It was in 2016 when Malarvizhi Balaji arrived in Dubai with her husband and two children. She was armed with 25 years of experience in the book publishing industry and was filled with awe about the new country she was coming to.
Incidentally, 2016 was also the UAE’s Year of Reading and as destiny would have it, Malar, as she is fondly known, got an opportunity to participate in the Government of Dubai’s first-ever Reading Box to introduce reading to children. As an avid book lover, Malar soon realised there was a gap in the market for affordable books and different genres. So she decided to make use of her experience by starting a community group on social media called Booktopia Dubai to interact with Dubai’s wider community. The response was overwhelming. One thing led to another and very soon Malar was conducting school book fairs across the UAE, reaching out to children at different levels, understanding their requirements and helping them choose the right book to read. Her love and involvement very soon earned her the name the “Book Lady of Dubai”.
Finally, with all the encouragement and community support, she gave a physical presence to Booktopia as a family-run independent bookstore in Dubai Festival City. The idea was to give Dubai access to a whole range of affordable books in collaboration with major publishers across the world.
“Right from the beginning our plan was to have a core book shop with only books, where we created a beautiful reading area. I started doing my reading sessions here with children, introducing them to new books every weekend. I kept my prices low, interacted closely with customers and had a hand-picked selection of books,” she says.
As she was growing up, Malar remembers being called lovingly as the “bookworm” of the family. “I don’t remember a time where books was not a part of my life,” she says. “Reading is a life skill. Reading books imparts different values in each child. It improves vocabulary, ignites imagination, forms behaviour and strengthens parental bonding with a child during the early years.”
Even for adults, Malar says, 20 minutes of reading a day can open up a completely new world of possibilities. “It gives you Zen time at the end of a long day.”
Malar recommends that parents can start reading to their children as soon as they are born. “Children can relate to their parent’s voice and it helps in their cognitive development. Introducing colourful picture books to children sparks their imagination as well.”
She also suggests that parents give kids a range of books to choose from. “It’s absolutely okay if a child loves a certain type of book. We have to let them evolve and understand their interests. It is also a good idea to set up a small library or reading corner at home,” says Malar. “Also, regular visits to the bookstore will help to develop interest in books and reading. But above all, parents are a child’s first role model and children watch their parents and try to emulate them. Whether it’s reading the printed word or reading online, it’s reading that matters. But the experience of holding a book, and getting lost into the words (often smelling it) is priceless.”
Malar is grateful to the Dubai Public Library, schools and nurseries across Dubai for supporting her and hosting her reading sessions online. During the current stay-home period for kids, parents can tune in to her online reading sessions on Facebook (facebook.com/mybooktopia) and Instagram (@mybooktopiauae).