Reading in the Time of Corona

Easy Parenting

Geeta Dharmarajan, an award-winning writer for children and adults, social entrepreneur, educationist and founder of Katha Publishing House, spoke to CECILIA D’SOUZA on the importance of books and reading in a world where we are all stuck at home.

Tell us about your journey as a writer.
I had an awesome childhood, swirled and twirled and taken for never-ending rides by stories. I loved daydreaming. I remember sitting in the balcony of our home in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, reading and dreaming, dreaming and reading; the characters were real. And often they made up their own stories inside my head. My mother had to ban books at the dining table for all of us three girls! In school, my principal, my beloved Sister Nessen, thought I had a special way with words. With such encouragement, what else could I do but to dream of writing. I still feel shy calling myself a writer—but I love writing. And if I could be anything else, I would still be a writer for children.

How can children be introduced to reading books at an early age?
When parents understand, "Why should children be introduced to reading books at an early age?” the "How?” will happen as a natural progression. It normally starts with parents reading themselves. We need to walk our talk. Especially when we know that whatever may be the future career choice your child makes, reading to understand and to better express yourself will be an important part of it. Many studies in neuroscience have shown that the earlier children start to enjoy reading, the easier it is for them to develop the soft skills required in the 21st century—compassion, curiosity, creativity and critical thinking. When they read, the different cognitive muscles in the brain get strengthened…and the future responsive, responsible adult is born. So do ask the why—and the how will come on its own.

How can children develop good reading skills?
Through storytelling, watching plays and taking part in story games at an early age. Of course, it is easier for children if parents read to them at night. Borrowing books from a local children’s library also helps. Children should read at least one book a month.

In this COVID situation, how important is it for children to take up reading as a hobby?
Very. In fact, if children are surrounded by books–paper and print, e-books, old, new, age-appropriate, books for slightly older kids– they will read. Reading is fun and it tickles the imagination and makes reading more fun. There is a symbiotic relationship between reading and thinking and coming up with daydreams and then reading some more.

With everything becoming digital, do you think books will become obsolete?
Never. I hope never ever. But then, I am old fashioned. I just read somewhere that the younger generation finds the full stop threatening. So things change, habits change. And if we are wise adults, we will go with the new wind that keeps blowing. Having said this, I know in my heart that the joy and experience young kids get out of a good picture book physically in the hand, can never be replaced by a digital one!

What are your thoughts about reading and writing in a world of home-schooling?
As a reader and writer, I would say awesome! May we have more home-schooling where children can read other than textbooks. In fact, Katha has just brought out the first series of an Untextbook series for GEEKs— children who care about gender, earth, equality and kindness. Home-schooling has a greater chance of turning out "geeks” and genuinely compassionate and interesting adults than school ever did or ever can. Home-schooling can, if we are smart, create a space for serious thinking for our children. We call this, at Katha, TADAA! Think. Ask questions. Discuss. Act. To Achieve lasting wisdom.  We yearn for our children to be knowledge workers. Why not go one step more and say we want them to be geeks; wisdom workers?

With many progressing towards homeschooling, do you think this method of schooling has more to offer to the children?
Yes, Remember Margaret Mead said, "My mother wanted me to have a real education, so she took me out of school.” I sometimes thank COVID-19 for losing patience with the adult human race and deciding to give children a break—home-schooling.

What advice would you give young writers to develop their writing skills?
Read and read and read more. Write and write and write more. Fill up notebooks with your writing. Then be the most critical self-editor you can be. Hone your skills. You cannot be bogus if you are a writer. Be an iconoclast. Go where no road leads. Discover your own world that no one has even dared step into. It’s tough being a writer…but oh, the rewards!

What tips should young readers follow while picking up a book?
Look at the cover. Read the blurb at the back. Dip into the book. See if the story catches your imagination. Then…walk to the counter, ready to buy!