Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Notes from the fest: Anita Roy, storytelling for children

“People are strangely discomfited by fantasy,” said Anita Roy ruefully. “Teachers continue to insist that there must be an obvious point to every story they tell their wards; a moral. No wonder we have hardly any authors who seem to enjoy writing for children.” We were sitting outside the hall just after the Zubaan Books editor and critic had finished a talk for schoolteachers, about “how to use stories and story-telling to open up kids’ imaginations”. (The previous day, Roy had conducted a session with schoolchildren; picture below.)

“Having fun is crucial” was the central point of Roy’s talk as she recounted the conservatism of 1950s America (“which has parallels with contemporary India, and the questions being raised about what kids should read”) and the emergence of Theodore Geisel/Dr Seuss, whose books (with their brilliant play on the sound and rhythm of words) brought about a revolution in children’s literature. “Let’s hope a similar leap of imagination occurs in India too,” she said. “There are so many new issues that children are dealing with in today’s world and there’s potential for literature that deals with these issues in imaginative and exciting ways. We need to move beyond the Enid Blytons and the Panchatantra now.”

Established stories must be played around with and retold in different ways, said Roy as she related a personal conflict of interest. “As a publisher I have to deal with issues of control and copyright and be straitlaced about certain things. But as a person and as a mother I believe stories belong to everyone once they’re in the public domain – you should be able to change an ending if you don’t like it, or add your own bits.”

As Roy gave some examples of Dr Seuss’s creations (like the Quink who drinks pink ink), there were predictable hints of disgruntlement among sections of the audience. “Shouldn’t children be taught to distinguish between fantasy and reality?” asked one lady, citing the example of a couple of kids who had thrown themselves off rooftops after watching the TV serial Shaktimaan (presumably pretending to be the superhero, or expecting him to come to their rescue). “Of course they should,” retorted Roy, “but that’s where the teacher/parent’s role as an interpreter is important. And that’s why telling stories to children firsthand is a better alternative anyway – television is a passive medium and too many parents leave their kids to watch TV by themselves, so they have no one to explain things to them.”

(Privately, Roy was less polite about the whole thing. “All of us have grown up with such TV shows,” she said to me later between puffs of her cigarette, “but very few of us go leaping off roofs. You have to think that in the case of children who do those things, there must already be other negative factors at work – lack of parental attention, an unhappy family environment – in the background.”)


  1. citing the example of a couple of kids who had thrown themselves off rooftops after watching the TV serial Shaktimaan

    All the more reason for parents and teachers to encourage kids to read and watch stuff like "Shaktimaan".

    [waits nervously for the lightning bolt]

  2. Huh? Honestly, I just don't get what Roy is trying to drive home here. I've never seen any teachers or parents who'd like to make children's books the vehicles of moral lessons. Sexual content bothers them, not fantasy.

    And I don't think contemporary India has anything to do with 1950s America. Hardly.

  3. A moral lesson is often the only thing that connects a fantasy story to the real world, at least in the less sophisticated, children's books.

    What use it is for children to read pure fantasy books which have nothing to do with the world they live in? I would rather have children go play outside than read books which don't help them in growing up and facing up to the adult world.

  4. Well said Alok, Of what use is a story with out a moral or with out a lesson. It's as good as catching a fish in a bottle with a fishing rod.

  5. I'm a parent and i know how--if at all--parents choose books for their kids: kindergarten kids routinely get ABC primers or badly illustrated and hopelessly written versions fo the Panchatantra. I'd say, more than the kids, it's the parents (and teachers) who need a crash course in reading children's books.

    Alok: I'm assuming you'd say differently about the 'more sophisticated children's books'. But have you even watched kids at play? They're not constantly deriving morals from it; quite the opposite. In fact, if writers stopped ramming morals down kids' throats, chances are, they'll find something in the stories they'll benefit from anyway.

    like Dr. Seuss says, It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how.

  6. Space Bar:
    When I contrasted play with books, I meant kids would get some exercise and fresh air as compared to when they are generally reading some pointless book about dragons and princesses and "having fun".

    Moral lessons are just one of the many ways fantasies inform and connect with the real world of the child reader, which is what I think is most important.

    Only then books can make kids engage with the world and with themselves, rather than escape from it.

  7. KM: no lightning bolt. I feel your pain.

    Swati: clearly we live in different worlds. I assure you there is a very widespread culture of conservatism here, with many parents and teachers being cautious about giving their kids anything that doesn't have a "moral". It was especially true of many of the schoolteachers from Jaipur, who perhaps hadn't had much exposure to fantasy literature. Some of them were quite wide-eyed when Anita talked about Dr Seuss.

    Alok (sigh, here we go again): lighten up, dude! The "use" of pure fantasy can simply be to develop a kid's imaginative horizons - something that he'll need as much as anything else when he has to deal with the bizarreness of the adult world (which, as you may have noticed, hardly operates on the rules of morality anyway!).

    More seriously - and we've had this discussion before - your definition of "nothing to do with the world they live in" is a little more strident than mine. Pratchett, for instance (and a lot of other fantasy writers), deals with issues that are very relevant to our world if you look beneath the surface of his stories.

    Spacebar's right that if "writers stopped ramming morals down kids' throats, chances are, they'll find something in the stories they'll benefit from anyway". And going off on a tangent, that applies as much to movies that are dismissed as "lightweight entertainment" ;)

  8. It's useless to read only "useful" books. The fact that a lot of Indians share this idiotic attitude is one reason why even highly-educated indians don't possess the reading habit.

    Engaging with reality is something kids do naturally. They see daddy getting drunk and beating up mummy, they see prem uncle next door having a fight with oberoi uncle about the right to park their cars in each other's face. They get molested by their servants---. Whether they like it or not, they engage with reality.

    Reading is a tool - something that allows you to access knowledge. The ability to read and absorb informaton fast is a very "useful" skill. it doesn't matter if it has been picked up and honed by reading something "useful". So long as it is picked up.

    If you can get kids to read anything (whether it's useful stuff like "turn clockwise to break seal and open jam-jar" or useless stuff like "Dragon ate princess enthusiastically and she came estatically" ) you've done them
    a major service.

    Let them grow up with a skill that they can use in any way they choose rather than imposing some weird metric of kids "must read useful stuff and engage with reality" on the poor little sods.

    It's just as stupid to expect initial reading exercises to be "useful and reflect reality" as it is to expect early mathematical problems (A farmer sold 12 apples and a cow for Rs 1 each??) to be "useful and engage reality".


  9. But Jai, would you really expect your kids (please don't have kids) to read Pratchett?

    If I ever have children they're learning the alphabet from Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies.

    Dragon ate princess enthusiastically and she came estatically...I think I read that one...

  10. Wow, I had the coolest parents and extended family then. I was always being gifted books without a shred of concern for any moral lessons they might contain. The only thing my mother would put her foot down for was sexual content, but even that didn't bother my Dad in the least.

    Again sorry to keep hammering away at this, but might it not be the case that the teachers and parents weren't necessarily framing fantasy literature in Dr. Seuss terms. What about the rich myths and fantasies that we already possess. Who would stop their kids from reading Sinhasan Battisi, simply because it doesn't have an obvious moral (note I didn't say Panchatantra, which is explicitly moralizing).

    Also, do check out the Eliot link I posted in my comment on the Vivek post.

  11. Swati: will check the link, thanks. have saved it.

    Aishwarya: couldn't open that link. The Net filter used by my office server (the same one that classified my site "Porn") has it classified under "Tasteless".

    DD: For the umpteenth time, start blogging now.

  12. i didnt have cool parents like thalassa_mikra. well they are pretty cool, but not the book giving sorts. they never had enough money for it. but what we did get were indrajal comics and amar chitra katha. and they costed just Rs1.50. that was enough to hook both my brother and me on to a reading habit. my guess is it doesnt take much to kindle the flame, its just that not enough people make the effort.

    am quite sure we didnt enjoy tinkle and amar chitra katha more than we did the phantoms and mandrake. afterall they weren't as 'cool' even if we didnt know what that word meant. cool definitely wins over morals, anyday.

    if we look back into our own childhood we might find some pointers.

    and i think anita roy's less polite comment made more sense... but how many people are willing to admit that they arent good enough parents? it strikes at the root of the only thing most people have in their lives - just being parents.

  13. In NY city public schools, someone came up with the bright idea of teaching lessons on "conflict resolution" and "listening skills" to elementary school kids. The lessons are based on "story" books that supposedly lead children to reflect on how they can develop said skills. I had to teach these lessons as a student teacher; the kids neither enjoyed nor learned from these "stories". An absolute waste of time.
    DD is right; you need to get to kids to read, and you should go with anything that holds their interest. I mean, caterpillars don't eat ice cream but show me one pre-school kid who doesn't love "The Hungry Caterpillar". I've sort of come to detest that book by now, but kids love it and it sustains their interest and excitement.

  14. KM: Cruel, but made me larf out loud. I can think of a few candidates... heehee.

    OTHERS: You might like to overhear another conversation I had with the principal of a nursery school after the festival. And I quote: "You see, Anita, children from the age of zero until five or six have NO imagination. It is very confusing to them if they read a dog talking in a book and then they go outside and see - dogs don't talk. That is why you chould ONLY have books on the real world. After six, then you can introduce elves and magic and suchlike."
    I was utterly gobsmacked. Especially since this was from someone who ran a school (on Montessori principles). I suspect that her tiny graduates would be prime candidates for the Shaktimaan High Jump on their sixth birthday!