L is for Literature
Before we talk of literature, let us spend a few minutes on love and loss. It’s famously agreed upon that we don’t know how children’s minds work (though we were ourselves at that stage in this very lifetime). We can agree, however, on what it is that appeals to them. One of our student’s notebooks is full of drawings of monsters. Not friendly monsters, but strong, evil, threatening monsters. Another one is obsessed with Superheroes. My own granddaughter lives in a fancy world of ghosts, both good and evil, and makes rapid transitions between worlds, material ones like ours, and extra-sensory ones of her imagination.
In short, what children have on their minds is relationships, their attachments and intimacies, their conflicts and alienation. They have perceived love in the world they are discovering around them, but they have also heard of and suspect things about loss. Indeed, as soon as a two year old is first dropped off at Playgroup, or a three year old starts Preschool, they have already learnt everything they will ever learn about the betrayal of love and the predominance of loss.
If we start children off at a very early age with literature, we accomplish several things all at once. We give them super-efficient tools with which to interpret the world. We give them windows through which to enter parallel worlds and wonder effortlessly at the similarities and differences with their own. They learn to think of their own emotions and to empathise with others’. Among a score of other wonderful processes literature enables is one called Bildung. The German term refers to the cultivation of maturity through a harmonizing of mind and body, the self and society, education and pleasure—a subtle kind of emergence of selfhood within the larger world. This “coming of age” typically takes place through challenges, conflicts, and myriads of adventures.
Everything a child encounters is teaching them something. How can we count the ways?! Imagine, then, the riches at our disposal in the form of books, literally, hundreds and thousands of them, their easy availability, and the sheer happiness and empowerment from reading them.
A popular exercise is for publishers and others to compile lists of the ‘best’ books, the ones everyone absolutely must read. Speaking of Western literature, there is a canon for a long time, a list that starts with Homer and Virgil and comes down to (some would say) Rowling and (I would say) Le Guin. Speaking of South Asian (Indian) literature, my list includes the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, both in William Buck’s translations; Pancatantra; Premchand’s stories; Tagore’s stories; any novel by R.K. Narayan; and first-rate novels in other Indian languages that await translation.
In India, we may be only beginning yet on the process of distribution, circulation, and translation, but rather than lamenting the shortage of titles, we should turn to the challenges of popularizing literature among children. Let us, all the lovers of literature, start a movement!
Two amazing writers that I want to mention are Philip Pullman (b. 1946) and Ursula le Guin (1929-2108), less popular but greater than E.K. Rowling. Among Pullman’s vast oeuvre is a trilogy of novels that weave around the themes of what is God (the Authority), life and death, childhood and adulthood, virtue and vice, love and loss. The protagonists are children, especially Lyra, a girl a young reader could identify with.
Among Le Guin’s novels, again we have an imaginary world (together with its maps) where there is wizardry and witchery, but throughout a search for the meaning of life and death, good and evil, human-ness and its opposite. The protagonist grows up, but starts off as a young boy going to school, and the female protagonist as a child.
What makes these novels so good, so useful, so powerful, so un-put-downable?
Unlike much of the Indian fiction in English, they are very well written. In their sophistication, they would be easy to classify with good writing of any kind, not just for children. Secondly, they are not moralizing tales, though some of that always creeps in, especially with Pullman. If we want sheer hair-raising fun that borders crazily on insanity, yet keeps teetering on the brink of reality, we have to pick up one of the 13 or so novels called A Series of Unfortunate Events by Daniel Handler under the name of Lemony Snicket. The three siblings Violet, Klaus and Sunny, who is only a toddler, take on the whole world and are better in a quiet, intelligent way than the big superheroes.
I will resist the temptation to name more books. I will quickly come back to love and loss. Children love so many things—do we teach them to differentiate and how? Children experience so many losses of prized possessions, how do we broach the largest loss of all, the death of a family member, friend, or pet?
My submission is that we adults cannot teach these things. Children’s minds are not equipped to grasp our adult formulations of love and death. Even many adults’ minds are not. Literature enters to resolve the issue of the teaching of philosophy, morals, ethics, social systems, inter-personal relations, epistemology, and just about everything else.
But wait, you need a library.
Both at school and at home we can and should have a library. Regrettably, most schools in India either have a good collection kept behind closed doors, or boast, as does a fancy school:
The library is equipped with a large number of teaching aids, charts, latest CDs, journals, reference books
and multimedia kits which are a great source of knowledge for the students. [italics mine]
This has no mention of fiction, poetry or drama! Nor is this an oversight. The preoccupation with testing and increasing ‘knowledge’ has made educators blank out on the pleasures and virtues of reading, and the true meaning of a library. I do want to mention the beautiful libraries of some schools, such as that of Wynberg Allen in Mussoorie, Sardar Patel in Delhi, La Martiniere and Loreto in Lucknow, and Vidyashram—the Southpoint in Varanasi
Covid-19 took a hard toll on libraries worldwide. To justify budgets all libraries in the West have hugely increased multi-media resources. But the best of them have also turned to strategies to remind their clients of the varieties of literature and what they offer to big and small.
As for home, start with one book. It builds up if you make a book the gift you expect and give. If you put aside the cost of a snack each month. If you make it part of the monthly allowance of your child. If you cut, paste, write and illustrate simple books with and for the smallest readers. Voila—a library!