Visiting schools to meet children is the No.1 perk of being a children’s author. Being borderline-obsessive about punctuality, I’m invariably early and find that a request to see the library is the most rewarding way of keeping out of everyone’s way till it’s time to meet the children.
Dipping into the bookshelves at these libraries yields many an unexpected treat. Oh my gosh, here’s a wonderful book that I thought was out of print–Mohini and the Demon, made more special because it was written by my first school principal, Shantha Rameswar Rao. Plenty of time to sit on that tiny blue chair and read it right away. I do☺ Heyyyy, I didn’t know this old title of mine was available in Kannada translation— pause for happy fist pump! Hmmm, now who bought Shobha De’s Starry Nights for the school library? Ahhh, safe to assume that no one has read it … yet… because it’s shelved under Science.
Libraries sometimes have a distinctive character that sets them apart from the rest of the school. A school with separate staircases for Boys and Girls amazes me with an eclectic collection of thoughtfully-chosen titles. A bright, inviting library is a wonderful oasis amidst the peeling walls and tattooed desks at another.
Then there are some libraries that make me feel that I’ve accidentally stepped into some surrealistic Dali-esque painting. I step from noisy corridor smack into the middle of a silent, airless space, (all the windows and ventilators are tightly closed) and I’m hemmed in by rows and rows and more rows of gleaming glass-fronted shelves filled with idlis, idlis and more idlis. Bookshelves full of idlis!
Here I need to backtrack a little to explain this particular nightmare. I fell into one kind of idli-trap when I became a parent!
I had just relocated to a very small town. This was the sort of place where the breakfast staple of bread n’ butter that I had grown up on was considered food meant strictly for invalids. The person who came to help me with the housework said she would rather go hungry, thank you, than eat bread! Loaves of sweet, yeasty bread were available only at one bakery in the entire town and a craving for butter, jam or cheese meant a 2-hour drive to the nearest city
So when it came to starting my first born on breakfast foods, I tumbled unthinkingly into the idli-trap. Idlis were quite nutritious and easy to make. When idlis were so convenient and cheap, why bother with providing a more varied menu? How bitter was the price I paid for this folly!
Months later, we were on holiday in a little hillside town of breathtaking loveliness. When we opened the windows in the room, the mist literally rolled in, giving me the idea for my book ‘Mrs Woolly’s Funny Sweaters’. But come breakfast time, and up went a cry for idlis. Alas, there were none to be had. Too cold for the batter to ferment, the cook at the Guest House told me mournfully. My child refused to try any food that wasn’t an idli!
Quite often, adults who buy books for children fall into a very similar idli-trap. Their motive — to provide nourishing, sustaining food (for the mind) – is creditable. What’s not so good is the quick-fix solution of making lazy choices. Like I did with the idlis.
The ‘idli books’ are usually the old ‘classics’, fables and folktales retold and reprinted cheaply. Many are remaindered copies that have been pushed cheaply into the Indian market. Not that these books are intrinsically bad. It’s just that there’s a certain stodgy, bland, lulling symmetry about them which could create a reluctance to try new tastes and textures in books. And when bookshelves at home and school are relentlessly stocked with ‘idlis’, there’s a more worrying problem. The child could gradually internalise a terrifying equation: reading = unappetising, ho-hum books = deadly boredom.
Books should ideally (and as far as is practical) be offered to children rather than chosen for them.
Offer a wide variety of books, letting children pick what they like. The wider the choices, the more daring a book-explorer your child will be. I’ve seen four-year-olds flipping through National Geographic magazines, completely entranced with the lush photographs. A teen I know found Nevil Shute’s 1950 novel A Town Like Alice the best discovery of her entire vacation. Older siblings happily read books chosen for the younger ones. Adding magazines, non-fiction titles and fact-fiction to the book menus is a good idea. Sci-fi, history, travel, sports, biography too. No predicting what will appeal.
When children choose a book, try not to be dismissive of their choices. So often, I’ve been standing in the check-out line at a bookstore when a child comes running happily to the parent with something they’ve chosen. Only to be told, “You’re too old for this!” or “I said choose a good book! Not a comic!” Perhaps, offering suggestions at an earlier stage in the book choosing would have been a better option?
Besides, isn’t a book that fulfils the special and unique need of a particular moment, a ‘good’ book? Surely, a tense wait at the dentist requires a different kind of book from the one we take on a train journey. Or the book we turn to on a long rainy afternoon.
Even today, I find the best way to relax after a tiring day, is to climb into bed with a recipe book to read and a single square of chocolate to savour. How I would hate it if someone yanked my comfort-book away and exhorted me to read a ‘good’ book instead.
That’s basically what we do when we scorn the mystery and fantasy books, the ghost stories, football facts and wrestling trivia books. When we remove the comics, the Knock-knock joke books, the books featuring burps and gross humour, from the bookshelves and replace them with idlis instead.
Footnote: Asha Nehemiah is an idli-junkie who loves idlis on her plate. Just not on bookshelves.