Yes,they read. Despite the distractions of a multimedia world,children in India’s cities are finding the stories they want to curl up with. Don’t even think Harry Potter

Written by Amrita Dutta | Published: March 29, 2009 5:40 pm

Yes,they read. Despite the distractions of a multimedia world,children in India’s cities are finding the stories they want to curl up with. Don’t even think Harry Potter

She’s 13,shy and,unlike her heroine Bella,in no danger of falling in love with gorgeous vampires. But if you’ve walked around with haunted eyes after a day spent in the pages of Pride and Prejudice,daydreaming about Elizabeth Bingley and her amours,you’ll know that Sanchi too is a girl possessed. She has read the four books of the Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series that track the gothic love story between 17-year-old Bella and Edward Cullen,a vampire trying hard not to devour his beloved,thrice — locking herself into its world with the feverish abandon that only young readers bring to books. “She reads everywhere,all the time. Even at weddings,” mother Poonam exclaims in mock-exasperation at her home in south Delhi. “Bella is just like me,” says Sanchi. “She’s just another girl,not outstanding in anything. An average student,she’s quite shy too and loves reading. You could say we both moan there are no rewards for reading. Maybe the story is bizarre but though Edward is a vampire,the emotions could be about any other boy,” she says.

You would do better than think Sanchi is a member of a lost tribe of children who read books and not flashing tickers on their game consoles. A good number of parents,teachers,librarians,publishers and book-sellers in India’s major cities are revising their opinion of young ones as Pepsi-swilling Cartoon Network crazies who would not so much as drift near a book. Like Amitha Damodaran from Chennai,who is a little dazed by the decisiveness with which her seven-year-old Abhinaya shops for books. Or Manisha Gupta from Delhi,who tells us with an embarrassed chuckle how her daughter Anya,barely six,has begun to treat the neighbourhood bookshop like her library. “She is done reading two or three picture books by the time I have picked one,” says Gupta. Or Manisha Chaudhry,who tells us not to take her 14-year-old son Dhruv Gopinath,a Class IX student at a Delhi school,seriously when he says he doesn’t read a lot these days. “That just means he reads four books a month and not 20,as he did before,” she says.

Several of Dhruv’s peers are avid readers too,snapping up 250 pages of spy adventures in a matter of hours. His 11-year-old sister Pragya affirms,“In school,it’s cool to read.” Turns out that while we were wringing our hands over the fate of the written word,the multimedia brats had switched off the remote and began having fun with books. “If anything,children are much more aware than before. And when they find the kind of book they like,they keep coming back for more,” says Reena Khanna,senior school librarian at The Shri Ram School Aravali,Delhi. So,on long afternoons,youngsters still lounge on beds with a book in hand—perhaps with the iPod plugged in their ears and a Facebook page open on the computer—but drifting surely into unknown worlds on waves of words.

Evidence that a sizeable chunk of children in India’s metros were giving books a chance came in November last year at Bookaroo,the first national lit-fest for children held in Gurgaon and Delhi across two days. Three thousand children turned up each day,eager for stories and storytellers,for comic-making sessions and interactive storytelling,illustrations and verse-writing sessions. The organisers were more than a little stunned. Except perhaps Swati Roy. As owners of Eureka,Delhi’s only bookshop for the young that has a database of over 4,500 children buyers,Roy and M Venkatesh have been privy to the book-lust of little ones for six years now. “It’s quite a craze,believe me. Reading has become about keeping up,” she says. Visit the bright,inviting store in south Delhi on any afternoon and you will find young girls and boys from adjacent neighbourhoods walking in after school,with grandmas in tow,to browse and buy.

Eureka is a bookshop for new-age readers. Roy has all her buyers on a mailing list and sends out alerts to children or their parents whenever a new title is in the store or posts it on the shop’s Facebook page. If they aren’t Net-savvy,they surely have a cell phone and SMS alerts work equally well.
The rise in the number of young bookworms has been the result of sustained wooing by bookshops and schools—though it is a trend restricted to the middle- and upper middle-class in metros. Subhadra Sengupta,author of many children’s books,credits schools and parents with the change. “Schools organise book weeks once a year,where publishers set up stalls and sell books directly to children. They also invite authors like me to meet students. They make books exciting,fun.”

Hippocampus,a library for children in Bangalore,is an example of how books “can be marketed like ice-cream and not green vegetables.” At a sprawling 3,500 sq feet,with 1,400 titles,candy-coloured walls and inviting bean bags,it has an ambience that can melt the toughest little tyke. On any weekend,it hosts activities around reading — or events that can simply make the child linger. Eureka,too,built its clientele through regular book events (Roald Dahl Days or book-making sessions) and a complete grip on what,how and why children read. “Children will read if you combine access to good books with an experience they cannot forget,” says Umesh Malhotra,the owner of Hippocampus.

But an unlikely ally for all those involved in the business of peddling books has been a different kind of page—the Web. “Months before Brisinger,Christopher Paolini’s latest book released last year,I had children in my school asking for copies because they had read about its release in the US and UK markets,” says Khanna,Shri Ram School librarian. Malhotra has had tots walking up to him,quizzing him about the latest Brian Jacques novel that he should have stocked in his library. “Because of the demand,the time gap between a book’s international release and its availability in India has gone down,” says Venkatesh.

Because much of their life fits into the template of a screen —TV,computer,cinema,video game—reading for the multitasking generation also taps into other media. “If you have to get children to read,you have to compete with Cartoon Network,” says Malhotra. And if you can’t beat them,join them. So there are touch-and-feel books for toddlers who have not even begun reading,or books based on popular films like Madagascar and High School Musical or shows like Ben10 Alien Force,which serve as entry points into the world of books. “Many popular stories exist not just as books but as films,TV shows and games. The reading experience has a 70 mm feel to it,” says Malhotra.

Take The 39 Clues,the latest release of Scholastic,the international publishers of the Potter series. It follows the exploits of two orphans Amy and Dan Cahill. To promote the ten-part book,the publishers sent teenagers across the world on a Web treasure hunt that involved reading each book (only three are out),collecting the cards that come with it and play the game online. One of the winners is a teenager from Bhopal,13-year-old Parth Athley,who has won a cool $200. A computer and book buff,Parth does not have many children’s bookshops in his city but the Internet is his window to a whole new planet.

If you still think they are the Enid Blyton generation,we suggest you journey out of literary Dark Ages. Though Blyton is still read by little children,her characters,written as far back as the 1940s or 1950s,are being replaced by younger,more contemporary ones. “There has been a flood of new promising authors over the last few years. From fantasy to simple teen love stories,the books cover a wide range of experiences and genres,” says Sujata Sen,director,British Council Library,east India.

One look at their bookshelves and you’ll know these are readers of a flat world. Dhruv is quite taken by Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series—the adventures of a supercool 16-year-old Mi5 agent,a young James Bond with lethal gizmos that makes Famous Five seem just what they are—so last century. Meyer,a Mormon mom of three who lives in Arizona,is not the only name staring out of Sanchi’s bookshelf; there is Horowitz and Ann Brashares,Eva Ibbotson and Roald Dahl. You bet you will have a tough time carrying on a literary conversation. “In comparison with these books,the world of Enid Blytons seem tranquil,more innocent,” she says.

But even a teen James Bond is a muggle and has to lose out to fast-paced tales of fantasy and magic,which has the most loyal readership. The Artemis Fowl series about a ruthless young criminal packs in big screen fun; its author Eoin Colfer called it “Die Hard with fairies”. As does Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle,about a teenage boy Eragon and his dragon Saphira. A fun way to hoard up on all the trivia about Greek myths is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series,which is about the adventures of a half-god,half-human boy. “Fantasy has always been a hit with children for the visual imagery,the larger-than-life action and pace,” says Sen. Little girls like princesses and there are many on offer—from the Rainbow Magic series and Charmseekers by Amy Tree to the Tiara Club series and Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries. While the previous generation graduated swiftly from Hardy Boys to classics,very few young adults have explored the world of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. So complete and absorbing is their imaginative world.

“But they are still reading stories about human possibility,about friendship and facing challenges together. Their heroes are flawed,full of doubt but promise,” says Khanna. That is to say,Sanchi and us,we are still on the same page.
(Inputs from Piyasree Dasgupta and Shalini Rai)

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