Children's Books and Their Reading

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
Adapted from a talk on the subject of Children's Books and Their Reading

Having been involved closely with children’s books through Tulika Publishers and the Goodbooks Bookstore and Resource Centre, and having interacted with parents and teachers closely, I know without doubt that there is genuine concern about children’s reading habits. The overriding reasons to read are these:  

Reading improves vocabulary 
Reading improves their writing skills

           The books we read growing up transforms us because they help us imagine beyond ourselves. To quote a librarian and editor of a children’s book journal Helen Rochman from her book ‘Against Borders’ Promoting Books for a Multicultural  World “Reading makes immigrants of us all – it takes us away from home, but, most important it finds homes for us everywhere.”  

          In this age of globalisation and in the digitally connected world we live in today travelling, interacting, living with and among people from other cultures has become much more of a reality today than ever before. To find homes everywhere, to be comfortable and confident anywhere in the world, to be empathetic to people from other cultures, to be an active, responsible citizen of the society we choose to live in, we need to imagine beyond ourselves. If the kind of books we give our children is limited to improving specific skills then we are giving them a limited, closed space to grow up in. Their minds remain buried in that closed space. The challenges that our children will face in the high tech complex world demands, much more than ever before, that we give them the kind of learning experiences that opens up and frees their minds.

          Putting them in the best schools, giving them every opportunity for extracurricular activities from music to tennis, getting them the best computers and software are high priority among all parents. But children need their world of books where as readers they rule supreme, unthreatened by pressures to perform, where they can read at their own pace books they choose, where they can let their minds wander as far or as near as they want, learning, absorbing and having a lot of fun. And it is up to us as parents, teachers and those concerned about young people to give them that world.  

          But for the kind of reading experience I am talking about it is important to know what kind of books to give children. As parents and teachers we have to be aware of what a good book for children is.

    Not just a book with simple text and simple cute pictures.

    Opens up new worlds. A narrow view of multiculturalism is as damaging as being closed to books from other cultures. The more connected a story is to a culture, the more specific it is, the stronger the appeal. Books for older people like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things are good examples of these kind of books that have won wide audiences. In fact, Ekki Dokki, Eecha Poocha, the Under The Banyan series — all books by Tulika Publishers, are not just stories from India. One is from Maharashtra, the other from Kerala and the Under the Banyan series from different parts of India. Despite being from specific regions, each with their own flavour and idiom, sometimes far removed from a child's known world, these are  some of Tulika's 
    best selling books.  

    Uses language creatively. Saying that children won’t understand new and unfamiliar words, pictures, language, names, that are new and unfamiliar, similarly pictures, use of language names is the easy way out. As Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Jewish writer says: “Unknown words don’t stop the child a boring story will.” If our children read only that which is familiar then it is a small, narrow world we are confining them to – they see people like themselves, who think and look like them and agree with them. And that as we know, is a false, unreal world. 

    Well printed and produced  – The value of a good book is determined by its contents and also by the quality of  its production —  the printing, the colours, the binding.

    Price is not the bottom line. The choice of a book should not be dictated by price alone. There are books that are reasonably priced, and good. But the market is also full of reasonably priced books that are badly produced. Buying these only reinforces the market for such books.

    Sensitivity — Buying books of folk stories, mythologies etc to teach children about their culture, values is not enough if the books are badly written and illustrated, perpetuating stereo types and biases with regard to gender, caste and class.
    The Amar Chitra Katha series lends us many examples!

          In a retelling of the Ramayana for children, Shri Rama is on his way to Sita’s swayamvara with brother Lakshmana and sage Vishwamitra: ‘On the way they was a beautiful deserted hermitage where sage Gautama used to live with his wife Ahalya in peace and holy meditation. One day Indra disguised as Gautama entered the hut of the sage in his absence to have sexual union with the beautiful Ahalya who was vain of her beauty.’ 

           ‘All the queens were glad at heart since they became pregnant. They were all very happy. From the time Lord Vishnu found his way into the womb, joy and prosperity reigned . . . Time rolled on happily till the moment arrived for the Lord to be revealed . . . A cool, soft breeze was blowing. The gods were feeling exhilarated and the saints were bubbling with enthusiasm.’  

          A chapter is entitled ‘Manthra Kicked Hard By Shatrughana’ and the last para goes: ‘The moment Shatrughana saw wicked-hearted Manthra clad in her best. He kicked her so hard that her hunch and head were both broken.’  

          Comments like the following are splattered freely in popular stories aiming to instil ‘Indian culture’ in children: ‘Oh god! My husband is a cripple! He’s ugly too! Alas! What have I done to deserve this? or ‘You dunce of a hunchback. Are you thick-lipped too?’ or ‘You son of a Suta!’ or inevitable phrases such as ‘wily Brahmin’, ‘deceitful wife’, or else ‘ignorant’ or ‘miserly’ wife, or an Akbar-Birbal classic teaching that all mothers think their own children are the most beautiful, which has a picture of a big-built, dark, thick-lipped, unkempt baby to show how poor and ugly ‘lower caste’ babies actually are! 

    When you buy books for very young children – alphabet books, board books etc look to see how the child can relate to words and pictures there. Words like snowman, Christmas stocking, blonde haired, pink cheeked dolls or characters etc may be too unfamiliar for a very young Indian child looking for something closer to home to connect with. 

    Language books, bilingual books — Language gives a sense of identity and confidence that stems from that identity. These books reinforce this belief. A good way to introduce children to newer languages with the comfort of a known language at hand.

What we can do:  

Children should grow up with books, seeing adults read.
Introducing books when they are babies.
Reading aloud, sharing.
Actively participate with the child in choosing and discussing books.
Look at the text and pictures.
Net is a great resource. Look for reviews. Unfortunately there aren't too many well-written reviews of children's books. But whenever you come across them, read them.
Buy books regularly. Make gifting books to children on special occasions a habit.
Find out about school libraries. Must raise your voices about the state of the libraries, librarian!
Schools must understand that reading books outside the curriculum need not and must not be confined to libraries alone. But must become part of classwork – reading aloud from books, sharing books children have read and discussing them, relating them to history, geography, science, math other than English itself opens up whole new worlds, different ways of seeing. Books offer so many wonderful ‘teachable moments’ to teachers and parents.
Let the children read without pressure whatever they like to read, find the right time, not when their favourite TV programme is on or when they are at the computer.
Don’t despair that they are not reading the right kind of books. It could be comics, magazines, or some favourite series – as long as they are reading and enjoying the experience let them be. But always try to interest them in other books – taking them to bookshops, libraries etc
If they are not into reading at all try to get them books on their favourite subject, hobby. It could be music, cricket – maybe books of photographs, book of facts. If you get them interested enough they might start reading biographies of their favourite stars. Doesn’t matter if other children are reading Dahl, Ruskin Bond, Harry Potter.
It is never too late. There are children who hated reading but took the plunge in Class VIII, when the Harry Potter series called out to them!