To paraphrase the words of Francis Spufford, I am the woman that books built. And here are some of my thoughts on developing reading habits and populating your bookshelf with books worth reading!
The magic of books is simply extraordinary. Books are literally portals into somebody else’s mind, thoughts, world-view and imagination. Now, bearing in mind that this point of entry has in turn been influenced by thousands of others and what we have in front of us a blueprint for a network of empathy- the ability to feel, understand and see the world from someone else’s point of view. It’s mind boggling,, mind-expanding stuff.
However, sometimes, it’s nice to see the books that we read stretch to accommodate us as well. It is nice and reassuring to see our own experiences reflected in printed pages as well. Growing up as a TCK often means that this does not happen. Time and again, both empirical evidence based on research as well as anecdotal evidence that when children do not see themselves reflected in the stories that they read, they also cultivate the believe that stories, by definition, cannot be about them and that they as well as their personal journeys are somehow expendable. When I was growing up, my parents and the parents of all my friends did not really look into these things. The fact that we were reading was enough to satisfy them and they were happy to relinquish us to the care of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. The long term emotional baggage (and the ways in which it physically manifests in the real world) that comes from a lack of representation in things we are reading and seeing is something that we TCKs have learnt to manage on our own. As a TCK myself, raising two of my own, representation is definitely something I watch out for. I firmly believe that our stories are important and it is important for children to be able to read them in order to give them roots as well as wings.
For children growing up on the subcontinent, representation is naturally not an issue. In an earlier article, I wrote about not needing to fill up our suitcases with textbooks from India. I have elected to swap out textbooks for storybooks instead.
I like to think that India is having a bit of a renaissance moment when it comes to children’s publishing and with children’s literature written in English with publishers like Tulika Books, Pratham and Karadi Tales leading the charge. Authors and illustrators to watch out for include (but are not limited to) Bhakti Mathur, Roopa Pai, Chitra Soundar and if I see that a book has been illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, I pounce on it.
Here’s a little glimpse into what we have been reading recently:
The Festive Collection
The festive season can be said to have begun in August this year with ‘Rakshabandhan’, ‘Eid’ and ‘Janmasthami’. As my children are growing up in Switzerland, I find books to be fantastic gateways to the culture that we have left behind. To that end, we loved Bhakti Mathur’s ‘Amma Tell Me About Rakshabandhan’. In the book, the reader goes on a journey, from how ‘Rakshabandhan’ or ‘Rakhi’ is celebrated now, back to some of the mythological background as well as Rakhi’s special relationship with Rabindranath Tagore and his master stroke wherein he reunited a divided Bengal in 1905 with the symbolic tying of Rakhis.
Over ‘Eid’, we read ‘Ismat’s Eid’ by Fawzia Gilani Williams (illustrated by Proiti Roy). The story brings a gentle introduction to the central tenets of Islam: humility; generosity and love. Simply told, filled with repetition, it’s structure is such that young children will be able to follow it. Things build up and then get retraced. Julia Donaldson uses this structure a lot. I was also reminded of O’Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ when reading this. An adaptation of a traditional Turkish tale, the narrative follows Ismat and his family as they prepare for Eid. Overall, the messages of this book are very much glass half-full rather than half-empty. It is an affirmative read.
Karadi Tales’ ‘The Birth of Krishna and Krishna’s Conquests’ helped us prepare for ‘Janmasthami’. Aimed at a more mature audience (6+) due to its challenging vocabulary and dense descriptions, the stories are condensed together so that it is almost like a primer for the Krishna story. My 8-year-old enjoyed reading it – while I relied on the beautiful illustrations to simplify the story for my 3-year-old.
With the festive months upon us, ‘Amma, Tell me about Ganesha’; ‘Amma, Tell Me about Durga Puja; ‘Amma, Tell Me About Diwali’ by Bhakti Mathur are, in my opinion, indispensable. For another perspective of Durga Puja (the social aspect), we love reading Shoumi Sen’s ‘Come Celebrate Durga Puja with Me’. It is written from the perspective of a toddler and is easier for younger children to follow.
One of my favourite finds in India this year was ‘Saffron Stories’. They create beautifully designed flash cards on a range of topics related to India. We picked up three sets of cards, on Indian monuments, freedom fighters and national symbols. Each ‘Indsight’ card is well-designed and caters to my 3- and 8-year olds. The younger one enjoys looking, while the older one learns without really being aware that he’s doing it at all. So, it’s not books alone! Representation can be sought in a number of different ways. The only rule: it needs to be eye catching and appeal to children.
My other favourite is a brilliant book called ’A Home Of Our Own’ by Meghaa Agarwal. The story follows Sunheri, Dulhari and their friends as they try to create a home from all the odd bits and bobs that they find over the course of their day. In sharp juxtaposition to their cheerfulness and and bubbling, effervescent hope is the harsh reality of their lives. One child is a sweeper paid in kind rather than cash, another hasn’t sold enough flowers at the traffic lights, and the third works at a garage – and none has a home to call their own. Meghaa Agarwal’s prose is simple and powerful while Habib Ali’s illustrations fill in all the blanks.
The beautiful thing about representative books for TCKs is that at first it feels like you are searching for a needle in a haystack but then, you realise that if you start looking in the right places, you can just about find them anywhere.
Books that I would recommend for older children which deal very specifically with TCK issues include Meera Syal’s ‘Anita and Me ‘ and ‘The Wheel of Surya’ by Jamila Gavin. Books by Bali Rai and Nikesh Shukla – both British-Indian authors – are very well written and researched; they appeal to the current generation of teens.
Within the Indian context, I recommend ‘Hole’ books by Tulika while naturally Sudha Murty and ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ remain classics to this day. Lots of exciting things are also happening in America with books related to a TCK audience. For example, Sheetal Seth’s picture book, ‘Always Anjali’ is a treat in this regard.
To love books is to want to talk about them forever but could you be the one to pen a story about the lives of Indo- Swiss kids? I’ll leave you with that thought.
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