Why do we want our children to read? I refer to the wide range of books in fiction and non-fiction, which are perused by children and young adults from ages six to eighteen. This reading is done, by and large, of their own volition and interest and with a resultant satisfaction. By this simple act, they are expanding and enhancing their sensibilities. In reading, they are also learning to read between the lines, pick up nuances and complexities, which the author has embedded in her writing. They are responding to strong themes, to evocative language and are being exposed to issues they cannot afford to ignore. They are also picking up the skill to be critical of content and form-to discern when there is insincerity or condescension, for instance.
A Reason to Read
So, why do children read?
- Interest, bordering on passion: This interest is already nurtured from early childhood by the home environment and/or furthered by the school library's approach and activities.
- 'Time-kill or time-pass': This reason for reading does not last, as other 'timepass' attractions will tend to intersect and overshadow this fleeting interest. However, with sensitive intervention by parents, teachers and librarians, a lukewarm attitude can be converted into a more enduring relationship.
- Motivation and enforcement: This is probably done through classroom reading demands or the use of competitions and prizes. Most of the time these do not lead to a more sustained engagement with reading. Once the carrot or the stick is gone, so has the child!
Young children are drawn to stories and are full of curiosity and wonder. Usually this moves naturally into a love of reading. But we may uncaringly or unwittingly dam this natural surge. Very little encouragement to read, both in the home and school environment, too many other occupations, unmonitored television-viewing, addiction to computer games, and academic pressure can dry up the imaginative flow. What are some ways by which their relationship to books can be strengthened? When children of age eight or so come into the school library, I make them aware that there is a live person responsible for the story, the characters, and the illustrations. I do this to further the link between the reader and the book.
After a few years, I like to expose them to themes and issues that are contemporary and relevant to them, as well as to myths, legends, and tales of magic and mystery. The former may help the young person grow aware of issues of gender, discrimination, conflict, love and so on. It helps her to face them squarely and be more questioning as well as accepting of different shades to every situation. The latter, I feel, enables the child to retain an element of fantasy and wonder. This may sound contradictory but in fact for a child the factual and the miraculous go together and she can seamlessly move from one to the other.
Availability and Access
There are children's writers, and writers who write for children. You may wonder at this distinction, but it is an important one to keep in mind. In the first category are authors who touch upon themes of great sensitivity and draw upon their own childhood experiences. The second category, unfortunately, consists of writers whose ideas are predictable, characters stereotyped and the language pedestrian. I refer here to series like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and even the books of Enid Blyton. Authors to look for are Ruskin Bond, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbitt, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Min Fong Ho and E.B. White. Established authors of adult fiction who have also ventured into writing for children are a rare breed, but they have proved that they have the quality which appeals to children as well. R.K. Narayan, Mahashweta Devi, Mulk Raj Anand, Mark Twain, and J.R.R Tolkien are some names you must include in your library collection.
When J.D. Salinger wrote 'Catcher in the Rye' in 1951, it was a breakthrough of sorts. Suddenly, it seemed as if the angst of a teenager could be conveyed and empathized with. Similarly, Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mocking Bird, ' written in 1962, introduced young readers to racial tensions, prejudice, rape and other disturbing issues. 'The Diary of Anne Frank' looks at the Holocaust through a young girl's eyes but it is also the story of a teenager's moods and feelings. Now, there are a host of books for young teenagers that explore bold themes and are written in a language they can relate to-Madeline L'engle, Ursula Le Guin, Judy Blume and Sue Townsend.
As for non-fiction, Scholastic has brought out good biographies and science books for children National Book Trust and Children's Book Trust also have good titles. Tara and Tulika come out with some outstanding non-fiction. How- to- make books are very popular. Arvind Gupta, and Sudarshan Khanna have done yeoman service in making such reading material available to younger readers.
For children of fourteen years and above, there is a dip, both in the young person's reading and in the availability of suitable literature. Apparently, issues of adolescence coupled with greater academic pressure makes them go off reading. Some schools and parents drive the last nail by eliminating the weekly library period from their timetable or by frowning upon reading as a wasteful occupation. But I have seen that after a few hiccups, this age group moves into varied and very different reading interests. Some books I have found popular with this age group are Nelson Mandela's 'A Long Walk to Freedom', 'Seven Years in Tibet' by Heinrich Harrer, ' Into Thin Air' by Jon Krakauer, and books by Primo Levi (thanks to a passionate introduction by a teacher), books of general interest by Jared Diamond, Bill Bryson and others. 'Sunlight on a broken column' by Attia Hossein, and the works of award winning writers such as Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Amitav Ghosh, Yann Martel, to name a few, have all ensured that our teenagers have plenty to keep them anchored to books.
The Content of Reading
The six to nine year olds are drawn to myths, magic and fairy tales. They accept these elements without question. Soon this inclination turns a bit ghoulish and they are looking for fantasy with a frisson of fear. As a result, ghost stories and horror stories are much in demand. Well-written books in this genre for a younger group are hard to come by. I read out the finest ghost stories to enable them to see for themselves the difference between cheap thrills and genuine, spine-tingling horror! From ages ten to twelve they become interested in stories of adventure, tales of heroism, school and friendship, stories from other cultures, fiction with a historical base, real animal stories, as well as all the themes which enchanted them earlier. The world outside is already nudging its way in and this age group is faced with added responsibilities, their own growing independence, relationships that ebb and flow…! Small wonder that they chew up whatever they can find to read.
Non- fiction most read at this age is about lives of extraordinary people, wildlife, scientific discoveries and poetry. From age thirteen up, their awakening emotions and tendency to rebel against what they see as more and more do's and don'ts, demand special care from us with regard to their reading. A combination of 'tough teenage fiction, ' with sensitive treatment of themes close to their hearts resonates well with this age group. War stories, light romances, mysteries, and historical fiction, along with real-life narratives are a few more of their favourite reads.
As a librarian and teacher, the content of books has thrown many questions at me. What is appropriate and what is not, for any age group or reading level? Can the choice be made by the adult objectively? Is the readiness all? What does it mean to preserve innocence? Does one deliberately expose children to violence, hatred and injustice to get them better prepared for reality? I think the answers might lie in the thought and care put in by the author to be authentic and sincere. In a recent interview, Beverly Naidoo, author of 'Journey to Jo'burg, ' a poignant story of children caught in a distressing situation of racial prejudice and political inhumanity, says, ' Books for children reflect values present in adult society…Fiction is a means of exploring what it is to be human. I hope by doing so, I excite, engage, and encourage my readers to make their own journeys of imagination into the lives of others.' In the same issue of the newspaper is a review of a book, 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' by John Boyne. This is the story of the holocaust from a child's perspective. The author says, 'I do not believe there is any subject that is inappropriate to discuss with children.' Now here is the crucial point he makes: 'It comes down to how we as parents, teachers or society-decide to introduce these matters without trivializing them or patronizing our audience. As a writer, there is a responsibility to tell an emotionally honest story, that should ideally resonate with children and adults alike.' On the other hand, I can't help recollecting Robert Benigni's award winning film, 'Life is Beautiful', where the protagonist is sent to a concentration camp. He smuggles his young son in and tries against all odds to preserve his innocence and happiness by making the whole experience a series of tricks and games. Whether that was the right thing to do makes for an interesting discussion.
Another book, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' by Mark Haddon is a coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old autistic boy who embarks on a detecting quest a la Sherlock Holmes. There is strong language but it goes with the theme and is an outstanding book. 'Angela's Ashes' by Frank McCourt has been a big hit with our fourteen year olds and above. The story describes the deprivation and despair of an Irish Catholic family. Frequent babies, infant mortalities, squalor, and later the sexual stirrings of the adolescent boy are all portrayed with sympathy and taste. Here too I had no qualms about it being a suitable book. Khushwant Singh's 'Journey to Pakistan' is frank and brutal. The older students who read it were shaken but I had let them borrow it after talking to them about what they would encounter.
In an open library, how do you keep some of these books away from younger readers who may be able to read and even comprehend the words but not much else? T.S. Eliot describes it well, '…had the experience, but missed the meaning.' One approach I have found that works, is to have frequent chats with the children about interesting and appropriate reading. I also try to keep them challenged and happy with excellent books written at their level and with issues pertinent to them, pointing out that a wealth of literature awaits them, which they will doubly appreciate in just a little while from now.
How do you deal with the best-seller syndrome? We have generally responded by bringing up such issues for discussion in the library periods and letting the children speak and listen to themselves. When the last Harry Potter book was to be released at the witching (!) hour, we encouraged children to give us their take on Harry Potter-mania. You could hear discussions over lunch, in the bus and in the library. All of them were thoughtful and unencumbered by the euphoria accompanying the books. Umang felt that some authors write because they have something they want to say while others write to an already fixed readership and cater to their desires! He placed Rowling in the latter category. For ten year old Shruthi, the books were not as appealing as the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, where children lived in a familiar world but were transported for a while into a magical one, from which they returned and found they hadn't missed any part of their own lives! So while all these readers found the Harry Potter books reasonably enjoyable, they could think of many other books they found far more riveting.
For older students, Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci code' might have been a big draw. Surprisingly, only one had read it fully and was persuaded to present a book-talk on it. I sat back to listen. After the initial presentation, questions came at him from the others. Had any of the major characters grown at all during the novel? Was the author relying too much on violence to hold the reader's attention? Did the narrative jump too fast for the reader to stay connected? Did the language and style of writing make you feel you wish you could write like that? It was quite a discussion and would surely have made Dan Brown think a little.
One thing I do ask students is to be aware and observant about their own reading interests. They see that some books they want to keep and read over and over. Others are boring when read again. They realise how easily they can find a John Grisham or a Tom Clancy at the pavement shop but have to look much harder to find a genuine treasure. They are very responsive to such clues about what makes a book a classic, an award winner or a best-seller.
One of my biggest questions is about reading in other languages. Why is it so abysmally different? Being in a milieu where English is the chosen language for almost all the academic subjects, for daily interaction and for newspaper reading, there is only so much one can do to bring about the same facility and depth of reading in other languages. This is the sad reality. Even in a small school like ours, where enormous energy and creativity is poured into the teaching of Indian languages and there is genuine appreciation and enjoyment of plays, poems and songs in Hindi and Kannada, it has still not resulted in large numbers of children reading in these languages for pleasure! In the few cases where this happens, parents play a crucial role or the child comes from a strong foundation in one or more of these languages. Our teachers read out classic short stories, encourage children to read and express their response and do projects on authors. Often they bring the children to the library to help select books for them. Nevertheless, the reading is rarely sustained. We tried to shelve storybooks in all three languages together, author-wise. While this had a novelty value, it too did not make a great impact. While buying books, a conscious effort was made to buy interesting books only in one of the two vernaculars so that the book would be new. But, as our language teachers say, the students' facility with the language is not of a high order and so the interest wanes. I wonder what the scenario is in other schools where English is not so all pervading and the librarian has a strong base in one or more Indian languages.
To conclude, we may say with assurance that children from a young age, through adolescence, and on to young adulthood, can and do read a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction provided there is good support, encouragement and guidance from parents, teachers and librarians. The fear of the electronic media taking over completely from books appears unfounded. While many children prefer getting information and doing reference online, they are not yet reading books in that format.
The recent entry of intelligent, thought-provoking material for young teenagers is another welcome sign. The fact that many regional language classics have now been translated into English makes them accessible to those who are not familiar with other languages.
The content of the stories is also more layered. Qualities like understanding, compassion, and psychological resilience are the new badges of courage. The characters in these books are not sugary sweet Pollyannas, but ones who may meet adversity initially with fear and uncertainty, and then recoup and fight back.
Being responsible for and related to our children, we can help them explore a wide diversity of books. Let their responses (and ours too), meaningful, enriching and enjoyable as they are, be our guide.
Usha Mukunda completed a B.A. in English Literature from Kolkata in 1962. Later she completed her postgraduate degree in Library Science from Bangalore. She worked as a librarian at The Valley School, KFI and has been at Centre For Learning, Bangalore for sixteen years. She is deeply committed to education and the open library approach. She has greatly enjoyed interacting with children and young adults in activities, discussions and projects involving books, reading and library use.