Book Box: How to raise a reader

Updated on Sep 12, 2022 08:37 AM IST

Use these six strategies to give your child a love of books. Also, meet Sangeeta Bhansali of Kahani Tree and read this fabulous book for the Queen.

Children reading.  PREMIUM
Children reading. 

On a recent trip to St Petersburg, we fell in love with a painting. Oil on canvas, it hangs in the Hermitage Museum and features a little girl and her dog sitting upon a bed and reading a book together. There is a world outside with flowers and trees. And a world inside; you see this in the little girl's bonnet, tossed away in a corner. But the girl and the dog are in a world of their own, in a way that books make possible. We splurged and brought back a parchment print of this 1881 painting by the Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt.

On a recent trip to St Petersburg, we fell in love with a painting. 
On a recent trip to St Petersburg, we fell in love with a painting. 

Now hanging in our Mumbai apartment, it reminds us every day, of the power of children reading.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside,” says Neil Gaiman.

Why this obligation to your child and to the world?

Because books will

Stimulate your child’s imagination

Expand his understanding of the world

Develop her brain to better problem solve

Improve his communication skills

Give her a sense of ethics

Increase his empathy

As we celebrate International Literacy Day from earlier this week, on September 8, here are six strategies to give your child a love of books.

Raising Readers Tip 1: Read Aloud

Are You My Mother? 
Are You My Mother? 

Pick up Are You My Mother? by P D Eastman. Point to each word as you read. Do the voices for the kitten, the dog, the cow, the baby bird and the mama bird. Do this with all the books you read. You could each take turns at doing different roles and voices, making it a fun game.

Raising Readers Tip 2: Have fun with words

Look for books with rhymes and interesting wordplay. In Dr Seuss’s ABC every page has an alliteration. A is Aunt Annie’s Alligator, L is Little Lola Lopp and Lazy Lion licking a lollipop. B has bubbles and a bumble bee. Both of these are onomatopoeia, that is words formed from the sound they are associated with. And so on.

Raising Readers Tip 3: Hunt the Word

Arthur's Reading Race. 
Arthur's Reading Race. 

When I read Arthur’s Reading Race to my daughter, I let her have a word of her own. We chose D. W for her, easy to recognise and short for Dora Winnifred, who is Arthur’s younger bratty sister. When I read the book aloud, my five-year-old daughter would get to read D. W aloud whenever the word appeared in the text. Words like Arthur were mine to read, I told her. Soon she began recognising these, claiming ‘my’ words like Arthur, read, ice cream and such like. Naturally, I was completely delighted at this, even as I had to pretend that I was deeply deprived at having words taken away from me!

Raising Readers Tip 4: Keep books of varying complexity in easy reach

Give up the Marie Kondo in you, and let books lie around, in easy reach of your child. 
Give up the Marie Kondo in you, and let books lie around, in easy reach of your child. 

Give up the Marie Kondo in you, and let books lie around, in easy reach of your child. Behavioural science tells us that small tweaks can work wonders for habits - and one of these tweaks is to strategically situate books with interesting covers and illustrations. Also keep a progression of books - easy ones for comfort reading, complicated ones for read-alouds and chapter books for the thrill of a more complex story.

Raising Readers Tip 5: Combine audiobooks with paper books

For older children, it is useful to have both print and audio copies of the same book - like the Roald Dahl books or Harry Potter voiced by Stephen Fry. The sound reinforces the print, and this is enormously useful for children whose learning styles may vary from visual to oral. I don’t suggest any reading apps, because even if the cause is worthy, why increase screen time?

Raising Readers Tip 6: Be a reading family

Children of readers have a higher chance of becoming readers. So visit bookstores and libraries, pick up books for the whole family and set aside reading time.

And now, to Mumbai, where we celebrate International Literacy Day, at the Kahani Tree bookstore, as the store plans a book session on Missing Beauty, a picture book in English and Hindi. And meet bookstore founder Sangeeta Bhansali, who gives us her recommendations in these edited excerpts of our conversation. If you live in Mumbai, Kahani Tree is the best place to pick these book recommendations up. If you live out of Mumbai, this is a good opportunity to check out independent bookstores near you.

Sangeeta Bhansali at Kahani Tree with young readers. 
Sangeeta Bhansali at Kahani Tree with young readers. 

How did the bookstore begin?

Kahani Tree started as a wish. As a parent to two young boys, I wanted to diversify my children’s bookshelves. They had fabulous international picture books but no non-mythology contemporary Indian picture books. I did find such books, but they were often from small independent Indian publishers with little distribution. So with the support of Vakils- my family’s printing/publishing business - I approached Cathedral and John Connon school where my children studied, among other schools, to offer these books. For the first 10 years, we worked only through school book fairs and children's literary festivals in the city.

We had a single wall of books, and then in 2017, we expanded to a store space.

How important is it to help your child be a reader?

It is hard to phrase this without sounding trite, but our children are our future. And to help them to reach their full potential, they need access to good books. Reading the right books helps our children grow into kind, compassionate human beings and responsible global citizens.

What are some of your favourite picture books?

We love books that get children to ask questions about the world around them, about important things like fairness and difference and acceptance. Books that give help children be curious, thoughtful, kind and questioning reflect our world in all its diversity, and give children the capacity to change our world. Some recent favourites are The Miracle of Sunderbaag Stree, Bumoni’s Banana, Nani’s Walk to the Park, Milo Imagines the World, Cry Heart, but Never Break, There are Ghosts in my House and Beauty is Missing.

Sangeeta Bhansali’s favourite picture books. 
Sangeeta Bhansali’s favourite picture books. 

What are the highs and lows of running a bookstore?

The biggest highs are the booklovers who visit our store. A few years ago we got to curate a collection of Indian children's books for master architect Tadao Ando’s library Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest in Osaka, Japan. They were books from Indian publishers Tara, Tulika, Katha, Pickle Yolk, Karadi etc. Another project that makes us happy is the Kahani Tree Story Bag. It is curated especially for public schools and organizations that work with underprivileged children and can be used in classrooms, libraries or even to create a reading corner.

The lows are the challenges of building a collection of good international books. We yearn for the large publishers to bring in international award-winning titles available at affordable prices.

What are your personal favourite bookstores around the world?

Liberia Per Ragazzi in Bologna, Daunt in London and Linden Book Store in Palo Alto

And lastly, which picture books do you gift the most?

Books by Oliver Jeffers and Shaun Tan to young adults, by Patricia Polacco to educators and librarian friends and Gajapati Kulpati to babies/toddlers.

Finally, as condolences come in, on the passing of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, here is a beautiful little book about a queen who falls in love with reading. I won’t say more about The Uncommon Reader except to say it’s a gem of a novella and will make you happy.

The Uncommon Reader. 
The Uncommon Reader. 

Next week we move from the Queen to democracy, celebrating International Day of Democracy with some thought-provoking titles.

Until then, Happy Reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

The views expressed are personal

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