This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with GurgaonMoms about her latest book, ‘The Hungry Little Sky Monster’ and how to inspire the love of reading in children.
‘The Hungry Little Sky Monster’ was inspired by my first grandson, Tanush. Many toddlers all over the world ask their parents about the moon and why it waxes and wanes. So I wanted to create a little fable for him and other children, especially in India, about the changing phases of the moon. It’s a book that allows parents to guide their children about the science of it, but it begins with a fantasy to draw children’s attention first. I contacted Chiki Sarkar about wanting to do this book with Juggernaut, and she was keen on doing a children’s line as well. So we got a marvelous illustrator on board and the result is a book that I hope toddlers will enjoy.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to spend my childhood between the pages of books. We used to go down to a little library called Kamal Circulating Book House and pick up whatever books we wanted, just for a few paisa. There was no internet, no computers, no mobile phones, and hardly any TV back then, so books were our main source of entertainment and enjoyment. I really wanted to democratise that joy that I had growing up, for the rest of India. I realised while I was working with the Pratham network that we had created lots of readers, but they didn’t have enough books to read. In India, we still have very few books for our 300 million children. A lot has changed over the last 15 years though, and many publishers are putting out books in a variety of languages. But back then, we set up Pratham Books to bridge this gap and put a book in every child’s hand.
Of course, things have also changed for parents nowadays. It’s especially difficult to be a parent in this digital age, when there are screens all around children, vying for their attention. We’re seeing the consequences of this, with the attention deficit syndrome that’s on the rise. I think parents shouldn’t be hard on themselves or anxious about what to do. Instead of trying to stop all the screens in a child’s life, it may be more effective to take a little extra effort to introduce physical books at a very early age in children’s lives. But even if your child is older, it’s never too late to get them reading. Research by the Literacy Trust, UK, shows that once you set a foundational habit of reading physical books, later on a mix of physical and digital is fine.
We should also encourage children to expand their horizons and explore different genres, but not in a way that seems like an imposition. For example, if I read something and told my children to read it, they will either refuse to or will say they hated it even if they didn’t. Instead, parents can leave books lying around somewhere prominently and see if it piques their interest. A parent’s job is to present diversity and introduce different areas that will open children’s minds. Some might be interested in space, others may want to learn more about oceans – whatever the case, it’s our job to gently lead them. Books can be a great way to do that, so that they can discover new and interesting things for themselves. We can’t dictate what our children read and they don’t have to read all genres at once. With books, parents can offer the ability to read fluently and decode meaning. The rest should be left up to children, to discover for themselves. It’s often counterproductive for parents to try and force their children to get interested in a certain subject or read certain books because it’ll only result in them rebelling.
There’s the flip side of this, where children get too involved in books and ignore social interaction. I was guilty of this as a child – I would begrudgingly do my chores and carry around the book I was reading as if my mother had mistreated me by telling me to stop reading for a while. Again, I think that if parents are too strict there’s a chance that children will be more stubborn and rebel, but books also shouldn’t come in the way of social interaction. Reading while eating is one of the biggest joys so I understand how children feel, and maybe that can become a treat on occasions rather than an everyday allowance.
Many parents aren’t readers themselves, but recognising that you want your child to be a reader is one of the biggest gifts you can give them. I would suggest introducing some age-appropriate books and read them yourself – even if you’re not a reader, you can read children’s books quite easily. It really helps children, especially young children, to see their parents engaging with stories and having conversations around the book. Your child will soon figure out what they like and don’t like, but keep a variety of books for them to choose from. It’s never too late to become a reader, even a reader of children’s books so parents should feel no guilt about not being readers themselves.
Being a reader who is exposed to literature at an early age can improve children’s prospects later in life. And research shows that even if your child is not an early reader or doesn’t enjoy reading growing up, there is still time for them to become one in their teens. Studies into the neuroplasticity of the brain shows that the brain can readjust itself and learn to do new things for a surprisingly long period of time, and teenage years fall within the age when there is still hyperplasticity in the brain. So there’s no need to despair if children aren’t keen on reading to begin with. They will be most swayed by their peers, so parents encourage being friends with other young readers or find a series or story that is really irresistible to the child. Either way, it’s important to remember that it’s never too late for anyone to become a reader.
In India, most of the books sold are written in English, some in Hindi. But we have hundreds of other languages and 150 million children in this country who know how to read in a regional language. They deserve wonderful books that they can afford to buy and are accessible. Through Pratham Books, we started that process and many other publishers also joined in. Today on Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver you can find books on Indian culture and art, absolutely free of cost and in up to 200 languages. So these rich resources are there for parents and children to enjoy. There’s a lot more scope as well, for Indian writers to write books for teenagers and young adults. And children are in need of great stories and good books. Through all my experiences at Pratham, Akshara Foundation, and EkStep, I met many children and wherever I would go, I’d carry books to distribute to them. Outside the forests, in the buffer zones, there are a lot of young children who don’t have any access to books or libraries so I always bring them books and sit with them, having conversations about the stories. Their questions and curiosity really inspire me to write.
We are a nation of storytellers. Stories have been passed from generation to generation, through an oral tradition. We have been telling the stories of the epics and of the history of the subcontinent to our children. Although text is very important in the 21st century, oral storytelling compliments the skills we need to develop to be lifelong learners. Listening has become such an important tool. Today, the world is so polarised and people don’t talk to each other across the divides of caste, community, politics, geography, etc. We have to break down these polarisations, and in order to do that, we have to be able to listen. We must develop this skill in the next generation as well, and what better way to listen than to listen to stories told by somebody whom you love at home? My grandmother was a marvelous storyteller – she used to tell us stories of Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, and all the Bhakti Saints of Maharashtra. She used to make us weep every day, it was such a marvelous experience. It taught us empathy, how to listen, and it helped us to build a sense of the world. So start telling stories – you’re never too old to listen and never too young to tell a story.