Read-alouds have so much power. Most people understand that reading contributes to an increase in the development of essential language skills and fosters imagination and creativity in children. However, developing a love for reading goes way beyond this. Books act as both windows and mirrors. They help us understand ourselves and the world better. Furthermore, reading diverse books, hearing different voices helps us develop empathy, critical thinking skills, and makes us aware of the many worlds that co-exist with ours. Prof. Kumar (1992) says that, “Storytelling deserves to be seen as a civilisational practice, which permits us to protect the diversity of cultural experiences and stances from the homogenising effects of modern education and media.” Apart from the explicit and implicit learning, reading is quite a pleasurable experience in itself.
Read-alouds can be started with children as young as six months old. The world of picture books can be magical. It’s amazing how pictures have the potential to capture one’s imagination and are such an essential ingredient in attracting little ones towards books. Understanding the stories and the words come much later. Often, picture books for children have an interesting use of language and are written in a fun, rhyming format. Storytelling needs to be seen as an experience. Rosenblatt (1980) says that, “Efferent reading will select out the desired referents and ignore or subordinate affect. Aesthetic reading, in contrast, will fuse the cognitive and affective elements of consciousness – sensations, images, feelings, ideas – into a personally lived through poem or story.” If we think of it as an experience, it is quite similar to how we listen to music or see a film. Good storytellers select the best of books and then work to create a bond between the book and the child. For early readers, the beauty of reading storybooks also lies in the fact that it is a non-stressful, enjoyable activity. The kids are not tested on the books. The words can be read again and again and the pictures can be seen whenever the child wants to go back to them. There is no one way to read or think about a storybook. Children have the freedom to read from whatever page they please and are under no pressure to complete the whole story. When introducing storybooks in schools or homes, we have to ensure that there is access to good quality books as well as the freedom to explore them without pressure.
Curating good books for children at an individual level is not an easy task. There are so many new titles that are published every year. You need to know the good publishers, visit their individual websites, go through each of the titles, look out for known authors and illustrators, try to get a copy to browse through or check if it is available on YouTube and then procure them. There are several limitations at every step and it is a very time-consuming process. Another way is selecting good quality books by recommendation, which is much faster and more efficient. Most of us rely on recommendations by fellow readers who include educators, parents, librarians, and independent bookstores.
When Parag announced its first Parag Honour List (PHL) in 2020, we were thrilled! Parag is an initiative of the Tata Trusts, set up about two decades ago. It supports the development of and access to good quality storybooks for children in Indian languages. The Parag Honour List is a first of its kind effort in India, of an independently curated list of outstanding books published in Hindi and English across genres and age-group spanning 0-16 years. The books comprise original writings in the category of picture books, young readers, and young adults, in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Over the last four years, PHL has honoured more than 180+ books, out of which almost 65 are in Hindi! The 4th edition of the PHL was released in February this year. The list is created annually with careful screening and multiple reviews by experts in the children’s literature sector. Previous jury members have been writers, poets, and eminent educationists including Dr. Arvind Gupta, Usha Mukunda, Sandhya Rao, Mini Srinivasan, Samina Mishra, Jeeva Raghunath, Majiri Nimbkar, Anita Balasubramanian, Thejaswi Shivanand, Arun Kamal, Gurbachan Singh, Suneeta Mishra, Arundhati Devastale, Prachi Kalra, Manoj Kumar, Shaili Sathyu, and Teji Grover.
Jugnoo Publications – an imprint of Ektara Trust – dominated the Hindi PHL 2023 with 18 of their books getting selected out of the total 21 this year. In the past, we have thoroughly enjoyed their poetry books. Our favourites have been Bees Kachouri Poori Tees written by Sriprasad and illustrated by Proiti Roy; Bhai Tu Aise Kavita Kyu Karta Hai written by Sushil Shukla and illustrated by Vanadana Bisht and Keral Ke Kele written by Prayag Shukla and illustrated by Debabrata Ghosh. The kids have giggled with delight during the read-alouds. The books have beautiful full-page illustrations, humour, and a sweet play of words which sets your imagination rolling in many ways. The poetry offers freedom and inspires readers to make poetry. Our kids kept trying to make short kavitas after reading these books!
We also absolutely loved the wordless picture books by Pratham Publications. Ikru’s First Day at School by Sunaina Coelho, This is Where We Live by Manjiri Chakravati and Snip by Canato Jimo. What we noticed was that with wordless picture books, the storytelling differs with the storyteller as there is no script to follow. The storytellers and the audience notice different things during different readings which is so amazing. Our kids read and re-read Snip. The book has so much mischief and play in it. Following the readings, our elder son experimented with cutting his hair on his own and the younger one kept trying out different head gears!
The other picture books we enjoyed include Lila’s Loose Tooth written by Mamta Nainy and illustrated by Habib Ali, Nani’s Walk to the Park by Deepa Balsavar; The Runaway Peacock written by Niyatee Sharma and illustrated by Shailja Jain in fiction and Zakir and his Tabla – Dha Dhin Na by Sandhya Rao and illustrated by Priya Kurian in non-fiction. After reading Lila’s Loose Tooth, our son kept asking when his teeth will fall off! He loved the ending. Nani’s Walk to the Park makes the ordinary, extraordinary. Love how the lanes are named – the lane of happiness, the lane of dreams and so on. Nani’s interaction with the neighbourhood exudes so much warmth. Reminds me of our grandfather, who took out time to interact with his neighbourhood and build a kinship with the wider community. There are so many wonderful things in the book both for children as well as adults. Additionally, it is in a big book format and has lovely pictures which makes it perfect for reading out loud to a group of students as well. The Runaway Peacock is an adventure of a peacock who runs away from a saree. Spotting the peacock on every page was so much fun for the children! Another book by Tulika Publishers, Zakir and his Tabla – Dha Dhin Na was just brilliant and so inspiring. The author Sandhya Rao also did an online workshop for kids where she showed original pictures and shared incidents that went beyond the book. The father-son relationship and the idea of riyaaz left a lasting impression on us.
What we read can really impact both the children and us. What keeps amazing me is when the children refer to the book in some way or do something related to the book, weeks or even months after reading it. Surprisingly, children as small as one can recall and relate things from storybooks. Amongst the first five words our first child spoke was haathi. He had never seen an elephant in real life but his first and favourite book for a very long time was Haathi Bhai a book based on a Gujarati rhyme and illustrated by Paridhi Didwania. The word came from the book! It just reinforces my belief that we must keep striving to offer our children the best of children’s literature. PHL is a big help for the same. It features some of the best Indian authors and illustrators and spans across various themes. Susan Engel (1995) stresses that, “Listening to and telling stories are cultural activities. As children learn the story form, they also learn about their culture. In turn, through stories, aspects of their culture shape the way they think and remember about experiences.” An Indian list is what we have needed for a very long time. Importantly, some of these books have been translated into other Indian languages. We hope that these brilliant books can be translated in many more languages and can be procured easily and reach a much wider audience. We haven’t read all the books featured on the lists but we keep going back to PHL and picking up books depending on the current interests and age group of the children. This time there are 12 picture books for early readers. We just can’t wait to read some of them!!
- Kumar. K. (1992). What is worth teaching? India: Orient Longman Pvt. Ltd.
- Rosenblatt. Louise M. (1980). What Facts Does This Poem Teach You? Language Arts, 57, Pp. 386-394.
- Engel. Susan. (1995). The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood. W.H. Freeman and Company.
The author is the founder of Kashti, an educational initiative which aims to inspire compassion, critical awareness, and conscious action for a better world. Currently, she holds workshops with primary and pre-primary teachers as well as parents on ‘Raising Readers’, ‘Re-Centering Play’ and ‘Foundational Mathematics’. She can be reached at email@example.com or you can see her work at https://www.instagram.com/kashtiofficial/