A child actually begins a relationship with reading before she can read! Sitting snuggled in a lap, gazing intently at the pictures and even the words perhaps, a child is soon able to recognise which part of the story is on which page. She even has favourite stories. There is a hazy awareness that apart from the pictures the words do have some role to play. Even at this young age, some stories have the power to hold their attention and they already have their favourite stories. Reading as a skill and reading as an art may overlap but are not discrete.
As adults can we acknowledge that we have agendas for reading in children, hidden or otherwise! We want a book to convey, reform, teach, enhance, widen and deepen a child’s knowledge base,bring in some learning about right conduct and morals and instill a life-long love for reading.But a child just reads and some books seem to linger in their consciousness . Against this background here are a few of my thoughts on good books and by inference, on not-so-good books!
- Can a story bring about awareness, empathy, understanding and even action when needed? Not just momentary enjoyment or pleasure though I am not at all decrying such stories where there is pure fun. Examples: Anju and the Stream, Chuskit goes to school,Dani Ped,Andaman’s Boy, Bhimayana,Faces in the water,Sadako and for the sheer fun aspect, The Spectacular Spectacle man, Kajari Gai series, Pehelwaan Ji, Appukuttan, Papa ki Mooch, Chai ke ketali.
- Can a story look at themes close up, in daily life, and far away? The two may overlap too. Examples: Where is Amma and Basava and the dots of fire.
- Can a story evoke reflection and have a lingering quality? Examples: What shape is an elephant? and The three questions by Jon Muth. Books by Michael Morpurgo.
- Are there books and stories that have the quality of read-again and are ‘keepers?’ Timeless books. All the books I have given as examples are of this quality.
- Story/content for me are very crucial. Is there a clear plot? Is there movement and is there a satisfactory completion for the young child Example: Where is Gola’s home? Mahagiri.
- The layout is more significant than we might imagine. Children tend to look ahead as they read or even listen. Often they look intently at the pictures and then go to the words. Example: The Why-Why girl is one. Pranav goes to school is another.
- Which brings us to the art work. Simple but not childish. A promise of unknown worlds and of fantastic imagination. But very detailed and realistic images work too. Examples: The shape of an elephant, I am a cat,The three kittens, Where is my cat? Sometimes there is a parallel illustration going on which children enjoy very much. It is like multi-accessing. E.g. the cat in Where is Amma? All the supporting characters in Where is my cat? Also a small detail which the child picks up of the next possible story. E.g. The Umbrella by Dieter Schubert. No words.
- Language: Children love to hear or enunciate interesting- sounding and ‘memorable’ words. Example: Malu Bhalu,Tiger on a tree,To market, to market,The Spectacular Spectacle man.
- Length: Not necessary to be too short. Even 3 and 4 year old children can listen and sustain interest in a 10 to 15 page story if it is in a state of movement.Example: The Golden Deer. But there are short stories which work beautifully too.Example: The Seed. Short but very satisfying and with no feeling of haste, it has a sense of completion and leisure.
- Bright colours, muted shades, black andwhite. No formula but that the choice is right for the story, the setting and the reader! Tough to put into words.Example: My first railway journey
- A story works immediately if the author is present. Example: Mukand and Riaz and No, David (Scholastic)
- A story works when the characters are such that the readers can relate to, but more interesting is the fact that children respond to the relationship a character has to another person, animal or thing in the story.The Festival of Eid, Basava, The seed, Danny,the champion of the world, Charlotte’s web, Grannie’s glasses. Angry River, Little big man, etc.
- A story where the character grows in learning is very valuable. He has experiences which lead to learnng about the outer world and about the inner world –within himself. Gola is a very good example. Also the turtle in Tyltyl’s adventure,Andaman’s boy.
- A story that pushes the readers into new landscapes is valuable but the quest to present new situations must be appropriateand relevant. Some preparation may be needed but this venture is needed against the backdrop of our multi-lingual, multi-class, multi-religion scenario as well as gender and sexuality. Example: Why are you afraid to hold my hand? Who am I?The lonely king and queen. Kali and the water snake, Mukand and Riaz,The Toda and the Tahr, Who will be Ningthou? The Armenian Champa Tree,Journey to Joburg by Beverly Naidoo.Bishnu, the Dhobi singer, Jim Corbett?
- Sometimes the main character may be of a particular age which leads us to suggest the book to the same age group.But what experiences are safe to expose them to? Caution must be used because it may be setting-appropriate only. E.g. Anveshi’s The named boy talks about forced conversions which the young protagonist is puzzled by, but the children who listened and read it were rather disturbed because it had many more ramifications globally and they were not ready for that.
Non-fiction covers a wide range of books including biographies, travel books, poetry, drama, nature books,craft and how-to books, as well as dictionaries, atlases and encyclopedias. So can we look at content for level, density, relevance, accuracy,ease in omprehension, and then also examine mode of presentation.
- Can non-fiction books convey information in different ways? For e.g. through a narration and photographs . Example: Eskimo Boy. Lai-Lai the baby elephant. Through pictures.Example: A visit to the city market. Through a story. Example:The story of zero, Panther Dream by Bob Weir and Wendy Weir.Through fun in an activity. Example: Arvind Gupta’s books, Mala Kumar’s books on Mathematics and on Paper play. Through a particular character. Through poetry.The Sun all golden and round.Through questions and answers.Example: Kitna Tandha? Kitna garam? Through a diary format. Example:T he Coral tree. Through maps. Through reminiscenses. E.g. Seasons of Splendour by Madhur Jaffrey.Through great lives. Example: The Puffin Lives. (Buddha, Dalai Lama,Guru Nanak, MotherTeresa)
- Is it possible to convey deep philosophical insights in a readable way? Example: Krishnamurti for the young. What is it to care?
- Can non-fiction books have a light touch and not have an overload of information? E.g. Demi’s biographies.
A few more examples of good books:
- Ulti-Sulti Meeto by Kamala Bhasin.
- The girl who hated books.
- The Little old woman. By Shanta Rameshwar Rao.
- Ancient bird legends of India. Orient Longman.
- My feet are the wheelchair.( BGVS.)
- Jahanaara. By Subhadra Sengupta.
- Panthers’ moon. By Ruskin Bond.
- The Man who planted trees.By Jean Giono
- Ponni the flower seller. By Sirish Rao.