Bookworm Babies – Literary Choices For Children

“A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.”

Our monthly book club meet was held over the weekend. The debate segment for this month was titled “Freedom To Choose Books” . The floor was left open for discussion on the subject of whether parents should select books for children, or should kids be allowed to read what they want to read. As with any debate session, we were not looking for right or wrong answers, but a fair conversation that shed light on both hemispheres of the argument.

The points put forth regarding parents deciding what literature the child should avail of, cited reasons of children not knowing what to choose if left to their own devices. When it comes to very young kids, language learning with growth in vocabulary and improvement in grammar are of prime importance. At this age, the child is picking up new words, stringing them together into sentences, and learning how to make coherent conversation. Picture books were suggested as essential learning aids at this age of development, where the child associates a word/phrase with pictures, which helps in imprinting what is being read. A child left to pick whatever he/she wants at the bookstore might choose on the basis of bright colorful books with eye-catching covers that might not necessarily contribute much in terms of the text. When parents read to children, the latter learn to associate the words heard with those displayed in front of them.

Moving on to older kids, pre-teens or teenagers, the opinions were quite divided. If the parents, grandparents or other older family members are all avid readers and the child is born and brought up surrounded by books, they might try exploring on their own. A member cited an instance of her ten year old reaching for a Sidney Sheldon from the mother’s bookshelves. The latter offered an Enid Blyton instead as more age appropriate reading. When books are on full display, curious children will want to read them all, not knowing about genre or age-specific reading. The parents’ prudence comes into play here – in not only discouraging the child from picking up a book not meant for them, but also suggesting appropriate alternatives.

When it comes to age appropriate books, there is, however, a wide discrepancy in what is available in the market. Most kids love comics – they are fun, quick reads and help pass the time if the child is left unattended and needs to be kept busy. They might not, however, build vocabulary or sentence structure, and do not teach paragraph formation or changing between direct and indirect speech in a longer text. Translated books (or just about any book for that matter) might have grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or any editorial inaccuracies that the parents need to check for, since the child is at an impressionable age and might assume what they are reading to be absolutely correct.

An observation was cited about pre-teens/teens who access Kindles and other e-readers, wherein parents are unaware of the kinds of e-books being downloaded. A helpful aid here is to encourage the child to analyse and share their thoughts on what has been read. Three children at the book meet reviewed books they had read – Anne Frank’s “The Diary Of A Young Girl”, Ashwin Sanghi’s “The Krishna Key”, and John Green’s “Paper Towns”. These happened to be all paperbacks. But even when it comes to e-books, initiating a literary discussion enables parents to know what books are being read, and at the same time respecting their kids’ literary choices. Some might prefer to write down their thoughts, reflect on the story in case of fiction, or on world events in case of non-fiction, or draw comparisons with what they have just read and other books by the same author, or books on similar themes. Children who prefer being vocal can be led into a conversation on the same lines – would they recommend the book to others, any quotes or phrases that stood out, any new words they learnt, their reasons for liking/not liking the book or parts of it. An added benefit of vocalizing one’s thoughts is that parents can check for pronunciations, and correct any discrepancies in the written word versus spoken word. Very often even avid readers mispronounce words because they have never heard them and only read about them.

A point was also made of the role of siblings in reading choices. When it comes to new writers in the market, parents might not be aware of current works of literature. Rather than pushing one’s own childhood reads onto one’s child, elder siblings or cousins who have read newer books might be a good lead in what they would recommend to their younger selves. Children being curious also like to see the books their siblings are reading and this offers an opportunity to diversify reading habits, and have an engaging book discussion with someone from a similar age group.

The presence of children at the meet ensured a well-rounded discourse by receiving their perspectives as well. The session came to an end with the youngest participant expressing her views that she would prefer having her parents select books for her to read, because she trusts them in making better choices.

At the end, there is no right or wrong between who selects the books. The emphasis is on the context of reading in children. The age of the child, external influences from schools and peer groups, presence or absence of older/younger siblings, the child’s grasp over the language of reading, reasons for reading (pass the time or improve vocabulary) – many factors play a role in whether children should pick their own books or parents need to intervene in their literary choices.



Writer Wednesdays – Michael Morpurgo

“For me, the greater part of writing is daydreaming. The writing down I always find hard. But I love holding the finished book in my hands and sharing my dream with my readers.”

A friend seeking book recommendations for gifting to a thirteen year old, was suggested books by Michael Morpurgo for his very real world themes and the fabulous illustrations that accompany his works. This led me to select Michael Morpurgo as the author for this weekly feature. Morpurgo is an English author, poet and playwright, best known for his children’s novels and his skill of magical storytelling. His writing themes deal with triumph of outsiders, survival against odds, human-animal relationships, and a connect with nature, all created under vivid settings.

Morpurgo credits his writing career as being inspired by Ted Hughes’ “Poetry In The Making” , Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose” , and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea“. Hughes was a neighbor, friend and mentor, and along with another poet – Seán Rafferty – was influential in Morpurgo’s career as a writer. Describing his vocation in life and the authors who inspired him, Morpurgo quoted, “I could see there was magic in it for them, and realized there was magic in it for me.”

Morpurgo and his wife Clare (the eldest daughter of Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books), established “Farms For City Children” in 1976 – a charity which worked to provide children from cities experiences of the countryside. The children are required to spend a week at a countryside farm, during which time they participate in purposeful farmyard work. The charity presently has three farms in Devon, Gloucestershire and Wales.

Over a hundred novels to choose from if you haven’t read him already.

Morpurgo writes on myriad topics, providing children a huge canvas to experience various lives the characters of his books lead. Some of his works revolving around animals include the most popular Warhorse (1982) – about a horse that has seen the best and worst of humanity in WWI, The Butterfly Lion (1996) – about an orphaned lion cub rescued from the wild and sold to a circus, Born to Run (2007) – about a pet greyhound kidnapped by a trainer to be converted to a champion race dog, Kaspar (2008) – the titular prince, the only cat to have survived the sinking of the Titanic, Shadow (2010) – based on a true story of a service dog assumed dead in an ambush, found a year later living with locals in a war zone, An Elephant In The Garden (2013) – about a zoo keeper’s children who get attached to an elephant set to be destroyed as a precautionary measure. And then there are the “people” stories. Kensuke’s Kingdom (1999) – about a family out yachting that goes overboard, with the young child finding himself on the shore of a remote island,  Alone On A Wide Wide Sea (2006) – about two orphaned siblings separated as children, and their search for each other in adulthood.

One of Morpurgo’s most famous books.

Morpurgo was awarded the Prix Sorcières in 1993 for King Of The Cloud Forests, in 1999 for Wombat Goes Walkabout, and in 2001 for Kensuke’s Kingdom. He received the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize in 1996 for The Butterfly Lion, and in 2002 for The Last Wolf.  The Red House Children’s Book Award was presented in 2004 for Private Peaceful, in 2011 for Shadow, and in 2017 for An Eagle In The Snow. He received an OBE in 2006 for his services to literature. Several of his stories have been adapted for screen or stage. Gentle Giant was presented as an opera at the Royal Opera House in 2006. Friend or Foe, Private Peaceful, and Why The Whales Came were made into films as well, while My Friend Walter, Purple Penguins and Out Of The Ashes were adapted for television. Rainbow Bear was presented as a ballet by the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain in 2010. War Horse was made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2011. michaelmorpurgobooks

Morpurgo’s writing is superbly supported by illustrations reflecting the story line. His books are a treat for children and adults alike, and his stories based on true incidents with their evocative narration help build empathy in kids.

~ “Live an interesting life. Meet people. Read a lot and widely; learn from the great writers.”

~ “Write because you love it; something you feel deeply and passionately about. Never try and force it.”

~ “Animals are sentient, intelligent, perceptive, funny and entertaining.”

~ “Never underestimate or patronize children.”

A biography of the beloved children’s author by Maggie Fergusson.