While negotiating my way through Bangalore's busy Commercial Street some days ago, I overheard an exchange between a mother and her young son. To the mother's suggestion to visit a bookshop, the boy replied, "But all they have are the same old fairy tales and Harry Potter." The plump, pale boy typified today's urban children. He probably lived in an apartment and had no trees to climb or grassy nooks to explore. In all likelihood he spent his evenings doing homework and playing computer games.
I, too, grew up in cramped partments in urban sprawls. But my father filled the house with books. Not content with what he found on shop shelves, he ordered more. While my parents were away at work, I curled up in my favourite sofa with Babar, the Little Elephant. Dear, cuddly and muddle-headed Winnie the Pooh and his friends and 'raletions' kept me company through many a lonely day. I loved the delighful river rat, the pompous Toad and all the other creatures populating The Wind in the Willows.
Exploring my school library led me to more treasures. Call It Courage, books by James Thurber and E.B. White, The Jungle Book, Black Beauty, The wizard of Oz, The Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, the memories overwhelm me.
My son grew up reading my well worn copies of Babar, Robinson Crusoe, Five Little Peppers, Little Women and other books. When he wanted more, I scoured local bookshops in vain for Winnie the Pooh and other old-time favourites only to find the shelves filled with activity books, encyclopedias, fairy tales and classics retold (my child was an advanced reader for his age and would have preferred the originals).And there were the usual bestsellers. Nothing wrong with such books, but I sensed something sadly amiss in the paucity of choices.
Why do commercial interests take precedence in the type of reading on offer to children? Books that 'sell' occupy prominent display space and parents buy them. The same parents later complain that their children do not want to read. When we foist certain books upon children hoping to advance their intellectual capabilities, do we also not stifle their creativity for lack of ample choices? Why not allow them the freedom to make friends with Babar or Curious George?