Once upon a time

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
The Hindu Business Line, Canvas page, 21 August 1999

At a story-reading workshop in a private school in the city recently, 11- and 12 year-olds were read a story. Then, during a discussion with the children, they were asked what books they read, who their favourite authors were and so on. The children sat in silence. After considerable prodding, one girl said her favourite story was a lesson from the English Reader. A couple of children seconded her choice. And that was it. That was it! 

Isn't it shocking to think that the extent of reading a whole class (some 80-90 children) seems to have done is limited entirely to school textbooks? Shocking and frightening. Especially at a time when bookshops are flooded with imported and indigenous children's books; many big publishing houses are doing books for children - some as an afterthought; and a handful, braving all odds, are publishing exclusively for children. 

Indeed, even provision stores in several neighbourhoods keep a few books, though on what basis these are selected is hard to say. Good, bad, indifferent - it's a matter of personal taste. But available they are, books other than textbooks. So why are children not reading? At least this seems to be the general complaint. Yes, we have heard the arguments about the influence of television, computers, video games, the high-pressure life children are forced to tackle given tough syllabi and tougher learning environments...  

But what are we doing as parents, as teachers, as concerned individuals?

Instead of talking about how most school libraries function or malfunction, let's ask ourselves a few questions. What kind of books do school libraries have? Are children encouraged to use the library? Or is it treated as just another 'period' during which time they may access one or two shelves? Can they browse through the books, maybe flip through the pages of one, put it back, pull out another? How often do they, especially the younger ones, have story-telling sessions in the library? Do they ever get to meet the authors of books or illustrators? Over the years, does the child learn to love the library? Most importantly, can the child walk into the library any time during working hours or is it off-bounds except during the designated period? 

Talking about libraries at a discussion, one parent made a very valid point in that the way to judge if a library was good was to see how many books had become dog-eared, a sure sign that somebody was handling and, hopefully, reading them. Willful destruction of books must be condemned, but wearing out through use is the natural order of reading. Besides, we can always teach children how to treat books: with love and careful handling. If in the first place they can be persuaded to read them. 

And, yes, books are expensive. Aren't the best things in life always? But for those who complain, consider this: in Chennai alone, some 55,000 pizzas are sold every month. The average price of a pizza is Rs. 150-200. At a seminar recently, where this issue was brought up, it was argued that this reflected the perceived value. And so, it was suggested, the pizza versus book argument did not hold water. But nobody can dispute the fact that the real value of a good book is tangible and remains, while the perceived value of a pizza disappears with the pull of a flush the following morning or sooner. 

Coming back to reading, adults often complain that children don't read. The first question is: Do you read? If the answer is yes, do your children see you reading or do you wait until after they are in bed? Are books easily accessible to them? It's like when the child will not eat fruit. Do you leave fruits on the table so the children can help themselves? Similarly with books. Do you complain when they read the same book over and over again? Do you force them to read what they don't like? Basically, is there an ambience of books and reading in the house? Simply, are there books lying around within easy reach? Each child has his or her own level. Given some time to themselves, some quiet, some mood, children can be encouraged to read. And once the bug bites, the child stays bitten. 

There's so much happening in the world of children's books. Enid Blyton - although she has returned politically corrected - is old hat. There is now the question of identity. More and more publishers and those in the world of reading realise the importance of language in giving people a sense of identity and, thereby, a sense of confidence. In the UK, for instance, one of the ways in which this is being done is by providing younger children with dual language books. So, a child of Bangladeshi origin, for instance, will be encouraged to read books that carry text in two languages: English and Bangla.

In India we still haven't got over the colonial hangover, so English is given primacy. But publishers have stayed ahead and many publish simultaneous editions of books in several Indian languages, including English. It is for adults to make them available to children. That children are thirsting to read is unquestionable, in spite of television and cinema and all those arguments. 
At the children's national science congress held at Anna University last December, we saw children make a beeline for the reading comer stacked with books in English, Tamil and Hindi. The Tamil books, in particular, were in great demand and in fact, it was thrilling to watch them devour book after book, balancing on bits and pieces of furniture, two or three to a stool. 

Talking about identity, the Australian children's writer, Libby Hathorn, made an interesting observation when she was in India a couple of years ago. She said that looking at the children's books scene in India reminded her of where Australia was some years ago. "Our markets were flooded with books from the US and UK. But there were no Australian books. Today, that has changed." She said that now Australians were proud of their own literature for children. 

Many in India today are looking for Indian books and not just stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, enduring though they are. Perhaps the best illustration of this is provided in this little vignette, again at the science congress. A group of 16-17 year-old boys came to the room in which the reading comer had been set up. All of them gave the shelves a cursory look, one or two casually picked up a couple of books and put them back. Only one boy stood there. He pulled out a book, about Tipu Sultan, and started to read. His friends called him once, twice, thrice, he did not respond. They got irritated and left. A little while later, a couple of them came back and teased him about reading a children's book. He finished the book and then turned round to say, "What do you know? Tipu Sultan is one of the great heroes of this country. You don't know what you are missing." And walked off, head held high. That's reading. Precious.