Reading aloud and why it must never end

Long before I had a baby, long before I was even in the reckoning for it, I had developed an appetite for children’s books. Perhaps it had to do with my diminishing attention span or inability to focus those days. I would read them aloud, imagine someone reading them aloud to me, buy myself a copy, and buy extra copies and gift them to friends who were having babies when babies are meant to be had. I remember buying The Caterpillar who grew a Mustache for my friend Rashna’s daughter Shibumi and relishing it so much, I didn’t want to give it away.  Needless to say, I was everyone’s favorite aunt, but the whole process created a whole new world for me to live in, where things could be the way I wanted them to be.

I don’t remember too many books from my early childhood, and the earliest books I can remember were from the time I was seven or eight. This was because a large part of my early years was spent listening to stories told by my grandmother, rather than being read to. When I recently tried to put together a book of family stories for Scholastic, I realized I remember each and every story that my grandmother told me, (except one, which I have forgotten the twist to). It’s been nearly four decades, but such is the power of listening.

I began reading to Re quite early, even as I was nursing him. My friend Abira gifted him his first book – Karen Katz’s Where is Baby’s Belly Button?. It was a book he ate, read, played with and listened to, over and over. Reading aloud became our nighttime ritual and it seemed to soothe him and me equally. We moved on to Spot’s antics, Dr Seuss’s delightful journeys, Arthur’s strange neighbours, Pippi’s fascinating adventures, the colorful world of the Mudpuddle farm and many other books, unfolding many new worlds as we grew up. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg is one baby book we have been reading for five years, and there is still that magical moment when we spot Mother Hubbard in the cupboard. We have read aloud brochures and inflight magazines on planes, when a book was in the overhead compartment and clumsy to access; we have read aloud road signs and hoardings and bus shelters on bumpy rides that made reading difficult. We never tired of reading aloud.

Of course technology, the not-so-silent predator, was lurking around everywhere, sometimes in the next room, where his father consumed hundreds of hours of screen time, watching television or gaming. But I carried on, trying to dilute the effects with my nighttime ritual which lasted half hour to an hour, every single day, and still does.

Some days, his father would abandon his controller and join us, and just the fact that the three of us were huddled together, reading aloud, transporting ourselves, took us to a warm fuzzy place. It was like we had coalesced into the family we were meant to be.

I know it’s very easy for any child (even Re) to be completely usurped by technology. It is designed to do that. But as long as I stick my neck out and read to him every day, and as long as he knows that he cannot go to bed without hearing a story from his mamma or dadda or aunt or grandma, all will be well.

Spoon-feeding is easy, and there are just millions of ways of doing so and the iPad is just one. But allowing our children to create their own magical worlds exercising those imagination muscles is harder. It takes time, it takes work, but is oh-so-rewarding in the long run.

The husband, who has been wholly consumed by technology, wanted to do his bit and downloaded glitzy story books on the iPad (something he legitimized the buy of by saying, “it’s for story time”, much to my chagrin). Sure the iPad offers visual, interactive story-telling. But it can’t allow your child to paint the land of Carabas or hear him giggle when he touches his belly button or says “Rumpelsliltskin”. The iPad can’t answer why.

How long do you read aloud? Forever, if you ask me. Weaning a child off reading aloud time just because he can read is like weaning a child off breastfeeding just because he can eat solids. Even social media-infused, technology-deformed people and children come alive when they are read aloud to. At a recent storytelling event I attended at the Loft in Pune, which was packed to the gills, I realized how starved adults are of listening to stories unfold.

Of course the Internet is winning the books vs Internet war. Which only means we have to work harder on our children. Like Megan Cox Gurdon wrote recently in her article in the Wall Street Journal, “In an epoch in which screens of one sort or another have become ubiquitous, it is more vital than ever to read aloud often, and at length, for as long as children will stay to listen. Without sustained adult effort, many kids won’t bother going through the gateway at all.”

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 20th July, 2015)

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Rapunzel as told by a 4-year old

Once there was a mamma. She wanted to eat some cabbage. So she went and ate some cabbage in the bad lady’s garden. Then the bad lady got very angwy. She shouted at the dadda. “Why you ate my cabbage?” Dadda said, “Sorry, I did it by purposely. I will send Rapunzel to play with you.”

So Rapunzel went to the bad lady’s tower. The tower was bigger and bigger, but it had no doors. Ony one window for letdowning Rapunzel’s hair. One day Rapunzel was let downed her hair and a Pwince came. He climbed and climbed and reached her tower. Then he aksed her to come down and play with him. “Why don’t you come to my palace? I have somany horsis, somany cabbages, somany new dwesses and shoes and bangles!”

So Rapunzel said ok. “But I have to aks my lady,” she said. So she aksed the lady. But the lady got angwy. “No more letdowning your hair!” she said. And then she cutted her hair. Then Rapunzel cwied and cwied, and runned and runned. Then she reached the beach. And then she met the pwince and the horsi. And then the hair came back and she wore new dwesses.

Finish.

 

 

 

 

 

My first short story: The Lion who loved strawberry oatmeal

(So I wrote this for a friend’s child and boy, I have never been so nervous!)

Onceupatime, there was a Sheep called Purple. He had purple wool, because when he was a little baby, one day he went to play Holi with some children in his building.  He saw these big mounds of color that the children had heaped up to play color-color with, and he got really excited. He really liked the purple mountain, so he decided to roll in it. He did, and when he came out, he was all purple. When he went home that day, his mama said, “Go have a bath quickly, otherwise you will be purple for the rest of your life.” He said, “But I like being purple. Can I stay like this only?”

“Okay, if that’s you want. But people can be annoying, and they will keep asking you why you are purple. So you better watch out.”

And that is exactly what happened. Every time, Purple went out to play, or to eat grass and shrubs (which he did very often), all the goats, pigs, cows, horses, ducks and geese on the farm always asked him, “But why are you purple?” “Your mama and dada are both white. Isn’t that odd?”

One day, Purple got fed up of this constant questioning, so he decided to wander off to the jungle to make some new friends. By the time he reached the jungle, it was night time, and he was tired and hungry, so he found a nice warm cave and went and slept in it. In the morning he woke up, stretched himself nicely, and as was his habit, called out to his mom,

“Mommeeeee, I want to eat something. Can we have strawberry oatmeal?”

He didn’t see or hear his mommeee. Instead he heard a rather gruff voice.

“Grrrr… who is this mommeee who makes strawberry oatmeal?” the voice said. It was a LION!  A HUGE LION, WHOSE HAIR COVERED ALL OF HIS FACE AND EARS AND FOREHEAD AND ALMOST HIS EYES!

Purple was very scared, but he remembered what his mommee said. “Don’t be afraid of anyone, even if they are much bigger or louder than you. Be calm, and you will always be ok.”

“Oh, that’s my mommee in the farm, she makes the most yummy strawberry oatmeal. Slurp slurp…!”

“Really,?” said the Lion. “Can I also have some?”

“Yes, sure, I can take you home, my mommeee will make some for you.” Purple really liked Lion. What’s your name? I will have to tell her who’s coming.

“I am Punk,” said the Lion.

Purple really liked Punk. He was the only friend who didn’t ask him why he was purple. He was also big and strong and he could learn how to roar from him.

So Purple and Punk went to the farm, and Purple noticed how long Punk’s steps were, even though he was much bigger. “I must do some yoga, like my mommeee said, he thought. It will make my legs stronger.”

As they approached the farm, Purple saw that all his farm friends were nowhere in sight and he wondered why. He then called out to his mommee. “Mommmmeeeeee, where are you? Look I brought a friend for breakfast. He loves strawberry oatmeal too.”

His mommeee slowly came out from hiding, and walked up to him slowly, cautiously.

“Where have you been, Purple? We have been so worried.”

“Oh, just went for a walk mommeee, sorry I forgot to tell you. This is my friend, Punk, the Lion. Don’t you love his hair?”

His mommeee then took Purple aside and whispered to him, “Do you know who he is? He is a lion, and he eats animals like us. Why have you brought him here? See how you have scared the other farm animals away?”

Purple thought deeply. “But mamma, he is a good boy. He let me sleep in his cave, and we’ve been having such a good time. I am sure he will not harm us. Let me talk to him.”

So Purple went and had a little chat with Punk. “You see, my mommeee and friends are scared of you. They think you may eat them. So you will have to promise me you won’t do that. Else mommeee won’t make you any strawberry oatmeal.”

Punk laughed really loudly. It sounded scary and funny at the same time.

“Oh that…. I should have told you, I have turned fruitarian. Doctor’s advice. I have too much bad cholesterol,” he said.

Purple couldn’t believe his ears. “Really? That’s great!”

“And guess what, I really like fruits. I mean there are over 500 fruits in the jungle. So much variety! I was actually bored of eating the same old meat,” said Punk.

“Yay! High five,” said Purple.

Soon they both said down and shared a huge bowl of strawberry oatmeal. Punk said he had never had something so delicious. Purple was so happy.

 (Do you have a story to share? Mail me at mommygolightly@gmail.com and I will put it up here with due credit. I also promise to read it to Re!)