I was a voracious reader as a child. Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle In Time, The Famous Five. Even now, the titles of these childhood favourites give me a twinge of nostalgia. So when I headed to the Playcentre Children’s Library in Seksyen 6, Petaling Jaya, I couldn’t help feeling a giddy thrill. I had heard about the Playcentre’s regular storytelling sessions, and I wanted to see if these were helping children’s literacy in an age of TVs, tablets and the internet.

What I found there was a pleasant surprise. Snuggled in cosy sofas, kids were reading: sitting with their parents, even fighting with siblings over books. For a bookworm like me, it was a beautiful sight to behold, and all the more touching because it has been built up through the dedication of volunteers. The Playcentre, which has been operating for almost 30 years, was first set up by a group of mothers, with personal book donations. Today, the selection is incredible – the library has grown into over 30,000 English and Malay children’s books over the years. Authors both familiar and new appear on the shelves: beautifully illustrated, displayed thoughtfully and kept clean with plastic wrappings.

Yet despite being well established, Playcentre is not widely known. It’s also not a publically funded library, relying to this day on donations and volunteers. I decided to check out the TTDI Community Library, attached to the Taman Tun Community Centre, to see how government libraries are doing by comparison. The results weren’t quite as heartening. Although the library has a decent amount of books in the kids’ area, the books are old and falling apart, with crumpled, damaged pages. The chairs are also hard and uncomfortable. All in all, it feels intimidating. Academic. The fact that there were very few children when I visited was disappointing, but not surprising.

Many of the books had never even been checked out, explaining why they looked so new

Sadly, it seems this clinical environment is all too common among public libraries. When I visited a newly opened community library in Pandan Jaya, it had only a marginally better book selection. Even worse was my visit to the children’s section in The National Library, where I found rows of spine-facing books, presided over by surly librarians. Even though there was a good variety in terms of languages and the books were in almost new conditions, a quick look showed that the selection was dull. Many had never even been checked out, explaining why they look so new.

Anne Ooi, a volunteer with the Playcentre Library, has visited many local libraries during her touring storytelling sessions. She comments on the problem of book selection in children’s libraries: “Those who do the ordering don’t seem to be getting to know authors,” she told me. “I suspect that they look through the publisher’s catalogue, look at the front cover and blurb, then order.” Sure enough, librarian Azlina from the Taman Tun Library confirms this is the case. “We get our books from our main library, which is the Kuala Lumpur Library behind Dataran Merdeka. The catalogue department in the main library orders books straight from the publisher.”

Anne Ooi

Anne also points out that décor in libraries is important. “The way books are displayed here is key as well, particularly for young children to catch their eye,” she says. All this signals good news for those who live in or near Shah Alam. The newly opened Raja Tun Uda Library has a dedicated Creative Zone for children, which features colourful shelves and chairs, and a big artificial tree in the centre of the room, where kids can sit with their books. This library has become officially known as the “Selangor State Library” after being built for RM70million, as a gift from the Sultan of Selangor.

Of course, not all of us have a six storey, high tech library on our doorstep. But even where libraries fall short, parents can make all the difference, as I discovered when I met Cheong and his wife Li. The couple bring their children to Taman Tun Community Library every weekend and they all choose books together. “My wife is a teacher in a Chinese school. We want them to be able to speak and read English,” Cheong told me. When asked if he reads at home, he smiles wanly. “My wife reads. Me, not really.” But his kids seem love their visits, gleefully swapping books with each other, chattering away in English while their mother speaks to them in Chinese.

Like Cheong and Li, or the parents who volunteer at Playcentre, families need to be involved in cultivating children’s reading habits. Seeking out your local library is a good start, even if that library may have a limited selection of books. Many of our public libraries may leave much to be desired, but as the bookworm inside me can attest, the fun of reading always starts with a single book.

Names apart from Anne’s have been changed.

Tips from the expert

Anne Ooi started her storytelling sessions almost 20 years ago in the Playcentre Children’s Library. She now has regular storytelling sessions, especially on weekends in public libraries around the Klang Valley. Here, she offers tips on how to improve your child’s literacy skills, especially through storytelling.

  • “Learning to read isn’t just about learning words. Listening is a huge part of it, along with taking visual cues from pictures.” Choose books that lend themselves well to storytelling aloud, like those with shorter sentences and many illustrations or bright photos.
  • Hand actions are fun for the child and let them take part in the story. Concepts like wind and rain can be taught by making your child sway their arms or making pitter-patter motions with their fingers along with the story.
  • Your child prefers to watch cartoons instead of reading? Get a comic book! “Even if the text is in speech bubbles, they’re reading.”
  • Always choose books together, whether in the library or the bookstore. Your child benefits from witnessing your own reading choices and habits, which reinforces theirs.
  • Read with your child. Don’t just toss a book at them and expect them to read. They will have questions, and you can discuss the stories afterwards. The interaction both you and your child will get from reading together is priceless.

Anne’s storytelling sessions run on every 2nd and 4th weekends of the month, at the KL Library on Saturday and the TTDI Community Library on Sunday. For more details, go to her Facebook page, Roving Books

Playcentre Library Association, 18, Jalan 6/6, 46000 Petaling Jaya (03 7781 7813)

Find it: A list of public libraries in Selangor and in KL.