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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What I learned about fairy tales from my child

Our little family of three went to watch Disney’s new rendition of Cinderella at the cinemas last weekend. I was as excited as Re was. How would she be? How lovely would her blue gown be? What would her castle look like? How evil would her stepmother be? What would the prince be like? How would her carriage look? How will the lizard turn into the coachman? And the mice to horses? And the most important question: What would her glass slipper look like?

While Re and I were both riveted, my husband kept turning to him, squeezing his hand, wondering if the harshness of the stepmother and starkness of evil would be disconcerting. Re told him with an equanimity that only a child raised on fairy tales will have: “Wait, she will be sended away from the kingdom soon.”

The child was indeed the father of man in our case.

As a new mother, I often faced the anti-fairytale brigade. They are too black and white, they said. “They glorify concepts of good and evil. They are full of evil stepmothers and witches and fairies and make your child believe in the supernatural.” Another voice said that fairy tales give you the illusion of a happily ever after for everyone and life is not like that.

I paid no heed, and decided to listen to Albert Einstein who once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

In the earlier school that Re went to, I was cautioned: “Let him not read too many fairy tales.” It was too late, as we had read most of them in their various versions. While my friends were still arguing about gender fluidity on social media, Re and I were playing with wands, ball gowns, castles and of course, princesses. When people said I should be letting Re know that there was no real Santa Claus, I went and got ourself a real Christmas tree.

Children need fairy tales to make sense of the world. Because sometimes, fantasy can be a great way to reveal the larger truth. When there are no rules to be followed, the truth is often clearer. Like any other good story, a good fairy tale can provide a reference point to your child. It teaches us about hope, courage, hard work, justice. And above all, love and kindness, as Cinderella’s mother would say.

But even if broken down to its most simplistic form, fairy tales help the child’s imagination. And imagination is everything. A child who can imagine fairy wings and magic bean stalks is also capable of imagining other wondrous things. And what can be wrong with a little bit of color?

As adults, we forget to believe in our imaginary worlds. But there are still things in our subconscious that get awakened by fairy tales. They take us away from our everyday world, they free our minds to see the intangible with special clarity. They make us believe in magic. If we are afraid of magic, there is no hope for us as human beings.

Richard Dawkins, prominent atheist, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion had provoked a debate about the impact of fairy tales when speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival sometime last year. Among other things, Dawkins said that it was harmful to read fairy tales to children because it instilled a false belief in the supernatural. He has since denied the claims, adding on Twitter that fairy stories may “on balance” have a positive effect on children as they grow up by fostering critical thinking.

No matter how politically incorrect stories about evil stepmothers, damsels in distress, and cannibalistic old women may be, fairy tales are here to stay. And that’s a good thing, say the experts. “They work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do it in a safe, ‘once upon a time’ way,” says Maria Tatar, professor at Harvard College who writes about, and teaches classes on, fairy tales. “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives.”

Writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales are important to children’s development because the main characters – many of them children themselves – demonstrate pluck, and the ability to triumph over adversity in a world of giants and cruel adults.

The joy is when your child tells you that magic is not real, but still allows him and you the possibility of being enthralled by it.

It is possible to believe in magic, yet know that it is not real.

It is possible to know that bad things happen to bad people, but sometimes they can also happen to good people.

For every Snow White waiting to be kissed by her prince, there is a Pocahontas, who can kiss her Prince and let him go. For Re, they both are heroes, perhaps the latter a shade more than the former.

I don’t think children believe in absolute good and absolute evil. Re told me once, “If you were good, and then you became evil , you can become good again.”

Or this about Cinderella’s stepmother: “Well, she is not a mean person. She just does mean things sometimes.”

Or this about Pocahontas: “Sometimes, you can do true-love’s kiss, but you don’t have to marry!”

The beautiful thing is, until my child believes in fairy tales, I can believe in them too. And that perhaps is the greatest gift a child can give you. Because if your heart remembers that the impossible is possible, you will try it…and sometimes, it works.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 30th March, 2015)