Q&A with Rina Singh: The story behind Grandmother School

In Grandmother School, written by Rina Singh and illustrated by Ellen Rooney, every morning, a young girl walks her grandmother to the Aajibaichi Shala, the school that was built for the grandmothers in her village to have a place to learn to read and write. The narrator beams with pride as she drops her grandmother off with the other aajis to practice the alphabet and learn simple arithmetic. A moving story about family, women and the power of education—when Aaji learns to spell her name you’ll want to dance along with her. 

Learn more about the true story that inspired Grandmother School and read on for a Q&A with Rina Singh!

The story behind the book

In Phangane, a remote village in India about 77 miles (125 kilometres) from Mumbai, there is a school just for grandmothers, the Aajibaichi Shala. The school was the creation of Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, who wanted everyone in the village to be able to read and write. He built the one-room school and invited Phangane’s twenty-nine grandmothers to attend. The students are all over the age of sixty, and the oldest grandmother is ninety.

Some of the women are hard of hearing and some of them forget what they have learned, but they all come, dressed in their bright pink saris. They are excited to learn.

Their grandchildren walk them to school every day except Thursday, which is prayer day. And for two hours in the afternoon, sitting in the scorching heat, they learn the Marathi alphabet, numbers, nursery rhymes and new words.

As children, these grandmothers watched their brothers go to school. As mothers, they sent their own children to school. But no one gave them a chance to go to school.

In March 2016 they were given a chance, and they took it. Like their warrior king, Shivaji, these courageous grandmothers escaped their prison of illiteracy and no longer endure this shame.

Q&A with Rina Singh, author of Grandmother School

1. Tell us a little bit about Grandmother School.

The (true) story just really went straight to my heart and I wanted to write about it… It is about family, it is an intergenerational story and it’s about gender inequality. It’s about social injustice, and I think mostly about the power of education.

2. How did you get the idea to take a true story and turn it into a picture book for children?

It was just a news clip and I wanted to imagine the story. I went back into my own life. My own grandmother didn’t go to school, and I was close to her so I think I saw glimpses of my relationship with my grandmother in the story. I do have some regrets that I didn’t have the awareness and I didn’t know enough to teach her too. I listened to all her stories, but I didn’t teach her anything. So I just dedicated this book now to her memory. I think that’s what drew me to the story, that I think I saw some glimpses, and that’s why I chose a girl protagonist as well.

3. Do you have a favourite part of the story?

My favourite part in the story is when the grandmother learns to spell her name. For me, it’s like a milestone, and maybe an older kid or someone might say, “What’s the big deal about it?” but it is a big deal when a child learns to spell or write his or her name. It is a milestone and it’s celebrated, and I think in the grandmother’s life too it was a milestone. She was able to go to the bank with dignity and she felt confident that she could go, which she couldn’t do earlier.

4. Did you encounter any challenges writing this story?

When you are basing it on a true story you have to make sure you’re respectful of the way you’re doing it. But I was so in love with the idea, I think the story came to me with relative ease. I know there are challenges with every book, but at one point it was suggested that I should have a boy protagonist, which would have been lovely too, but I panicked a bit because I’d already imagined this girl and she wasn’t going anywhere—she was demanding to be written. So I struggled with that part, but then I think I just couldn’t let her go, because she had already arrived and she wanted to be written out. 

5. What sort of readers do you hope this book will find?

We always say picture books are for ages five to eight, or six to nine, but I think picture books are for all ages. I have taught older kids, I’ve been an educator, and I had no problem picking up picture books and reading to them, because you learn from them. Maybe my ideal reader would be a seven-year-old who would question why didn’t these grandmothers get to go to school in the first place, or maybe an eleven-year-old who might want to investigate more into the social injustices and find out more about women’s rights in other parts of the world. And of course, grandmothers, you know, it’s an intergenerational story. I can imagine grandmothers curling up with their grandchildren and reading the story to them. So I think it’s for all ages.

Rina Singh has published several critically acclaimed books for children inspired by her Indian Canadian heritage, including Diwali LightsHoli Colors and Diwali: A Festival of Lights, which was nominated for the Red Cedar Award. Rina’s own grandmother never got the chance to go to school. Grandmother School is dedicated to her memory. Rina lives in Toronto with her family.

Ellen Rooney is a designer, artist and children’s book illustrator. Her textural mixed media artwork combines many traditional art techniques, like pencil drawing, painting, printmaking and collage, often combined with digital techniques. Originally from Massachusetts, she now lives in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

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