Reading habits, researchers point out, are hard to map because compared to other habits, the physical act of reading can be studied - but not what goes on in the mind. Figures and answers to questions posed can tell us about the number of books bought, profile of the book buyers... but books that are bought may not be books necessarily read. So we came up with a survey to get a sense of what urban children aged 3-12 in India's metros are reading and the role parents are playing in shaping the habit.
The findings are interesting. For instance, 35% children spend an average of 3-5 hours on non-school related reading in a week, 77% parents said their kids read their first book at age 4 or before while 74% parents encourage their kids to read by getting them books home and 14% do so by reading out aloud to them. Parents will rue 'it's not enough', but Anita Roy, children's writer and commissioning editor at Young Zubaan, says the figures are heartening. "Being in this field, I spend 30-40 minutes a day reading for pleasure, so 3-5 hours a week is not bad. It's also nice to learn that the attitude of the parents is encouraging," she says.
According to the survey, while most kids - 72% - have read the authors (Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Tintin etc) that their parents did, it's the contemporary foreign titles of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series that are topping their lists. Sci-fi writer Samit Basu feels these titles signal a 'golden age' in children's reading. "Potter, Jackson, Wimpy Kid are all fantastic books. They are well-told stories that work for all ages. Also, they are at the height of global popular culture at this time," he says. In terms of genre, the survey threw up comics as the most popular (25%) followed by adventure (20%), fairy-tales (18%) and sci-fi (16%).
Tintin goes HINDI
There's a trend where popular English titles are going regional. Comic character Tintin seems to be one of India's hot favourites, scoring an 18% among books regularly read in the survey, while the animation released earlier this month has become the animated film with the highest opening in India. Sony Pictures India, in fact, brought Spielberg's animation to India even before its US release.
The film, like its comic counterpart has also been dubbed in Hindi. While Tintin comics have been quietly popular in Bengali since the 70s, it's only last year that the Hindi version materialised. Ajay Mago, owner of Om Books International, who got Tintin translated to Hindi, says starting April 2011, says they sold out 8 titles selling more than 40,000 copies so far. "We wanted to reach out to the vast Hindi-speaking population. Someone seeing the English and Hindi versions stacked together but priced at Rs 425 and Rs 195 respectively will think about picking up the Hindi one," he says.
Given that close to half of India's population is on the younger side, it's a good time to be in children's publishing in India. And it has been picking up since the last five years. "There's a great deal of movement where publishers who were earlier lazy about the kids market are now putting in a great deal of thought into it," says Basu who ventured into writing short stories for children last year. "Earlier, it was just mythological tales like the Ramayana being retold or badly done folk tales." For Mumbai-based Preeti Vyas of Fun Ok Publishing, which kicked off in January this year, the idea is to create contemporary contexts for the urban child. Vyas's start-up that works with a network of artists and illustrators is bringing out a series on Indian cities as well as a series on Toto - The Autorickshaw. "Four years back, we wouldn't publish more than 2,000 copies of a children's book. Today, it's not less than 3,000 and for a popular author, it can even go up to 15, 000," says Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, editorial director, Puffin. There's an explosion in the Indian market for kids' books says writer Subhadra Sen Gupta. "The marketing is more organised. The government is interested. Corporate funds are coming in... When we took Bookaroo (the annual children's literature festival) to Srinagar this year, the response was overwhelming," she says. It's not just kids who are hungry to read, parents are equally aware. The survey reveals 55% of parents believe music/dance etc are key activities to a child's development, followed by reading at 25%.
Many, however, rue that children are still reading dated literature which hasn't helped Indians writing for kids. "When I go to schools, kids can't even name a single Indian author. Even a Ruskin Bond comes with prompting," says Anushka Ravishankar, head of Scholastic India. There's room for plenty of voices. "Indian writers are writing stories set in their country. No more copying Enid Blyton," says Sen Gupta. Adds Manisha Chaudhry, editor with non-profit Pratham Books, "Whether it's a Paro Anand exploring the Kashmir insurgency or a Siddhartha Sarma grappling with the Assam conflict, Indian writers are taking on tough subjects."
As the churning continues, some even forecast that the trend will reverse in just few years from now. "Foreign authors may occupy 65-70% of the pie, but five years from now, it'll be the Indian authors taking on the scene," says an optimistic Mago.
'It would take me days to count the books I have' - Radhika Raj
Around seven years ago, Mumbai-based freelance journalist and book critic Sonya Dutta Choudhury, 42, used an old trick to get her three daughters to read.
"I would read out a paragraph from the Mahabharata and stop right before a climax or a fight. Then I would say I was too tired and leave the room with the book lying by the bedside." Her daughters started anxiously flipping pages the moment she left.
These days, on a regular evening, Diviya (14), Aleya (12) and Analie (9), are usually found sitting around a dining table quizzing each other about their favourite characters. "Who is the potions master in the sixth Harry Potter book?" asks Analie. "Slughorn!" pat comes the answer from one of her sisters.
But it has taken Dutta effort to make sure her daughters are readers in an age of TV and Internet.
Over the years she has consciously left books around the house, built them a library, encouraged them to write reviews, and, most importantly, kept the television off. "What they read is as important as how much they read," says Dutta.
So, the girls have read everything from mysteries by Enid Blyton, classics, popular fantasy fiction books such as Harry Potter, Eragon and Percy Jackson to biographies of Andre Agassi and Steve Jobs.
"Books also teach you a lot. I learnt how interesting Greek mythology was after reading Percy Jackson," says Diviya, referring to a fantasy fiction series by author Rick Riordan that talks about a teenager who discovers that he's the descendant of a Greek god.
The children's bedroom also has a row of book shelves that extend all the way to the ceiling. Little book towers are stacked near the bedside. The sisters also share e-book readers. "It would take me days to just count the books I have," says Analie.
Seven years later, Dutta has a new challenge. She's now thinking of new tricks to keep her daughters away from books. "I've got the books under lock and key. They also need to focus on their studies."
'With reading, he will be more creative' - Shalini Singh
Delhi-based Jai Gupta, 4, nursery student at Noida's Step By Step school, is part of the 3% of urban kids who do a large part of their reading online - in Gupta's case, on his mother's iPad. He's also part of the 12% of urban kids