Waiting For My Child’s Robinson Crusoe MomentBloombergQuintOpinion
My mother-in-law, an 84-year-old whose favourite author is John Le Carre and who must read any new Jo Nesbo novel immediately, remembers the time her father walked into the house and saw his wife and children slumped motionless in various corners of the room, some heads propped up with pillows, all engrossed in their respective books. “Ganja peyun padlet sagle,” he observed. A den of cannabis addicts, he was saying in Marathi.
Our house overflows with tottering piles of books—on our bedside, enveloping an entire wall in the living room, by the television, in the kitchen, on small tables that carry more than their weight. In the digital age, we still spend a large portion of our earnings on physical books.
Growing up, my father took us to Woodlands restaurant every Sunday for an idly and aamras breakfast, then let us pick an Amar Chitra Katha comic for a princely sum of Rs 2. My mother overloaded me with beautifully-illustrated Soviet-era storybooks (yes these were a thing, see Anita Vachharajani’s blog), encyclopaedias, an illustrated children’s Bible, and a fat volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As a preteen, my aunt gave me unfettered access to her neighbourhood library, without worrying about whether the books I was borrowing were age-appropriate. I never stopped reading.
It was natural to recreate this privileged childhood book history for our daughter. We bought her a range of picture books, from Mahasweta Devi to Caldecott Medal winners; had prolonged, giggly bedtime reading sessions; took her with us when we went book shopping; experimented with genres; and, unknowingly, did everything the experts say you need to do to ensure your child is a reader.
So I started when I overheard my nearly 11-year-old casually telling someone, “I hate reading.”
If I’m being honest, I already knew this. We still read in bed but she barely spent any time reading by herself, rarely borrowed books from the school library, rejected all the classics my nieces had loved, opted to watch rather than read the Harry Potter series; refused often to even read instructions that came with an activity (though she can read beautifully); showed mild interest in non-fiction about the human excretory system and terrible joke books. When I asked her if she wanted to read this piece she replied, “Read it to me”.
Over the years, I intuitively tried all the ideas listed in various articles about this subject and more. Nothing worked. We even tried audio books. Boring. Of course, my daughter does have some favourites such as Tintin and Asterix comics, graphic novel author Raina Telgemeier and the annual National Geographic almanac.
But the girl who switches from wearing fitted tights to loose trousers in the blink of an eye because of the way her friend dresses, was unaffected by the growing love of reading around her. I eavesdropped on a WhatsApp conversation between her closest friends:
S: Hey Z, have you read Percy Jackson? Coz I finished Heroes of Olympus and the Percy Jackson series and I’m starting Trials of Apollo.
Z: Finished looooooooong back. LOVED IT SOOOOOOO MUCH. Best series eva! I started Trials of Apollo. But I didn't like it. But I liked Magnus Chase.
S: Ya it’s not as good as the Hoo or PJ series. Who's ur fav character in the seven? Mine’s Leo.
S: It’s kinda sad tho coz Piper n all dunno if Leo’s dead so I hope Leo meets them soon…
S: Favourite god? Mine’s Apollo.
Radio silence from my child, who believes that Percy Jackson, like most books, is “boring”. “Give me anything for my birthday except books,” my soon-to-be sixth-grader warned me recently.
Last month, ignoring the parental maxim of don’t punish children for not reading and don’t reward them for reading, I offered her 50 rupees for every book she read during the summer vacation. Her eyes lit up. “Fifty rupees? Are you sure,” she said. “Isn’t that too much?” She instantly picked up a book of short stories by Ruskin Bond, read three, then put it aside—and forgot about it.
These days I’m digging through Sudha Murty’s Grandma’s Bag of Stories because my daughter says it’s “way more interesting” than other books. Really?
Each story begins with an interaction between children and their ajji (grandmother) where they ask her important questions like, “If farmers do such important work, why are they so poor?” Ajji usually replies with a related story. ‘Kavery and the Thief’, my daughter’s favourite story in the book, is a tale about a smart, hardworking woman farmer and her lazy husband.
My child may not love reading, but she loves listening to stories. Her favourite kind are the ones her grandmothers tell her about her parents’ childhood. That’s probably why Murty’s books strike a chord.
Even as I look for answers in the rare book she likes, I know there’s nothing I can do except back off until she (hopefully) discovers the joy of reading. Jane Goodall says she was 10 when she decided she would go to Africa, live with animals and write books about them. Reading helped her figure this out.
Our 22-year-old houseguest, a voracious reader, recently found herself in the midst of one of our parent-child conversations about reading. “You know I didn't read until sixth grade,” she told me. “Then I went to the library, borrowed Robinson Crusoe, loved it, reissued it, and reread it. After that, I couldn't stop reading.”
I hope my child will have her Robinson Crusoe moment soon.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.