Since I can remember, my favorite night-time ritual has been reading a book to sleep. I carried that habit into my marriage, and my husband’s book collection and mine combine to form an entire wall in our room. So when our son came along, there was no question about it – we were going to raise a reader. My trunk is full of books from my childhood – from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and illustrated Russian fairy tales from old Soviet publications to Enid Blyton’s children’s classics – painstakingly procured from second-hand bookshops and carefully preserved in trunks. Carrying the weight of time and memory, these books are the kind of legacy that I want to hand down to my child.
We both know reading is a discovery, not a compulsion. So we introduced our son to the world of books from the time he was six months old and was able to hold or play with a book. Being readers ourselves helped because there was always some book or other lying around in the house, and he invariably ran into them when he began to crawl. They usually have attractive covers (we both are partial to well-designed books), which is the best lure. They can be bent, pages can be flipped, rustling sounds can be made. In the process, they become playthings.
The first time we saw our son playing with a book, my husband had a bright idea. He positioned the book to make it look like my son was actually reading it and photographed him with it. That has now become tradition, in our home. We photograph our son holding every book that we are reading! And one day all these photos will be compiled in a scrapbook and gifted to him when he is older, and he will have a faux literary legacy of his own.
We started keeping board books in my son’s path. Entranced by the colors and illustrations, he would open the book and peer inside. If it was a touch-and-feel book, he would get excited or puzzled by the different textures, and run his fingers over them. One of us would point out the words that accompanied the illustrations. On some nights, we sat with Goodnight Moon. When he got restless we introduced a new book. Sometimes we just let him chew the book. He explores books in the way he chooses, sometimes using his mouth, sometimes his eyes and ears. In this creative way, we hope to make reading an integral part of my son’s recreation and bedtime.
The best thing about reading to or with your child is the bonding it encourages. Since my son loves nothing more than to spend time with his mum, reading becomes a reason to sit together and forget the world as I try to keep him engaged by making funny sounds or exclamations so that the characters and words in the book come alive. This also helps step by step, to develop his vocabulary. Often I also read aloud whatever I am currently reading to him, be it a magazine, novel or academic text. As his first exposure to formal grammar, this is the kind of thing that will help him to make sentences as he grows.
Be warned; there’s the risk of your child ripping pages out. But though our son loves to tear up newspapers, he never does so with books. In some strange way, he seems to understand their sanctity. It could also be that since we are avid readers, he is emulating us and treating books with respect. That’s also a good cue that no matter what you do, you can be sure that no action of yours goes unnoticed by your child.
The habit of reading is always best when supplemented by storytelling, even if it is about mundane things. When I am spending time with my son, I narrate my daily activities in a singsong tone to him as I perform my chores. As he plays with his toys, I tell stories about them — where this elephant comes from, about the grumpy bear and the friendly dog, or the migratory birds that traveled from distant lands and now hang over him in his mobile crib. The idea that every object has a story is the best transition into books and reading and also helps to stimulate his imagination.
For us, letting our son be bitten by the reading bug early is important because, by the time he begins to engage with TV, mobile phones, and video games, books should be compelling enough for him not to abandon them in favor of cheaper thrills. By exposing him to the exciting life-worlds one day at a time, we hope to bring up not only a reader but an open-minded, empathetic individual. Because that is what books do.