Reading for the soul: Helping kids love books

Children must be read to as often as possible and offered a wide array of books beyond the dated Enid Blyton.

Aysha Raja June 08, 2011
Today was the last day of my self-conceived experiment at a school in Lahore. A few months ago I had offered three hours a week of my precious time to read stories to my daughter’s kindergarten classmates.

I was convinced that after months of interacting with these children I‘d be able to flush out and pacify a bully terrorising my delicate daughter. It would also, I reasoned, provide a good opportunity for a bookseller like myself to test that age-old lament that the youth of today lack the attention span for books - although granted, by “youth” most parents didn’t have these snotty nosed cherubs in mind.

Motivated by self-interest, I rummaged through the children’s section of my bookshop selecting the stories that had proven to be a hit with my daughter. I anticipated some resistance to the notion of sitting still for 15 minutes and hence photocopied coloring pages, which I dangled in front of the children as bribes before I began.

Three months later: I’m the toast of the Kindergarten section. Upon my appearance five-year-olds scramble onto a shorn off carpet and jostle each other for a better view. They listen with their mouths agape enwrapped in the tale unfolding before them. They shout “Story!” when they cross me in the corridor and craft handmade cards featuring the narrative of a memorable yarn.

But you know what? It’s not me. It’s the books.

Yesterday I came across the results of a survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust in the UK, which found that three in 10 children do not own a single book of their own and that:
“children who did not own books were two-and-a-half times more likely to read below their expected level than children who had their own books.”

Now that’s a handy statistic for a bookseller in Pakistan to bandy about.

I expect a slew of parents turning up with their errant spawn in tow complaining how their “Babloo” doesn’t pick up a book; oblivious of course as to how their own disinterest in reading was complicit in their child’s waning enthusiasm. The survey goes on to confirm that children who do not live with books or see their parents reading will suffer from lower levels of literacy which “is strongly evident by 11 but emerges earlier.”

In other words, by the time Babloo comes to me it’s already too late.

The literacy argument serves to underline the importance of stories to parents but daily life in Pakistan has made it all the more urgent. Today, the average Pakistani is anxiety-ridden and obsessed with the fate of the nation. Their once active imaginations have become furtive and prone to conspiracies and they readily make snap judgments. Studies have revealed that aside from providing an escape, reading fiction makes a person more able to empathise and encourages compassion, virtues that are conspicuously absent in Pakistan today.

It has become increasingly difficult to shield ones children from the instability and mayhem that has permeated our lives, but stories provide a welcome diversion, feeding young imaginations, raising attention spans and putting children firmly on the path to becoming healthy Pakistanis.  This is a grave responsibility, which should be shared by parents and extended family members across the sexes.

Children must be read to as often as possible and offered a wide array of books beyond the dated Enid Blyton that is invariably thrust upon them. Also, contrary to popular belief, comics are good. If the avid comic reader Edward Said can grow up to become a world respected scholar whose to say Babloo won’t?

Reading is above all else a joy for both parent and child - compulsion is unlikely to inculcate the habit, but persistence and patience will.

Oh and that bully, he doesn’t bother my daughter anymore.
Aysha Raja The proprietor of The Last Word bookshops and co-founder and publisher of The Life’s Too Short literary review. She can be followed on twitter @TheLastWordbks
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Maneeha Aftab | 10 years ago | Reply Hey I'm a 15-year-old girl and a voracious reader. I really like this article. The way you have highlighted the importance of reading - a very rewarding habit that is gradually fading away as the people nowadays are so gormed up in their own lives that they don't even have a single minute to spare out of their hectic schedule to take a book out of the pile of books that lies in their attic gathering rust. This is literally the way books are nowadays being treated. I mean and the books in the attic don't even belong to them but to their predecessors such as their grandparents or parents which they had gathered and extracted precious pieces of knowledge from them and kept them safe for their successors to learn from. But what the poor ancestors did not know was that their grandchildren won't be as enthusiastic about reading them as they were in their times instead they would dump their "precious" book collection in the store or whatever. Is that why books exist? to be disrespected like an old pair of jeans that is no longer in fashion? In a society like ours where people need to have a broad-minded approach to things, the habit of reading must be inculcated into every young individual in order for them to bring a change in the society and proceed towards a brighter future. Thanks!
Saira Ansari | 10 years ago | Reply Loved the article Ayesha! I myself grew up in househould literally bursting at its seams with books. My mother used to take me and my sister to Mr. good books in Raja Centre every few weeks to loan a huge pile of books. One pile for each one of us. We were quite weird quirky family then...and now! I missed those days...oh I miss the prices back in those days too! Keep reading out! xx Saira
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