Friday, May 21, 2010

What makes a good book?

A couple of days back, the Pratham books blog had an interesting post by Shweta Ganesh Kumar about how she wrote a couple of stories which included "a four year old who learns to overcome her fear of the unknown" and "a ten year old who dreams of a world flooded by water and learns about conservation", and was tactfully directed to write others with more fun and less preaching. So, she asks, which kind of stories should be written for children. Just for fun, or something deeper, something higher?


I wonder what my answer shall be. 


Stories which teach, which inform, which reinforce concepts and values you are trying to teach, stories with moral - are these superior to those we read for amusement, for enjoyment alone?


I suppose at some point of life, I would have said yes. At this moment, on the morning of the day I have been requested, nay ordered, to only read 40 books and do experiments (and no homework or studying), I hesitate. If you will come with me, we shall examine this together, and who knows where we shall go, what we shall find? 

I love books. I remember the thrill of holding a tiny book in my small hands when I was five or slightly older - it was just the way mum held her book when she was reading. I remember summer holidays marked by the abundance of my grandfather's library, even if the only one I could read was the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I remember the location still, of the shops which sold softies and second hand Enid Blytons, in markets more than 30 years past. I remember the towering dusty old shelves of pre-indepence era belonging to my great grandfather with nostalgia and regret: I couldn't read them then. I remember.... books, from almost every phase in my life. There is nothing I'd rather be gifted, nor anything I'd rather gift - than books. Naturally, the first book encountered by my tiny baby, just beginning to crawl on the bed, was one of the massive Harry Potter volumes. How I loved to see those tiny hands flipping the pages!

We have been reading together ever since my child was able to sit. Admittedly those first books were only animal pictures, or illustrated nursery rhymes, but they still caught, and held, an infant's attention. Last night, we slept far too late, and I called off the bedtime books. As a result I was made to promise to read 40 books, and do only experiments today - no studies, no homework, and definitely not mama busy in her household tasks (or the computer!). Forty is a large number to a four year old, isn't it?


So whence comes this love of reading, of books? 

When I was introduced to the school my child now goes to, one of the things I liked about it was that they included story books in their classroom. Children were encouraged to read stories in the class. It was only when they started the story telling sessions that I realized the difference between my imagination and the reality. It was not a class with ten children seated around two tables. This was a 35+ kids in a classroom with only one teacher. It used some Montessori equipment from 20 years ago - or however long the school had been in existence, but not the system. It advertised horse riding, but that was restricted to once a fortnight for a couple of months. Understandably, there were differences in our outlook on story telling as well. 


I thought the sessions were meant to encourage a love of reading, of books, of imagination and creation. I thought different kinds of books would be encouraged - fiction as well as non fiction, mini biographies, wildlife commentaries and so on. I imagined the stress would be on telling a story, using the book as a mere prop, encouraging a child to embroider it any which way, to embellish with own stories. I imagined something magical.


The truth was, one single person, had, in addition to keeping all those children controlled and trying to get them to learn something, also spare time to listen to children reading stories. There was no time or scope for imagination. A picture book without words which I sent the very first day, to encourage description and understanding, was allowed, but gently discouraged. Abridging classics, along with hand illustrated booklets, was not expected, and I was reminded to send the original book. I couldn't then, take the liberty of sending in a story originally told by my own child and illustrated by me. Although on paper they strongly discouraged learning by rote, I did not find any encouragement for the child to be retelling the story in own words. The school held a story telling competition - in which parents were advised to use new and different level appropriate stories, which were to be interesting and with a moral. I assume this is what was required at the rest of the times as well.

And this is where my personal thread rejoins the original question. What makes a good book? It was terribly difficult finding a book that would satisfy all the school's criteria - and mine as well. It was then that I realized that I had been buying books based on one criterion alone - it should appeal to my child. We had encyclopedias, we had life-stories, we had books with and without words, we had turn-the-flap books and small chapter books meant for older children, but what we didn't have, most of the time, were 'moral' books. At least, not in the sense I understood the school to be looking for: "Bubbles Is Selfish", "Mithu and the Yellow Mango", and more of this genre. We did have these two titles, and some more, but these hadn't been the books that were asked to be read twice. Many of the books we owned did have some kind of gentle life lessons, but no 'morals' in the sense of a distinction between right and wrong conduct. Some that were overtly so - like "When Sophie gets angry - really, really angry" was not appreciated. I was okay with that. I had read it once, the book was at hand for later use - right now, I just wanted to foster the love of reading, for with reading automatically comes the broadening of horizons. The kind of books, it seemed to me, that the school wanted us to focus on, were not very imaginative, nor was the language particularly enriching. In fact there were instances where the grammar was poor or syntax incomplete, particularly in books in which there was no author listed - books which were mass produced for precisely this kind of school market.


So, what makes a good book for us? A story? Right now, at this age, it is something that entertains and amuses. Stories that make on laugh - "The monster at the end of this book" is a good example are the top of the list. A story that is intelligent, a plot that is believable, language that is lovely - these are what I use to screen the books I buy. A moral, or something educative - these are important for me, but not as much for my child. What has been your conclusion?


PS: Straight from the horse's mouth - "I like funny books, and fun books. And I like new shiny book, not old torn ones"!

No comments: