This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s appearance on NDTV, talking about how to encourage children to read and her latest book, ‘The Hungry Little Sky Monster’, published by Juggernaut Books.
During this pandemic and the lockdown, parents have become increasingly worried about the amount of screen time that is good for their children. It’s an understandable concern, but one that research shows may be less worrisome if children are also exposed to physical books early enough. Parents can start reading to their children even when they are still in their mother’s womb, but I would suggest giving them their first book when they’re six months old. Once they cultivate and sustain their reading habit, it’s quite alright to allow them to use digital books as well.
When I co-founded Pratham Books, we focused a lot on early reading and early readers. Children are naturally drawn to colourful books, and holding a real book in your hand, feeling the pages and looking at the illustrations is not an experience you can easily beat with something on a screen. You just don’t get the same tactile experience, so physical books are critical for very young children. I also think that they would rather have a physical book that is well-produced with a good story, because it will definitely engage them more. I don’t think they will be able to tear themselves away from it, especially if a caring adult is around who is interested in that book and who is sharing that book experience with them. So it’s important to start early with physical books, because that is what gets little children hooked on reading.
Everyone from parents and grandparents to teachers and librarians, our whole Samaaj has a role to play in sustaining a reading habit in this nation. We need children to read more and we need parents to read with them, investing in good books and also gifting books forward so other children also have the opportunity to read. On the part of publishers, writers, and editors, we need to make sure that children have access to a diverse range of books because children have very different tastes. Some may prefer fiction over non-fiction, or certain genres over others. If you expose children to all kinds of books and be there for them as they first begin their journey with books, soon you’ll have the problem of wrenching them away from their books rather than their screens.