Reading for the soul: Helping kids love books

Published: June 8, 2011

Compulsion is unlikely to inculcate the habit, but persistence and patience will.

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

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 necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • sylar

    THANK YOU. thank you for touching this topic

    as a child i remember picking up a book the moment my homework ended (managed to read a few pages midway too until mommy dearest came over to inspect :P ). a good solid hour was dedicated to this not becuse it was drilled into my head..but beacuse i had seen my parents and my grand parents always read and then tell me stuff which i thought was beyond marvelous. further, hats off to my parents and all the others who go out of the way to make sure that their child reads quality books, books that engage , captivate and impart knowledge and creativity.

    kudos to you for taking up this endeavour…. in my own rights i will try to do the same in atleast one school of karachi. :DRecommend

  • Ms Marium

    I remembered my childhood while reading your piece ..amazing .. my mother was a poet and I grew up among books ..would love to see my children as ‘Book Worms’..lol :)))Recommend

  • http://spider-like Mikail

    Great piece. I spent my childhood with books and it definitely started with my parents reading to me every night, and then progressed when I saw my parents immersed in their own books. Monkey see, monkey do.Recommend

  • shaista quamber

    A wonderful initiative!Well done! My husband and I actually got together initially through our shared love of books. We made it a point,when our children were young,to read to them every single day! As a result both of them grew up having a profound love for the written word! Both are great readers….and consequently,I think great persons too! Books were always the preferred present on every birthday and any other special occasion. Every child MUST be given the opportunity to read,to b e transported to a place limited only by his imagination. Recommend

  • Faiza S Khan

    Great piece – hope it shall be a regular feature. Recommend

  • http://www.durraniblogs.cc.cc Saad Durrani

    Comics are the best way to make a child read. I was an avid Casper and Archie Comics reader when I was young.Recommend

  • http://www.mafarooqi.com Musharraf Ali Farooqi

    Excellent article. I also hope that you will write more and regularly on your adventures breaking the small bullies with tales.Recommend

  • http://goldenpages-mubi.blogspot.com mubeshra

    Exactly thats the problem with people here, a) parents themselves arnt much of a book readers and b) if you are found reading a book instead of gluing your eyes at laptop and cell phones, every takes you as a nerd, or someone who is ought to be boring ! reading as you have mentioned is not only joyous but opens one’s mind to imagination plus adds to our knowledge…for as long as i can remember i used to get reading books on my birthdays and today, i cannot spend a day without a book!

    thumbs up for the write up! Recommend

  • siddiqui

    I don’t think owning a book is necessary in order to become a reader. We never owned books. Even in 90s the books were quite expensive for a lower middle class family to own. But my father and my uncle were avid library goers. My love for books started with 10 page mini-books of Umro-Ayyar, Hatim Tayee, Samri and etc. Then there were monthly digests that I was quite fond of i.e., NouNehal, Aankh Macholi, Taleem-o-Tarbiat. Books from Mehmood Khawar were also one my favorites. Later I moved on to Ishtiaq Ahmed. Though, Ishtiaq Ahmed is a good writer, but I wouldn’t recommend him to the kids. After reading more than 300 of his books, I now realise that his books are an extreme case of right wing bigotry and a lot of hate against anybody who might be different (shias, qadianis, christians, jews etc…) is ingrained in them. I feel lucky to have eluded his trap. I have also read a lot of Mazhar Kaleem. He is only marginally better but otherwise is a clone of Ishtiaq Ahmed.
    My shift to English books happened when I was around 13. This was due to the fact that I sort of hit a dead end. There wasn’t much Urdu literature available for my age group. And just like our parents, our writers have to share the blame equally. Most kids are not well versed in English and for them it usually means the death of reading habit. Recommend

  • http://www.ayeshahoda.wordpress.com Ayesha Hoda

    Good post! Btw, I loved Enid Blyton as a kid :-) But I guess kids today might want something different.Recommend

  • http://saidcanblog.blogspot.com Said Chaudhry

    great initiative! bravoRecommend

  • maheen usmani

    It’s really not the latest electronic gadgets which parents pepper their kids with which will lead to their character building, and developing of their imagination. You can entrance and captivate a child with books and the art of story telling, and those who miss out on this wonderful treat are deprived.
    Evocatively written Aysha… enjoyed it! Made me relive my childhood when I use to be lost in books… Recommend

  • parvez

    Loved the topic and write up. Children love to be read to, but its important as to how you read to them. Obviously you understood the finer points because you say you photo copied pictures from the story and handed these out and you must have changed voices and dramatised the story. Definitely something special in what you did and so rewarding.Recommend

  • Eraj

    My parents started taking me to the public library when I was 1.5 years old, and would take turns reading one picture book to me each night. By the time my mother and father had each read the book to me once, I knew the words corresponding to each picture by heart, and would then”read” myself the story, even though I technically couldn’t read yet :) Recommend

  • http://oldschoolteach.wordpress.com/ Lisa M

    I joined Read Aloud Delaware about a year ago. Every Tuesday, after spending an exhausting day with my 5th graders, I drive to the day care across the street. I read to 4 year olds every Tuesday. It is not only a wonderful experience for them, but for me as well. It is a joy to have 4 year olds run up to you, even during their play time, screaming, “Me,me, me!” I will continue to volunteer for Read Aloud DE. And I agree with you, it’s not me, it’s the books!Recommend

  • MANN O SALWA

    in my childhood, i used to borrow “TALEEM-O-TARBEIYAT” from a friend of mine and used to read it , while hiding inside my course book uptill the moment i finish it. My parents at that time were of the view (like most of the 80’s parents) ,that reading except course books is the waste of time.They suggest the child should play rather than read a non-school book in free time.

    So the point is parents should make a time table for their child , books reading habbit increase your vision besides new words.

    today i am an engineer and drawing a handsome salary(by the grace of ALLAH and due to my Parents prayers) along with a part time urdu article writer (due to my reading habit) :)).Recommend

  • http://www.usmanf.com Usman

    The importance of a child having books that he or she themselves own never crossed my mind. But now that I come to think of it, it really is a very significant point. If I look back I can see the influence of owning my own little library in developing my reading habit.

    You’ve written very well on this important issue. And at least some kids will eventually benefit a lot from it if their parents have read this.Recommend

  • http://thesaproject.wordpress.com/ Saira Ansari

    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
    SairaRecommend

  • Maneeha Aftab

    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!Recommend