Books that teach nothing – can such a beast exist? Most Southasian minds, conditioned to see books as carriers of knowledge to be treated with solemnity and reverence, would boggle at the thought. But to see books merely as repositories of information and instruments of edification is to do them a grave injustice. Books are far more than that: they are a source of joy and excitement, they allow one to dream, to play and to cross over to other worlds. They are, to put it simply, fun. Try telling that to teachers or parents who regularly moan that television and computers have killed the reading habit. To an extent, this is true. But instead of complaining, we should perhaps ask ourselves why children see reading as a chore imposed upon them by teachers and ambitious parents.
Why is it that so many children in our region, certainly in India, tend to equate reading with studying? The clue lies in the wild success of three Western series of books – Harry Potter, Twilight and the wacky, yucky Goosebumps. The answer is simple: these books are fun to read, they do not try to push moral lessons or general knowledge down readers’ throats but just tell good yarns with dollops of humour and plenty of drama. In contrast, children’s books in India have always tended to be didactic, seeming to constantly feel the need to inform or ‘improve’ the child. Walk into the children’s section of any bookstore, and you will find that it is filled with three kinds of books. The first set consists of those that seek to inform – encyclopaedias, quiz books, non-fiction books on different subjects. The latter are sometimes written with a light hand, but more often than not in a sombre and undisguised attempt to edify the hapless child, already beleaguered by an information-heavy education system.
In the second category are rewritten versions of traditional and folk tales, including the Panchatantra, Jataka, mythology and the like. Such stories are perhaps important in these days when grandmothers have no time to tell tales (good for them!). The concern seems to be that without them, the urbanised, Cartoon Network-devouring children would not imbibe Indian Culture. Lagging far behind these old tales, but gamely panting along, in the third category, are the works of fiction by contemporary writers, with the gentle but prolific Ruskin Bond in the vanguard. The good news is that India now does have a number of authors writing fresh original stories: Paro Anand, Zai Whitaker, Siddhartha Sarma, Vandana Singh, Sampurna Chattarji, Asha Nehemiah, Manjula Padmanabhan, Samit Basu to name a few. The list is growing. These writers are putting out books set in modern times, with great stories and, often, great humour. But this is still a small number, and more are clearly needed.
Surrounded by worthy, educational books, will Southasian children ever want to read? If the choice is between a boringly edifying book and the park, any self-respecting child would very sensibly head to the park. If a book cannot provide the fun that playing in the park does, it deserves to remain unread. Unlike playing in the mud, reading is not something that comes naturally to a child, who needs to be shown that a book can be a source of joy. It is, after all, to feel that joy that we want our children to read. And yet, we do not really encourage our children to read at an early age. In France, four-year olds visit libraries with their parents, toddling along between bookshelves laden with brilliant and wacky picture books. Their relationship with the turning page begins through pictures, long before they can recognise the alphabet. On the other hand, parents in this region are never particularly happy buying picture books for their wards.
In the Indian worldview, at least, pictures are considered frivolous while words are sacrosanct, carrying knowledge and wisdom. Little surprise, then, that books are judged by the number of words they contain. One only has to consider the books of Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey to understand how ridiculous this mindset is. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was, for instance, a path-breaking picture book about a young boy who has been told he is a ‘wild thing’, and sent to bed without his supper. He then goes into a land where all the wild things are. Dark and scary, yet jubilant and joyful, the illustrations express better than any words could the dangerous exhilaration of being bad. Sendak’s new book, Mommy, is visually even scarier. The innocuously titled pop-up book is about a baby who, in search of its mother, wanders into a haunted house, and bumps into a variety of very frightening creatures. A masterpiece of illustration and paper engineering, the book will never become a bestseller in India because it has only one word in it: Mommy.
Even beyond India, adults have very rigid notions of the kind of books that are acceptable for children, especially smaller ones. Playful books are often frowned upon. Dr Seuss is probably one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors today, but his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by 27 publishers. It is the story of a boy who tells tall tales. Editors declined it on the grounds that it had no moral or message, and did not help in transforming children into good citizens. Even informative books can be made enjoyable with humour and absurdity. A Was Once an Apple Pie, Edward Lear’s funny, charming and nonsensical alphabet book, makes young readers squeal with delight. It also, as a sort of bonus, teaches them the alphabet.
Fortunately, Indian writers are today coming up with original and even outrageous stories. Take, for instance, Manjula Padmanabhan’s 2005 book Unprincess. In these days of political correctness, many people are sure to disapprove of the book. One of the stories, “Urmila the Ultimate”, is about a girl who is so ugly that nobody can bear to look at her. But her looks are an asset in the end, because the Defence Ministry uses Urmila as a “Weapon of Mass Horrification” and vanquishes the enemy with her deadly looks. So the book does appear to have a moral, though I am not quite sure what it is.
If we want our children to grow up with a love of reading, we have to give them books that they will want to read for no good reason – frivolous and funny books that neither inform nor improve, but just are. Let them see that reading can be joyful and adventurous. Let them have books that teach them nothing.
~ Anushka Ravishankar is a writer of plays and children’s books, based in Chennai.