Is your child reading?

When I was a child, TV barely existed, and our main entertainment was reading. We were encouraged to go to the public library, encouraged to select our own books, and only rarely did a watchful teacher or parent say, “You are too young for this book.” Our public library arranged its books so that you could only reach the books deemed suitable for your age. At a not-very-tall nine years I had abandoned Enid Blyton for ‘Jane Eyre’, along with ‘Little Women’ and ‘Black Beauty’: At twelve I made the transition to Nevil Shute with hardly a blink.

In India my children also grew up with little or no TV. They read my battered collection of best-loved books, and later, the lending library’s selections of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Biggles, and the like. I wanted them to read Indian authors as well, but the only books available were dreadfully moral and badly produced. A whole generation grew up on western literature, simply because it was so much better than Indian publications.

We must briefly look at western literature for children to see what was – and still is - so appealing. Enid Blyton hid her moral tone in an attractive coat: her books were well written, profusely illustrated, and they were about children - courageous children, adventurous children, children who had to live in boarding schools, often quite naughty children - and they made their own decisions about good and bad. Adults were kept firmly in the background: children were the main characters. The issues of good and bad – was it right to steal? should one tell lies? what happened to those who transgressed? – were unequivocally laid out.

Arthur Ransome’s books about the Swallows and Amazons, children who camped alone and sailed their boats without an adult in tow were the natural follow-on to the Famous Five. Was the absence of a restraining adult the reason why millions of children vicariously enjoyed adventures they could not hope to emulate?

The point about all these stories was that they were realistic: the child-characters behaved as one would expect; a child could relate to them. From C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books we moved effortlessly to James Herriot and Gerald Durrell, to Rumer Godden’s ‘The River’, a story about a little girl who wanted to be a writer. Mary Norton’s Borrowers, little people who borrowed what they needed from the Big People, prepared us for Tolkien’s hobbits – but we were already primed by a rich store of fairytales and fables from all over Europe.
Children all over the world delighted in Roald Dahl’s stories, filled with magic, the visible adults either wicked, to be vanquished like dragons, or childlike, as in the Willy Wonka books. Roald Dahl’s quirky illustrations are enchanting and fit the stories perfectly. It is not surprising that two generations later these books are still enjoyed by children all over the world.

There seems to be a mindset here: parents wishing to ensure that their children are thoroughly inculcated with the right culture are the biggest market for ‘Indian’ children’s books at present. They tend to buy what they feel the child ‘should’ read, rather than what he would like to read. And what they buy fuels the publisher’s tendency to play safe.
Since children’s literature is seen as being unimportant, very little money is invested in innovation or quality production, and even less in promotion. Investment in publishing is expensive, so most publishers tend to be conservative, sticking to a profitable formula rather than experiment and risk failure. And this is the crux of the problem, which may be resolved by the influx of foreign publishers such as Scholastic, Disney and Dorling Kindersley. Their presence will perforce improve the quality of production and design, and answer some questions, such as, should writing for children reflect India’s cultural diversity? Must it ALWAYS inculcate moral values? Can Indian writing for children have an identity of its own?

Publishing houses such as Penguin India and Harper Collins (India) are now concentrating more on children’s books. Rupa too has updated its ideas, and has come out with books written for teens. Equally welcome is the emergence of small publishing houses such as Tulika, who have departed from the telling of grandmother’s tales and are publishing books with contemporary themes, such as the story of a boy who goes to Calcutta alone and decides to look for his estranged father. (Just A Train Ride Away, by Kavita Mandana). I would hardly call this a ‘western’ theme. Divorce and separation happen in India too. Why are we so squeamish about a child’s fears and worries, about teenage romance, about divorce? If they are addressed in story form (without being preachy or judgmental) it might help many children to come to terms with their problems.

Today I visited a local bookshop. The ratio of Indian authors to Western was approximately one to thirty. I selected books that looked interesting, in all, about twenty-five, and discarded most of them as being preachy, boringly didactic, or likely to fall apart. The books I bought for my grandsons, aged nine and seven, were Mulla Nasruddin by Sampurna Chattarji ((Puffin), which I suspect I will enjoy as much as the boys; Babarsingh And His Friends, by Srilal Shukla (Scholastic); and Living Next Door to Alise, by Anita Nair (Puffin). I was pleased to see that Satyajit Ray’s series, Adventures of Feluda, was available in several titles; they occupy the same niche as Biggles and Nancy Drew books. With Ruskin Bond as the original trail-blazer, some excellent writers such as Kalpana Swaminathan and Randhir Khare, whose stories for children cross all borders with their delightful fantasy, have now come into the market.

Are children reading these days? Yes, I think they are, and reading for pleasure – but they are still not reading many Indian authors. We may not approve of the Harry Potter books, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, because they are not Indian, but they appeal to children because they are exciting, they do not preach, they do not teach, and they are attractively presented. If in this age of TV and DVD we want our children to enjoy reading, we must make it attractive, and we must make it relevant. Now that Harry Potter has taken us by storm, Indian literature for children will have include some fantasy and some contemporary issues too, along with the more traditional literature. Then you may see your child reading, oblivious of the TV blaring in the corner.

by Jane Bhandari