This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with KidsStopPress about her latest book, ‘The Hungry Little Sky Monster’ and her top tips to raise readers.
‘The Hungry Little Sky Monster’ is my 14th book for children, but it’s the first one I’ve published with Juggernaut and my first commercial book. It was inspired by my grandson – we used to always look at the moon together, so I wanted to create a new fable for little children about why the moon waxes and wanes. It was a great experience writing it and working with my marvelous editor and publisher, Chiki Sarkar. I hope that many children everywhere, especially in India, come to enjoy this story.
One of the best things you can do for your child is to get them reading early. A great time to start is when the mother is pregnant, so you could go to a bookstore and pick up many colourful story books while your child is in the womb and you’re relatively free. Then introduce books as early as possible. Many parents feel unsure about how to introduce their children to reading if they are not readers themselves, but I think taking the step of recognising the importance of reading for your child’s future is an achievement in itself. Parents can find good books and free resources like StoryWeaver, and encourage their children to begin their reading journey. But there’s no need to be anxious, this isn’t a performance test for parents. You won’t be able to have a joyful engagement reading with your child if you are anxious about it. Children also pick up reading at different stages. Some may not like reading to begin with but will suddenly catch up when they’re eight or nine, so there’s no need to put pressure on them. Reading is really about joy, it’s not an exam. So get a variety of books and help your child maintain the habit of reading, and encourage them to gift books forward to others as well.
Young parents today have a particularly difficult job this year, in parenting children and juggling screen time. Many parents are concerned about screen time but I would say that every generation has to deal with a new technology which seems daunting but it doesn’t have to be. We can place boundaries on how much screen time a child needs, but if you have already introduced your child to physical books, research shows that it doesn’t matter if they read on a screen to sustain their reading habit. Once they have learned how to read and have inculcated that curiosity in themselves, reading stories on screens is fine.
Reading as a child is also important because books really shape the person you grow up to become. I spent my childhood between the pages of books. They transported me to all kinds of adventures and I learned about life through books. There is so much research to show that even if a child is exposed to one book, compared to a child who has not been exposed to any books, just in that delta there’s a vocabulary difference of 300,000 words. So books give us the opportunity to expand our vocabulary and expand our understanding of the world. They help us make better choices by teaching us that life is not black and white. Books allow you to understand nuance, so you become a thinking adult when you grow up. So books are important, stories are very important, and letting your imagination fly is extraordinarily important for children to retain their curiosity and creativity later in life.
I used to read a lot of Enid Blyton because the children in her books seemed to have a lot of agency in their lives. They could do things like solve mysteries. So I think the idea of a child’s agency influenced me when I read those books. Questions about justice were embedded in me when I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I also remember reading a Hans Christian Andersen book called ‘The Little Match Girl’ when I was very young, and I cried for days because it was such a sad story. Something must have happened in my psyche because when I was 12, I went through a kind of spiritual phase and started memorising verses from the Bhagavad Gita thinking about philosophical questions, and that brought me to Tolkien. So many books influenced me growing up and I explored different genres as well.
The good news is that India now has a vast spectrum of amazing writers who are talented and write diverse stories in every kind of genre. So that is a marvellous thing for young readers today. But there’s also scope for so much more. When we set up Pratham Books in 2004, our aim was to have an impact on the children’s publishing industry as a whole, and today we’re seeing dramatic innovation, but I also wish publishers would be more innovative in their distribution networks. We need to find new ways to crack the distribution model, otherwise how are we going to improve access and price? If you improve distribution, more people will buy books, which means they can be produced at a cheaper price, reaching even more people – it’s a positive cycle. There are some wonderful examples in America, especially First Book USA, where they’ve created a platform where many publishers join in to give discounted books for impoverished children. So innovation is the need of the hour.
There are some things that I believe in giving in abundance and books is one of them. But at the same time, parents should remember that young children often like to go back to the same book again and again. So even if you give a child 50 books, don’t worry if out of those 50, he reads only two over and over, because that’s how they internalise things. Books must be in abundance as long as the child is finding joy in them. But if we have over-satiated desires in terms of material things, then we forget to explore. So now moms do really ingenious things like saying, “Okay, if you want the next toy, you have to give some old toys away, or we have to give some things back.” So make these trade-offs in a creative way, and sometimes children can help you find that creative balance themselves.
In terms of age groups, it’s okay to get books ahead of your child’s age. But parents should make sure that their child is able to read the text and decode it properly. After that, it shouldn’t matter what books you give them, because if you can read a paragraph fluently, you can decode increasingly complex stories. Once they are independent readers, they will be driving what they should read, and you should quickly get to that stage if you can. Luckily, there’s so much choice and diversity. Get bilingual books as well and expose your child to as many languages as possible because it’s a real advantage for the future. Audiobooks are also marvelous – we are a country of oral storytellers and your grandmother’s stories falling on your ear is complimentary to your reading journey. It creates an ecosystem that encourages a sustained reading life.