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Reading between the lines

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THEY'RE LOVING IT Books are a great entertainment alternative
THEY'RE LOVING IT Books are a great entertainment alternative

This generation is losing out on the simple pleasure of thumbing through a well-worn book. SUBHA J RAO talks to writers and publishers on how to keep the reading habit alive

Try gifting a child a book for his birthday. If you're expecting a whoop of joy, chances are that you will be disappointed. Television, computer games and playstations have jointly ensured that books have been slotted as `boring'. After all, books can't fight, move or captivate children with a blitz of colours like computer games do. So, why read them at all? There's enough reason, says Meena, mother of three-year-old Adarsh. "My kid never knew what shapes were till he chanced upon the colourfully illustrated Barney's Shapes at a library. Then, there was no stopping him."This interactive book has helped many a child master shapes. In the last page, a child sees his reflection in the heart-shaped mirror and bursts into a giggle.

Interactive books

Writers and those in the printing industry feel that in an age when children prefer toys and gadgets to books, the only hope to keep the reading habit alive are books that hook them on from the word go.Says Latha, a writer: "It is very important for a child to look at a book with interest. He has to be entertained by an object and if a book can, by making squeaky noises, hold his interest, it does make a difference."It is also vital to get a child used to the feel of books, say teachers. Agrees Latha. "Initially, a book might be more of a toy, like a teddy bear; but that will change. A child has to look between two solid covers. After all, that is still where knowledge is."So, how does one go about introducing a child to the magical world of books? Says Sandhya Rao, children's writer and Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers: "Firstly, the library movement needs to be developed. We need librarians who love books and who will communicate that love to kids. Children must be allowed a free run of the library so that they can discover new things."Currently, very few libraries allow children to touch all books. "The best books are put away somewhere or locked up. People don't understand that a book is a living thing that has value," says Sandhya.

Reading to kids

How easy is it to get kids to read? "Even in the West, promoting reading is a major issue. But, for a very small child, a book is also a toy," adds Sandhya. "Kids will love what you read to them."That is something R. Nirupama's parents did. Rajan and Bharathi, her teacher-parents, introduced her to books long before she learnt the alphabet. It was not a conscious decision, but Bharathi would read to her for an hour every evening from a picture book while Nirupama would gurgle in response. Now, Nirupama, a Class V student at Suguna PIPS School, has graduated to Enid Blytons. Her incentive for reading a book? "The power to imagine. Every time I read Secret Seven or Famous Five, I am transported to their world."For now, children like Nirupama are an exception. The task ahead is to get more kids to fall in love with the written word. That, says Sandhya, is a long process. "You need to develop good reading material. There are very real things like competition and homework that you cannot wish away."But, she says that in the last 5-10 years, Indian children have seen more books being written for them. "There is a growing consciousness that children must read more and in a small but significant way, people understand the importance in reading in one's own language," says the writer of books like bestseller Ekki Dokki.That is something Umesh Malhotra of the Bangalore-based Hippocampus Experience Centre, a child-centric reading space, agrees with. "Global exposure has changed the way people look at reading. Educated parents think it is vital for children to read something other than text books," he says.

Making a commitment

Citing the case of a computer-loving kid who was converted into a book lover just due to peer influence, he says committed parents and friends did the trick. "Parents need to take a stand. If introducing a child to music is important, it is equally important to keep him away from television and playstations."Dr. Vish of Suguna PIPS School says that children feel emotionally secure when parents place them on their laps and read to them. "It helps kids understand much better. And, slowly, they cannot go to sleep without reading a book."And, reading does not mean bidding goodbye to other forms of entertainment. "It is just another new avenue for a kid to keep himself busy," says Umesh. Sandhya says it is important to take books to those with buying power and those without. In India, the market is cost-sensitive. The need of the hour? "Daring publishers who will create concepts, market and push them," says Umesh.

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