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Reading between the Lines―Venkatesh M. Swamy & Swati Roy

Report / Asian Literature Project "YOMU" (India)

Children's literature in India is in good hands. It is in the hands of the children and, as more children and families read together, the post-pandemic scenario looks bright.

"Without books, exercising the right to life and freedom of expression, which includes quality of life, will not attain its complete meaning."

Last month (September, 2021), an organisation of Marathi book publishers from Pune filed a plea in the Bombay High Court, with the argument mentioned above, seeking to include the sale of books as an essential service under the ESMA (Essential Services and Maintenance Act). These publishers were urging the government to take a leaf out of Kerala's book. The southern state had taken the initiative to declare books as essential services during the pandemic.

When the waves of Covid-19 left unimaginable tragedy in their wake, there was another set of woes in that were closing in silently on families. Children who were forced to stay cooped up in homes faced a traumatic time. No friends, no play, no outings. They were left with only screens of various sizes whether it was for education or for entertainment. There is only so much screen time the human eye and brain can take in. And this manifested itself in various forms and challenges.

How did their parents cope? And, more importantly, how did the children cope?

When the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns kicked in mid-March 2020, digital storytelling, workshops and book reading sessions held sway for some months. But the initial enthusiasm receded as online school classes naturally took precedence and screen fatigue hit children hard.

It was a new world that everyone was dealing with. A world without human contact. Visiting a bookstore or a library—whether a local library or the school library—was out of the question. Young or old, rich or poor, when life halted, many turned to reading books as a therapeutic coping mechanism. Booklovers and booksellers rose to the occasion as heart-warming stories kept pouring in—of mobile libraries on two-wheelers taking books to children of migrant workers, bookstores making that extra effort to help readers get the book they wanted, parents reading out picture books to their children, a library run by children for less-privileged ones that braved the pandemic and many more.

Friends would marvel at their children spending hours reading on her own and finishing book after book in quick succession. Many of these children were hardly reading books before the pandemic. One bookstore owner we spoke to explained how they obtained a 'Curfew' Pass for the staff during the lockdown just so their people could go and deliver books to customers who could not—or would not—step out of their homes.

Reading became the coping mechanism to beat all coping mechanisms. Children who faced anxiety and the unpredictability of a stressful situation and period, relied on reading to help them cope. And there is nothing like a children's book to dispel the gloom—even when adults read it. Bibliotherapy has been recognised as a sure-fire way to handle tough situations. In her 1997 paper, A Parent's Guide to Helping Children: Using bibliotherapy at Home, Mary Rizza of the University of Connecticut had this to say: Bibliotherapy is useful because it allows the child to step back from her/his problem and experience it from an objective viewpoint. It offers the child a safe avenue to investigate feelings. For an adult having to deal with a child in distress, it can also provide a nonthreatening way to broach a sensitive subject. Always remember, bibliotherapy is a conversation starter, not ender. It should be used to open up communication. Handing a book to a child in the hopes that she/he will understand your intention is not helpful. Connections need to be facilitated and open expression should be encouraged.

That truth holds even more now, nearly a quarter of a century later, especially with Covid-19 creating havoc of an unprecedented magnitude.

What started as a coping tool during the dark days of 2020, stayed with children and parents. One bookstore that we visited had children and parents (who did not know each other even remotely before meeting here) sitting on the floor and sharing the excitement of a book. After months of isolation, the charm of meeting other children in the background of reading had to be seen to be believed. The initial hesitation of interacting with another child soon dissipated as they got along like long-lost friends.

So, what lies ahead?

Post the opening up of cities, many bookstores registered month-on-month increase in the sales of children's books. Parents are looking out for physical interactions through storytelling and book reading. They are no longer inhibited about stepping outdoors. In-person children's literature festivals and book-related events are making a cautious comeback. Globally, the Frankfurt Book Fair has announced its launch dates for later this year (as of October, 2021).

In Delhi, Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival is planning its next edition slated for the last weekend of November. The New Delhi World Book Fair has declared its intention of going ahead with the 2022 edition. Bookstores and libraries are opening their doors with as much enthusiasm as the children walking in. Such developments promise to keep the fire that was lit during the pandemic to keep burning brighter and brighter.

What are they reading?

In the past 20 months, many books with interesting stories of hope have emerged. Some of the names that leap to the mind are A Bend in Time (a book written by children asking as well as answering questions about coping during the pandemic), Ruskin Bond's short story collection, It's a Wonderful World, also has the author's very own lockdown journal. Paro Anand's Unmasked is a collection of stories about despair, courage and hope that are built around the period of the pandemic. There was something for everyone. Adults too had something coming their way. More than one hundred poets got together to bring out an anthology of poems in response to the pandemic in Singing in the Dark, edited by K Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla.

Toddlers and babies were not ignored either. Several publishers came out with board books—for the 0-4 age group—such as What is a Virus?, Washy Wash and other Healthy Habits that shares information like washing hands and social distancing through fun poems. Then there was Smiley Eyes, Smiley Faces. The book tells little ones about masks in an interactive way.

Letters from Lockdown recounts famous people's experience during the lockdown, how they coped and what they did. However, it wasn't just such lockdown-specific books that made their way into homes. Children have been reading all kinds of books since being isolated. Some graduated quickly to the next level as they spent more time at home and with parents who took to reading—at least in urban households. Children in underprivileged sections of society may have had to forego their reading as school was no longer an option but many community libraries came to their rescue in many ways.

As the mustiness and the rustiness begin to fall off like unwanted cloaks, the future of children's literature—and reading—looks to emerge stronger and more resilient.

Venkatesh M. Swamy & Swati Roy
The authors are festival directors of the Delhi-based Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival