Picture this. Children flitting about like butterflies from one storytelling venue to another. Organisers and young volunteers scurrying about, escorting authors and artists for their sessions, making sure everything is happening as scheduled. The atmosphere is electrifying, yet there is an unusual serenity in being at a literature festival, being around books and people who love books.
Then, there is this quaint, hard-to-miss book store in a prominent corner of the venue. Like the holiest sanctum inside a temple, stacked beautifully with amazing books; a constant flurry of parents and children going in and out of it.
One of the things I love doing at literature festivals is snooping around this in-house book store, observing the buying patterns of parents and children.
At one particular literature festival last year, just after a session, I took a quiet walk inside the store. I picked books by other fabulous authors whose works I deeply admire and, every now and then, I popped my head out of the book to look around.
On one instance, I saw this boy, about five to six years old, pick three of my books. I gloated with joy. If you were watching me, you’d even say I blushed.
“Mummy, I want these books!”
“Hain? Show me!”
She casually flipped through my books like people glance through magazines while waiting at the doctors’.
“Ismein kya hai? Kuchh bhi toh nahin! (What’s there in it? Absolutely nothing!)” she replied. She then took the books from his hands and just plopped them on another author’s pile of books. My heart broke. Not only because she said insensitive things about my books or treated them offhandedly. But I felt terribly sorry for that little boy who wanted to read the books he had selected.
It wasn’t over, though. He quickly picked my books again and followed his mother to the check-out counter where she was buying other books, hopeful that she would concede. “I only want these books. Not the ones in your hand,” he insisted, as he stared into his mother’s cold eyes.
“You don’t even know which books are good for you. You are still small. You will like the ones I’m buying. Promise!” replied his mother, as she tucked the new books into her bag after paying.
The triumphant mom and the sad child walked out of the store with books the mother wanted him to read and ones that the child, in all likelihood, would never pick up. It made me think of the many other children like him who are made to read only books that the parents pick for them.
Reading is not something that comes naturally to anyone at any age. It is a habit that needs nurturing. Like a sapling that flourishes only in the right environmental conditions, imposing books on children that they don’t necessarily want to read is akin to putting an indoor plant in bright sunlight or vice versa. The child probably needs and wants to read something else.
There are many reasons children are drawn to a certain book. They may love the pretty illustrations or a character or have found the title and blurb intriguing or they may have even seen a few friends reading it.
Children deserve the opportunity to explore their curiosity further. Let them decide what book to pick. It could be fiction or non-fiction. Realistic stories or fantasy. Picture books or novels. Comics or DIY books. Allow them to decide what they want to buy at bookstores, what they want to borrow from their libraries. They will not only read them, but re-read them a few times, read similar books by different authors, and develop a keen interest for a certain genre.
My older son attempted Harry Potter twice; he cried every time he went past the first two chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone. He was seven-and-a-half then. I saw him put the book away and asked him what bothered him. He said he could not bear how Harry was treated by his uncle and aunt. Okay, so my son was sensitive and not ready for it at all. That’s absolutely fine. I didn’t question him further or prod him to read it because every other child his age was reading Harry Potter.
For the next six months, he only read Tinkle. Again, I never questioned him as to why he didn’t pick novels like he used to. After he turned eight, he picked Harry Potter again. All on his own. He’s 10 and has read each and every book in the series three times over and counting.
He conquered his fears on his own. He developed a love for the fantasy genre and has since read many other fantasy series, too. Recently, he has been obsessed with Tintin, and Asterix and other comic series. He even creates his own comic strips! My little one, who is about to turn five, loves a good laugh when we read at bed time. He picks his books from the bookshelf, and, sometimes, he reads them all by himself, guffawing away.
As parents, our job is to guide our children — take them to libraries, book stores, educate them about new authors and different genres, expose them to classics and new releases. But it’s their choice whether or not they want to read them. And that’s how it should always be. They should not be reading something only because it’s a popular must-read or because we have read them as children and so should they.
That’s how readers are born — not from the womb, not from imposed choices, but by cosying up in libraries and around bookshelves, reading books that bring them joy. At the end of the day, what matters is that they are reading something rather than reading nothing at all.