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'Could you do me a favour? Could you include a book on listening to parents' instructions? My daughter just doesn't listen.'
'No. I tell stories. You be the parent.'
Conversations sometimes do end that curtly. It can't be helped. I narrate stories to children for fun. Yet, a sizeable number of enquiries are about the type of books I will use, expected improvement of the child's vocabulary, whether the child would start speaking in fluent English or not, and whether value education would happen or not. Basically, a big chunk of parents want to transform the child into a pious soul, and dramatically improve their IQ thereby brightening the chances of getting into the top Engineering or Medical College. All of that should be achieved through a book read with them. I being a witch choose absurd books ranging from wordless picture books, to nonsense poetry.
There are some myths that need to be busted. Correction, there are some myths that are regularly busted, yet here I am, crying my throat hoarse over them all over again:
1. The moral of the story is?
Nothing. Zilch. Moral lessons are best learnt by example. Why drag books into it? Ask any bookseller and they'd burst into tears if they were to recount each instance of a parent coming in and asking for books with lessons. Bottom line: Books without life altering messages are just as engrossing, fun, and worthy of being loved.
2. The cover is pink. It is a girl's book.
Okay, I hate sparkly covers. Nevertheless, the presence of fluffy bunnies, princesses or any such so called 'girlie' things doesn't determine the gender of book. Neither does a zombie picture on the cover make the book a boy. There once was a book store assistant who smirked at my older one's choice and said, 'Arrey, that is a girl's book. Why don't you try this?' She shoved a Hardy Boys in his hands. I gave her an unwelcome piece of my mind, and we never went back to that store. Books know no gender. Period.
3. Thou shalt pick according to your age.
My nearly fourteen-year-old boy loves picture books. The younger one's eyes get wider every time he leafs through the wordless picture books. And I usually steal all their books when the courier guy delivers them. 'Age is just a number,' my older had remarked once. 'And books are too big to be bound by numbers.' In our anxiousness to get them to read books appropriate for their age, we put too many conditions and ultimately extinguish the reading spirit inside. Just as we enjoy all sorts of desserts from ice-lollies to gourmet French pastries, each book too has its own flavour. It would be boring to eat just one kind of food every day. Let them choose, irrespective of what the bookshelf label at the shop says.
4. Reading fiction is useless
Back in school, I had once won our team the class quiz competition. The question that clinched it was, 'Where was the first light house built?'
'Pharos, Alexandria, Egypt.' came the reply. Source: Asterix and Cleopatra
I admit, that it was probably not the best or the most authentic source. Yet we won. The point is that reading fiction, apart from being the immeasurable fun it is, provides an excellent opportunity to get curious, learn entirely random facts, and phenomenally increase vocabulary, in addition to a fairly long list of other good stuff. The younger one had made a sentence with the word smithereens used in it back in third grade. He came back with a smug grin and said, 'I had to explain the meaning of the word to the entire class.' Hence proved, fiction is phenomenally useful.
5. So Expensive! Not worth it.
I admit. Some of them do seem exorbitant. But the longer they stay in the shopping cart, the cheaper they seem and ultimately end up on our bookshelf. They are worth every Rupee spent on them. The boys mostly finish a book in a day or two. But then, they re-read, exchange with each other, and re-read again a year later. From ridiculously expensive picture books to astronomically priced pop-up books - we save up for them all. Don't let the price get in the way of the wonder in their eyes. If you can afford it, feel lucky, and splurge on books.
6. The world is flat, with Roald Dahl at one end and Enid Blyton at the other. Oh and there is Ruskin Bond somewhere in the middle.
Do not get me wrong here. I love these authors. But there is a whole, well- rounded world outside those names! From wonderful Indian authors, to fabulous translations - there is a whole lot to choose from. Explore. Experiment. You cannot go terribly wrong with that.
7. The ship has sailed.
'My child just never took to reading. It is too late now.' That is another frequent one I hear. Here's a little story. Once there was a boy who never really read much beyond a comic here and there while growing up. He grew older, got married to the most awesome woman there is, and became a father to two bookworms. He made it amply clear over the years that books and he belonged to parallel worlds that are not connected by wormholes. One fine day he came back with a book since he was stranded at the airport with nothing better to do. Today his shelf fills up quicker than the woman's. The ship never sails, it just waits for the right wind to carry it forth.
8. With too much burden at school, they have no time to read.
That is again a myth. It is at best an excuse offered by non-readers or parents who focus a little too much on academics. The boys' are bang in the middle of final exams and yet they can be found reading their non-academic, entirely fictitious books during breaks. The breaks are sometime longer than intended. Oh, and so far they have been getting straight A's.
9. Graphic novels? That surely doesn't count as a worthy read!
From the classics to contemporary fictions, from picture books to graphic novel, every book counts. There are no extra brownie points earned for reading a particular genre. Neither do you fall in the eyes of the reading world if you let the child pick a comic.
10. The protagonist sets a bad example for my child
Children are not stupid. If they haven't worn a cape and set out to rescue the world, chances are they will read everything else in context and leave it there, tucked inside the pages. All that is required is an honest discussion trying to understand the choice of words/characters for the book. The younger one had remarked on reading a particular book, 'There are some curse words in there.'
My eyebrows shot up. He grinned and said, 'I am not that silly, Amma! I know the words were needed to build that character and are not to be used. Jeez!'
Books and children go very well together when left to their own devices. Yes academics, sports, and the dance class that the child goes to, are all important, but a few pages can easily be squeezed in during the day or when they are tucked in. So, let go off all the apprehension and let them swim in the world of stories, and find their favourite books to sail with. Let them find their book. Let them read as they please.
The younger one just walked in stretching his arms after an hour of studying. 'I want the exams to get over quick and then I'll go on my dream vacation.'
'A quiet cottage in the mountains, with smell of pine trees enveloping me, a mug of hot chocolate, and a pile of books.'
I smiled back. The child who vacations with books is going to be okay, a tiny voice tells me.