How I grew up reading with my daughter

A frequently asked question lobbed at most writers is the one about ‘tips’ on reading. How do you begin reading to your children? How do you make readers of them? I can understand the anxiety, especially since we live in times when there are so many avenues for entertainment that don’t require a parent to be engaged with the child at all. You can, quite literally, leave your little one to her own devices.

I can tell you right away that reading to your child is no rocket science, and no chore either. Believe me, it’s one of the most memorable and happy experiences you can ever share with your child. Any writing on the subject will tell you that it’s a great way to bond and that’s so true, especially, if like me, you didn’t feel particularly maternal. There are lots of other benefits to reading which any early childhood guide can list out for you, and which I’m not going to go into here.

I brought up my children in the pre-Internet era, something I am largely relieved about. But but but, the first book I read to my month-old daughter was Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Someone say advanced reading? The thing was that we both had time to kill and nowhere to go. And clearly I was not a very informed mother. All I know is that the house resounded with silence when her father went off to office and I had to have someone to talk to in the intervening twelve hours or so or I’d go mad. I took her to the park where she cooed at trees and then I got her back home where she cooed equally contentedly at the ceiling. But that still left us with about ten hours to do other stuff. I happened to be reading Haroun at the time and one fine day I thought, okay, alright, enough of this tomb-like silence and just began to read it aloud. She listened to my voice intently, though clearly she didn’t register the story itself. I know this because many years later when she read the book herself I asked if any of it sounded familiar and she gave me a wry look and said, “Sure, mum.” But the fact that she listened so intently and with such absorption made me feel she was getting something out of hearing the sound of my voice. Reading aloud to her also helped me to finish the book and move on to the next one, which might well have been Ulysses by James Joyce had a dear family member not intervened. The minute she discovered what mom and baby were doing to pass time she generously passed on to me the many books she’d read to her own daughter as a child. There were picture books, pop-up books and bath books. There were small story books, five or six Dr. Seuss books which went on to become favourites, and little Disney books.

When friends and relatives figured we liked to read they bought us books too. Not all of them were of great ‘quality’ — meaning many of them had spelling and grammar errors but we loved them anyway. We’d go over them over and over again, twenty times a day. And soon we began to build our own collection because nothing excited her more than the purchase of a new book. Book-buying became one of our favourite pastimes. Then, just when I’d begun to despair of ever finding good Indian stories for her to be able to relate with, along came Tara and Tulika, two truly fantastic publishers who revolutionised children’s writing in India.

My little girl began to talk in whole sentences when she was less than a year-and-a-half old. She could recite whole books and supply the missing words when I deliberately left them out. As she grew I could expect her to respond in words when I read something to her. Why she liked a character, what made her laugh, what made her cry — for some strange reason the story of a neglected little red caboose, ignored till its heroic deed saved the day always made her cry. Why? I asked her, helplessly. It’s a happy ending. She said she couldn’t understand why the caboose had to do something heroic to win people’s affection and why they couldn’t just love it anyway. I remember being stumped by her response. It was such a big question for a three-year-old to be asking and she seemed to be getting so much more out of the story than I was. So I pulled up my socks and began to be more aware of underlying themes and emotions in the books I read to her. It’s not that I wasn’t earlier, it’s more that I’d underestimated her ability to understand, and therefore disregarded some topics as being too out-of-her-range for discussion. So we began to look at words and illustrations closely.

I don’t quite remember how old she was when she began to talk of, and to, an imaginary friend. A lot of the things they said and did together, combined with all the reading we did together, gave her a powerful vocabulary and a great jumpstart as far as language was concerned. Her little counterpart grew with her till she was about five or six years old and disappeared one day. We all remember her with great affection.

As for me, I am proud to say I grew up reading with my daughter.

Some of the books my daughter and I enjoyed reading

In a People House by Dr. Seuss (RHUS)

One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss (Random House)

Eecha Poocha by Sandhya Rao (Tulika)

Priya’s Day by Cathy Spagnoli (Tulika)

A Very Hungry Lion by Gita Wolf (Tara)

And Land Was Born by Sandhya Rao (Tulika)

Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar (Tara)

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