Popular Culture and Children's Literature: Problems and Possibilities

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
for a Madras University refresher course, July 2003

Children's publishing, unlike adults' publishing is about negotiating cultural spaces in a very fundamental and active manner. To my mind, in the world of adult publishing this negotiation is an intensively personal one between the writer and the reader. But in children's publishing this negotiation is a collaborative effort - between the writer, editor, illustrator, teachers, parents and the young readers. The cultural space is defined by all these participants and complicating the issue further is the fact that children when they begin to learn to read possess many literacies already. These literacies are often acquired through the popular culture narratives they encounter from the time they are born. Every community has a rich popular culture - whether urban, rural, rich, poor, born out of narrative desire at an individual and collective level. In psychoanalytical terms we understand that this is a response to a series of deep drives, anxieties and desires which lie in our unconscious mind. 

The stories we need to hear over and over again are the stuff of popular culture, literature and art. Narrative fantasies of children can be observed in their play. They are highly gendered narratives and explain why certain formulaic narratives have continued to appeal to particularly one gender or the other down the centuries - why boys play with guns and girls with dolls or their equivalents, instinctively whatever their cultural backgrounds. We are obviously by nature fiction-making beings and popular culture constantly addresses the desires and conflicts of sexual identity. 

This basic narrative desire in children is hugely exploited by a crude culture industry which churns out toys and games, films and advertisements, computer games and cartoons, magazines and comic strips through the all-pervasive media - print, television and the world wide web. Giant toy and media businesses continue to tap children's need for narrative fantasies with unerring accuracy and cunning. Shorn of any relevant cultural relevance for most children but with powerful appeal, the narratives have been completely globalised You only have to think Disney, Barbie, Power Rangers, Nintendo etc to understand this phenomenon. 

Unfortunately popular culture has become a culture of consumption and there lies the danger. 

If popular culture is the response to narrative desires at an often crude and clumsy level then literature is the response at the more imaginative level. Literature offers, through a variety of texts, a creative culture for mediation, transformation, imagination and resistance. When confronted with extremely appealing and attractive narratives and products that actively encourage and foster often regressive and rigid attitudes, children's books can offer the imaginative space for challenging these attitudes. Indian children's books unfortunately don't offer this much-needed space. With the onslaught of the global culture industry increasing by leaps and bounds this is an urgent need that has to be addressed by publishers, writers, teachers and parents. They must be sensitized to the role of popular culture and children's literature in the lives of children and act as mediators between the two. To compartmentalize these influences and see the one as working against the other is to exclude a valuable part of a child's growing experience. 

Children begin to acquire different literacies from the time their social interactions in the family begin. By the time they come to school they have acquired different literacies. I am sure all of us have watched fascinated little children, playing highly imaginative (very often highly gendered) games with or without toys, who dance to songs like their favourite actors, repeat dialogues from films or TV serials verbatim, sing ad jingles without missing a beat, draw favourite cartoon characters, make up stories, sing nursery rhymes and songs that their parents and others in their extended families taught them etc etc. They already have the skills to 'read' these narratives, skills to understand and respond to them. Many parents worry about the 'bad' influence of film and TV, constant demand for certain kinds of toys and games and feel helpless to do anything about it in the face of the strong appeal of these narratives to children. And many, unfortunately, don't seem worried by this at all. They actively encourage what they see as their children's smart and early grasp of all this. They take pride in their children's skill at computer games, their acting, singing, dancing skills etc. Both groups fail to understand why children are so fascinated and how this can, and should, be countered. 

Children enter schools with literacies acquired through their encounters with their environment. These are often the given that they bring to their learning of reading and writing skills in school. They now encounter other kinds of texts in their books - both in text books and story books. The literacy practices in schools teach reading and writing skills and give it like a handy toolkit to children to unlock standardised texts in their books. Children's books can become sites of negotiation and transformation, every text they encounter leading them to new literacies. In the absence of imaginative texts, children acquire a kind of dominant literacy which reinforce the same values and morals of the popular culture they have been exposed to. This often tends to continue unchallenged for the rest of their lives. Class, caste and gender stereotypes and biases are further reinforced and seldom challenged by the books they read. The different literacies some children come with, often rich and culturally rooted, that is outside the prevailing dominant literacy, are subsumed by an alienating literacy at school - a literacy delivered through an unimaginative education system and reinforced by equally unimaginative books. Children's books seem to be an offshoot of popular culture rather than a creative alternative. To understand why this is so it is useful to explore the historical and sociological reasons briefly. 

Children's books and magazines in India have a long history. Riddles in verse written by the Urdu poet Amir Khusro in 14th century, is one of the earliest that we know of. I am not including here the oral literature, Panchatantra, Ramayana, Mahabharata and so on which existed long before that.

Every kind of genre has been explored by writers both in regional languages and in English In languages like Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi the publishing scene has been very vibrant. But if we look at the sheer volume of titles produced and the range, the number of books that stands out as exceptional, or even good, children's books are shockingly few in number There are a handful of titles in the regional languages, and fewer still in English What we have is this huge mass of standardized, unimaginative, largely didactic and often imitative books. This, in spite of the fact that we have had extremely talented writers and illustrators, now and in the past. But children's publishers in India, with their limited and narrow understanding of children's literature, have failed to tap this talent to create a modern, relevant, responsive, Indian literary resource for children. 

Though the marginalised status of children's literature is a lament one hears from publishers and writers from everywhere - including from the UK and USA - in India children's literature seems to belong outside the realm of literature. They are more in the category of textbooks whose role is to inform and improve reading skills. And in a country where the textbook culture in schools is a continuing legacy of its colonial history, offshoots of this culture, which is how children's books are seen and conceived, reflect the same values and standards. To understand why this is so there are two things we need to look at. Childhood varies from period to period, place to place, culture to culture. Literature for children will therefore reflect this variety. First, we need to understand the perception of childhood in India and briefly the history of school education in India. Both have had a strong influence on the growth and development of children's publishing 

In the Indian closely-knit large joint families there is a continuity in the adult and child worlds. In a typical Indian family, small or large, there is always a head of the family, in most communities male. In his eyes adults and children are merely children of varying ages; the relationship and behaviour of the senior and other members of the family are defined by this perception Thus the 30 year old father is treated as an older child while the 8 year old is treated as a younger child by the 'head of the family' - a grandfather or a granduncle. The head of the family is a benign autocrat and children, young and old, are not encouraged to ask questions or make independent decisions. Child marriage and early parenthood pushed children into the adult world as early as 12 or 13 years It is not surprising, then, that fantasies and role-play in children were often confined to imitation of adults in the family. A lot of stories in the early books and magazines for children were role-model based. (Gandhi's childhood) 

Paradoxically childhood in India had always been a privileged state, though this privilege was most often reserved for the male child. Most available children's literature of the pre-colonial times, whether about Gods or humans, belongs to the lullaby/eulogistic tradition expressing the mother's love for the child. These texts reflect a child-centredness from an adult point of view. Strong oral traditions strengthened the proximity of the adult and child. The stories and myths were never clearly categorized as children's and adult stories. A lot of the stories would probably be taboo in today's world of children's literature 

This was the world of the pre-colonial child, growing up in large families never far from adults of all ages, ritual and tradition, stories and songs blurring the lines between the child and adult worlds while strictly maintaining and reinforcing class, caste and gender hierarchies. 

The education of the pre-colonial child was entrusted to teachers who were highly respected. 

The Hindu teachers were the pandits and the Muslim teachers were the maulivis. The division was not rigid then, as Hindu students went to a maulivi or Muslim students went to pandits depending on who was the best teacher in the village Children from rich homes were taught by teachers who came home or they went to the house of a teacher with other children. What they learnt was decided entirely by the teachers. A lot of the teaching centred on religious texts in the classical languages of Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu along with instruction in their own languages. In the case of the trader and artisan classes the child learnt the craft or trade through apprenticeship along with basic literacy skills. It is interesting to note that there was no Sanskrit or Hindi equivalent to the word 'school as a physical space. A school was a single teacher and a school was wherever the teacher sat! The picture one gets of the education of the child till mid-19th century is of one that was tailored to his individual needs and based on a strong teacher-student relationship. The nature of this relationship is reflected in the numerous maulivi-pandit stories for children that project teachers as terrors, as the butt of jokes and icons of adulation and admiration at the same time. 

Though I have been saying 'child', what I have been describing is the experience of the upper caste male child. The educational and socializing experience of the girl child and the lower-caste child is quite different, inherently aimed at keeping the hierarchical status quo. The upper-caste girl-child was educated informally at home, often by family members or sometimes by semi-professional teachers, like the wives of the pandits and maulivis. Knowledge of scriptures, mythology and shastras which most women possessed, was acquired over many years, orally and informally. As for the lower caste, child education was entirely occupation-based 

By the mid-19th century the more laid-back need-based and local education gave way to a formal standardized system of education introduced by the British who had completed the colonizing process started around 1800. The introduction of English into the complex, hierarchical language system of India proved to be the most enduring aspect of this process Thomas Macaulay's Minute on Education clearly states that the system of education should facilitate the creation of "a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect." The following decisions gave a final bureaucratic format to the system 

Every stage from primary schooling onwards including the structure of the syllabi, the content of textbooks and teacher training, would be governed by a bureaucracy 

The teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction as a means of civilizing the natives and training them for working in the middle and lower rungs of colonial administration Schools had to conform to the syllabus and textbooks prescribed by the colonial govt. if they wanted government aid. 

Impersonal, centralized examinations would be used to assess the student's performance. 

And with this clearly stated agenda the foundation was laid for an education system whose impact is so far-reaching that we are left coping with the problems it created even today. The textbook culture and a policy of impersonal, centralized examination system were the creation of the British. Each reinforced and legitimized the other while creating a new set of problems: 

• An alien curriculum that remained hostile to the student's milieu. 
Created a break between the child and the household changing the entire socialization pattern of the Indian child 
Distanced the child from local crafts and occupations and left young people little choice of professions to choose from - clerical, administrative, legal, medical and journalistic and as an off shoot, political 

Curriculum content was decided on the basis of what could be assessed by an examiner unknown to the student. This effectively kept out all practical and vocational skills. 

The textbooks written for teaching English used literary pieces whose idiom and images were steeped either in a Victorian world or the natural world of Wordsworth and his early contemporaries. Neither of the two worlds was accessible to the average Indian child. Learning English meant an enormous and continuous effort, which left no time or energy to grapple with the subject matter of other school disciplines 

Literary study was favoured in Indian schools and colleges - fitted nicely into the frame of text-book culture and exams based on essay-type answers. For the colonizers it was also a useful instrument of acculturation. 

Texts of this kind could not be read for meaning; they could only be memorized. This privileged the upper-caste sections further as their pedagogical practices were based on memorizing Sanskrit or Persian texts as we have seen. 

Examinations resulted in a deep fear of failure among young people. The fear became a part of the whole experience of learning from childhood onwards and the consequence of failure became a recurring motif in literature and popular culture. 
The process was greatly facilitated by the new aspirations of a class of people who saw their role as mediators between the colonizers and the colonized. 

Ironically, colonial education also sowed the seeds for nationalist education. A large section of people, that included many leaders and thinkers, endorsed western education with its modern, liberal pedagogy, as a means of building a nationalist ideology. A number of nationalist schools sprang up against a backdrop of growing rebellion against colonial rule spearheaded by Gandhi. These schools were set up by educational entrepreneurs who were also political activists They trained children and actively encouraged them to participate in picketing and non-violent protests. Gandhi's Civil Disobedience Movement and Non-cooperation Movement saw wide-spread and active participation by child volunteers Political organizations, called Vanar Sena and Bal Bharat Sabhas, were the children's wings of political groups. Boys between 10 and 13, arrested for their political activities, filled the jails. Thus began another significant phase in the history of childhood in India 8that of the politicized child. This again made the whole adult-child divide artificial and complex and had a deep and regressive impact on the writing for children of that period. 

The economic and educational policies of the British forced a large number of people to move from villages to cities to continue higher studies and in search of jobs. A combination of nationalist ideals, lack of job opportunities outside the government services, a newly awakened literary spirit particularly in the link languages of English and Hindi and a fast-growing print culture thanks to the simultaneous proliferation of text books, Christian missionary literature and nationalist writings saw many opt for literary careers. Children's writings, whether in books, magazines (there were a huge number of these) or textbooks, usually attracted writers with very limited literary skills who didn't make it in the adult literary field. 

In the adult literary scene many talented writers made the 'twin burdens' of tradition and modernity (as described by a writer) a creative resource for their writing and enriched the body of Indian writing, both in English and in the other Indian languages. The nation-centredness of the new generation of Indian writers was tempered by a characteristic cosmopolitanism of outlook and experience which was completely missing in the children's writers. What was churned out was a mass of literature that was didactic, unimaginative and highly moralistic. The mission was to inform, instruct or reform. Children's books and magazines were produced on a mass-scale almost like propaganda material for one agenda or the other. They were either overtly religious or overtly secular, anti-British or pro- British, nationalistic, very often jingoistic, and highly moralising. There were instances of very good and creative writing particularly in languages like Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati etc and many well-known writers did write for children. But they remained isolated phases and did not set any creative literary trend 

A recognisably Gandhian tone was predominant in all writings of that period in some way - the Gandhian values of ahimsa, non-violence, simplicity, village-based economy, uplift of women, workers, untouchables and peasants. All writers acknowledge this and the power and energy of their writings came from this influence. Unfortunately, in the writings for children, this became a strident claim for moral high ground which continues even today. 

In the nationalist period the debate over writing in the mother-tongue and writing in English paled into insignificance before the more immediate need to forge a national language. Thus the language of the colonizers became the language of the colonized and was a powerful medium of communication during the freedom struggle Today, English is as Indian as the other Indian languages and is used creatively, with a lot of energy and dynamism by writers. But not by children's writers. Their writing style by and large continues to be archaic, or over-simplified and bland, deliberately shorn of any cultural inflections. Worse still, the symbolisms and references remains western and alien to a large number of children - spring, autumn, meadows, daffodils all against an Indian backdropl We still receive manuscripts with names like Amelia and Amanda - the trendier aspirants use Micky or Twiggy! What is not funny and cause for great concern, is children writing stories and poems with such names whatever backgrounds they came from - if they write in English the names had to be Michael or Mary. 

Thus the heavy burden of children of having to learn about their cultural heritage through the most unimaginative and didactic writing, which started to proliferate as a reaction to colonial textbooks and writings - inspirational biographies of 'great' men, stories of devotion and sacrifice, either for the nation or for the gods, stories of impossibly good children, retellings of Panchatantra, the Jataka tales with great emphasis on the morals, stories from the Mahabharatha and Ramayana, to give some examples This was not a sustained effort but was produced by different authors and publishing houses in different languages. 

It is interesting at this point to briefly compare the situation in India with that in England. 

Children's books in England and India have been around from the early fifteenth century onwards. The beginnings in both countries were greatly influenced by strong oral and religious traditions. Legends and myths, stories and songs were common jingoistic of both adults and children. There was Aesop there, we had Panchatantra here. The tone of the books that came out at that time was heavily religious and moral. From the mid-eighteenth century the histories of the two countries take two very different paths, interlinked every inch of the way but vastly different. The British empire grew across the globe England prospered. To quote John Townsend, "A growing number of people had the time, the money, the education and the inclination to be readers of books Middle-class life was growing more domestic, centred upon the home and the family rather than on the bustle of the street or the great house. Children were coming into their own ceasing to be dressed like little adults, calling their parents 'Papa' and 'Mamma,' and leading more sheltered and perhaps more innocent lives." 

The prosperity also saw the growth of a modern education which in turn freed children's literature from the earlier puritanism. The growing English-speaking population across the world provided the economic base for a flourishing children's literature So while colonial history left India with an education system that stifled all creativity and energy in children' literature, the historical circumstances of the colonizers created the conditions for the growth of the most vibrant body of children's literature 

A long uninterrupted history of children's literature in England has enriched it in a way that has few parallels in other parts of the world. It is not without reason, that the long ages of storytelling has been kept alive in the classics of J.RR Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll and now JK Rowling. In 1967 with the launching of the Amar Chitra Katha series a new phase of children's publishing began, which shows how potent the packaging of the 'teaching of national heritage' in comic format can be - both as a cultural commodity and a marketing strategy. Here we see the close and dangerous links About 500 titles, translated in more than 40 languages and sold over 80 million copies - these are rough figures But although they use the comic book format, ACK completely bypasses the subtlety and sophistication of the genre and makes the medium the message. 

The text and pictures are replete with racial, sexist and communal overtones, not to mention the banal writing, poor and often wrong use of language, unedited use of age-inappropriate vocabulary and ideas, plainly chauvinistic or downright insensitive dialogue, blandly rendered narrative, de-contextualised perspective. To give an example: Jasma of Jasma of the Odes says of her husband, "Oh god! My husband is a cripple! He's ugly too! Alas! What have I done to deserve this?" How does a child react to this, or to "You dunce of a hunchback. Are you thick-lipped too?" Draupadi is described as "the total woman; complex and yet feminine". . unintelligible to a child but loaded we know! Especially when the accompanying picture is of a shapely woman in a barely-concealing transparent something, carefully positioned in the frame at an angle that highlights her buxom figure, curves, cleavage and all. 

The illustrations in ACK are more damaging as images are so much more powerful. Hindu gods and kings are fair, tall, clean-shaven and aquiline-featured, while goddesses and queens are fair, shapely, coy and ageless. Not surprising that we are a nation obsessed with Fair and Lovely - a cosmetic cream that promises fair skin. Dark skin, a short stature, heavy features are all associated with tribals, lower castes and the villains. (I have heard a bright young student of journalism argue heatedly with Kancha Iliah, the Dalit writer and academician, that Vishnu is clean-shaven because that is how he is shown in ACK! Iliah was at a loss for words.) The pluralistic codes of the various schools of art are completely subsumed in these orientalist representations One of ACK's foremost illustrators says that their art is based on the Ravi Varma school of painting, cinema (the early mythologicals of V Shantaram) and cinema hoardings. He also adds that he personally uses profiles of Hollywood and European actors and actresses occasionally. Clark Gable as Rama and Marilyn Monroe as Sita certainly lend a new perspective to multiculturalism! 

The authors say they often drew from accounts of British colonial officers, further distorting what has already been de-contextualised. It is not surprising then that the British are portrayed as helpless duty-bound officers appreciative of native 'pluck', as opposed to the destructive Muslim invaders The worst blow, however, is that Amar Chitra Kathas make the readers, young and old, feel they know all there is to know about Indian culture. In homes where children are exposed to all kinds of books, different kinds of cultural experiences and where there is discussion and debate, the damage is perhaps not so great. But the danger is when they are exposed to little else and parents and teachers see their education on Indian culture as complete because they have read ACKs. This hit me recently when I had a discussion with an exceptionally bright and articulate 10 year old who could rattle of every myth and legend because he had read every book in the ACK series. When I said that there was a different version of one of the religious myths, he said but my father told me that there is only this one story that is authentic. He goes to one of the best schools in Bombay. He or his father is not going to be easily convinced about the cultural, linguistic and religious variations of Hindu myths thanks to ACK. 

There is a new book called The Ramayana brought out by, one of the oldest children publishing houses in India. A few lines from the book - A pious ascetic lived in a holy forest where animals abounded and moved freely in joy. Lord Indra who wanted to break the sage's austerities came in disguise to the hermitage and left a sword in its precincts. It was a calculated act. The ascetic became inhibited to use the weapon always. The habit warped his mind. Slowly giving up his austerities he used the sword for wrong purposes The book received a good review in the Young World, the children's supplement of The Hindu, a widely read national newspaper from Chennai. 

ACK, to me, seems to embody all the problems of children's publishing in India setting an agenda, an inform-and-instruct approach, shoddy writing and research, make-a-pretty-picture and leave-nothing-to-imagination approach to illustrating and irresponsible editing. Looking at the range of children's books today there seems to be two distinct categories - a whole range of myths and folk stories promoting the concept of a Hindu India with a glorious past and another range of books which are imitative of western books in plot, style, categories, like early readers, adventure stories and so on with Indian names and very often not even with that. It takes only a cursory look through some of the children's books from big publishing houses (which have an impressive adults list), to come across names like Tanya and Corby and references to strawberries, jellybeans, autumn, snowmen etc. Illustrations are even more mindlessly imitative of western books, and pictures of blond-haired girls and teddy bears are quite common Books are mass-produced, offering no new challenges to the reader and furthering the dominant literacy created by popular culture. 

In a world taken over more and more by an all-powerful culture industry, a global village on the one hand and a deeply polarized world on the other, children are constantly exposed to conflicting and confusing messages about values and attitudes. Closer home we are witnessing how political powers seek to take moral and social control over children by pushing a clearly defined agenda through textbooks and the school curriculum. At this critical juncture we need to look at ways of creating a truly contemporary literature for our children which, to my mind, needs to borrow and recreate from all that is happening around us whether it is popular culture, theatre, folk performances, dance, music, traditional and modern literary styles and so on. 

The plays recently put up by students of the 11th and 1 ih standards of some schools in the city were revealing. They had developed the scripts themselves and the texts were not so much value-loaded as exploratory and, therefore, tentative and authentic in nature. The themes reflected a variety of contemporary influences the players were subject to in their daily lives. The language used was often unconventional and easygoing, switching effortlessly between English and Tamil. Dominant popular cultural genres, like film music with what might be called "inappropriate" lyrics were used unselfconsciously. In spite of the books we give our children and the stifling curriculum, the thinking in these plays reflected an engagement with - and questioning - what was going on around them. 

To cite another example in the realm of children's literature itself, JK Rowling's gift for engaging intimately and compassionately with her young reader's lives has created the magic of the Harry Potter series.  Children love Harry not because he is fantastic but because he is familiar. To me the most important comment about the Potter books is the one made by a teacher in an inner city school in Detroit. She was stunned by the power of the books on the many troubled children who were in foster care as they didn't have families. 'Many of these kids have grown up without parents but they still have to make moral choices in their lives,' says the teacher. 'Before these choices might have been dictated by church, family, by community, now you have to face that alone, and the choice lies within yourself. This is the generation that really needs Harry Potter.' Rowling has taken a formulaic plot about magic and wizardry, and contextualised it for today's children with compassion and understanding. The magic of the books lie in the way they connect to young readers everywhere cutting across cultures, age groups, gender and class. And that is the power of a good writer. 

In trying to understand narratives for children and how they work the analysis of folk tales by Russian formalists is enlightening. They make a distinction between the sjuzet or the plot of a narrative and the tabula which is the wealth and meaningfulness of contextual detail in which the story is embedded. Looking back at my own reading experiences as a child and adult I realise how enriching the experience is because one was constantly responding to the tabula of the stories. The space between the beginnings and ends offers immense possibilities for the writer and the reader. The retellings of folk stories and myths that we have for our children unfortunately confine themselves to the plot ignoring the contextual detail that can enrich and transform. All we then have is formulaic plots offering moral lessons. 

In the words of A K Ramanujan, the renowned poet, linguist and folklorist - 'The stories we heard in Tamil were told by a grandmother, an aunt or a cook .... The stories we read in English had names like Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, but grandmother's stories had no names at all. The characters were poor people like a poor Brahmin and his scold of a wife, or two sisters, one kind and one unkind, who were daughters born of a dog that lived under the palace balcony, or clever daughters-in-law who terrorized even the goddess with their farts or outwitted their cruel but stupid mothers-in-law.' Ramanujan describes how children grew up hearing all kinds of stories with adults in a variety of settings - the grandmother telling a story to the child in the kitchen at dinner time, the ritual tale told in other parts of the house or the yard, the mendicant teller who tells a romantic tale on the verandah or the professional bard who is invited to sing, dance and recite a long religious or romantic epic in a rich man's hall or in a public space. 

In Ramanujan's words - What is supposed by analysts to be repressed and hidden is open and blatant in these tales fathers pursue daughters, brothers, sisters, cannibal sisters eat their younger siblings, mothers marry sons unwittingly and bear sons thereby messing up neat kinship diagrams; and young men wish to marry no women but their own left halves .... Tales speak of what cannot be usually spoken Ordinary decencies are violated. As these tales are told to children in the context of the family, they are part of a child's psychological education in facing forbidden feelings and finding a narrative that will articulate and contain if not resolve them for the tellers as well as their young listeners.' This then is the spirit of our oral stories and the challenge for the writer is to understand this and retell them with enriching contextual detail - the tabula, if you like - that the contemporary child will respond to. 

The challenge is to create a children's literature that will break free of the narrow, consumerist and temporary cultural tabula in which many narratives for children are set today 

It is the multiplicity of texts children encounter in books that can give them new ways of reading which in turn creates a critical consciousness for evaluating texts - the 'low-nutrient ones' (as one writer puts it aptly) are discarded and high-nutrient ones cherished. And high-nutrient reading can, as the Harry Potter phenomenon has shown us, vie with the more eye-ball-grabbing forms of popular culture like cinema and TV in drawing a whole generation of children to the book. That the written word finds itself being churned in the culture machine and is sought to be transformed into a product or commodity is a worry of our times. But as long as words carry their magic, do we need to worry?