Sunder’ and ‘Baag’.
The children responded by drawing before and after versions of a patch of land near their house or school they could revive.
The older students drew a gratitude flower, which helped them think about what they are grateful for, and how they would like to contribute to give back to nature and the community.
For homework, they were encouraged to go on a 5 senses walk, noting what they saw, smelt, tasted, felt and heard.
Slide to see a few of the reponses:
SEL Competencies: Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision Making
This was easily one of my favourite Indian published children's books of 2020.