Clustered on a small wooden flat platform, a group of 10 children look at vivid cartoon pictures shown by a volunteer, who tells them a story.
Sometimes it is interrupted by children who can’t sit still, eagerly trying to touch the pictures.
Held in the reading room of the Japan Foundation Centre for Cultural Exchange (JFCCE) every second Saturday, the story-telling class was started by Le Thi Thu Hien, a woman who has a passionate interest in Japanese picture books.
“During my staying with a local Japanese family, when I had my first visit to Japan few years ago, I found some children picture books which I enjoyed reading very much. I thought those books would definitely fascinate my little children as well,” said Hien.
“Not only do they have beautiful pictures, but they also have very simple, interesting stories, which teach children important lessons.”
Heading back to Viet Nam, her luggage stuffed with picture books, she was eager to introduce her new find to her daughters.
“My daughters enjoyed the books so much! They even asked me to read them again and again,” said the mother of two.
The emphatic response from her daughters inspired Hien to show them to her friends and colleagues, who also had kids.
However, there was one important step that needed to be taken first.
“All the books were published in Japanese so I had to translate, type, print out, cut and paste notes on every page of every book,” said the Foreign Trade University graduate.
After her painstaking efforts, Hien’s Vietnamese subtitles were warmly received by many of her friends and their children.
More inspired than ever before, Hien has continued to add new Japanese picture books to her collection: hunting at Japanese festivals in Ha Noi and asking her friends to buy books whenever they travel to Japan.
Hien’s collection now includes more than 300 books for infants, toddlers and children up to 12 years old. Hien is also a co-director of a private company specialising in producing Japanese-language publications in Viet Nam.
“So far, only a third of my 300 plus books have been furnished with Vietnamese subtitles. Given I have such limited spare time, sometimes I have to work late doing it,” joked the 36-year-old.
“However, it’s a waste when only people around me [friends and colleagues] can access the books.”
With the intention to promote the books, Hien contacted the JFCCE in Viet Nam for support.
The centre later agreed to dedicate a corner of its reading room for Hien’s story-telling club.
Since its debut in January, the club has gathered about 10 children aged between four and seven years old to join its session held twice a month on Saturday.
“I really hope this story-telling class can help to develop reading habits among children,” said Hien.
Along with reading picture books, Hien also helps them to make origami (Japanese paper folding) items to help them think creatively.
Fun and games
Accompanying her seven-year-old son to the club, Thanh Ha said she found out about the club through its Facebook fan page.
“At first I was worried that my naughty boy wouldn’t be able to sit still. But he was so focused on listening to the reader,” she said.
Her son, Duy Anh, talks excitedly about what he learnt through the story.
“Today, we’ve heard the stories about the experience of a little boy who goes shopping with his mother for the very first time in his life, and about teeth. Now I know that the number of the teeth of adult and children are different. While adults have 32, children like me have just only 20,” the first-grade boy said.
Like Ha, Nguyen Thi Thu and her seven-year-old daughter also came to the club for the first time after hearing about it through word-of-mouth from a friend. After attending the class for two months, her friend encouraged her to bring her daughter along.
“I often take my daughter to join cultural activities organised at the L’Espace. She’s keen on learning about different culture of each country and she was very excited when I told her about this story-telling club,” said Thu.
The class can get a bit noisy in the second half that’s dedicated to origami paper folding in different colours. After dividing the paper, Hien guides the children through every step to fold items such as a dress, a uniform, a set of chairs and a table.
“The children get very excited with the paper folding. They are always so happy with their completed ‘handicraft’ items,” says Hien.
“Whenever I see their smiles and the excitement, I always feel I made the right decision with the club.”