Revisiting serious literature read during childhood: The pertinent question of ‘right’ age

As a person with a childhood before the internet revolution, I grew up reading lots of books during childhood. If someone asks me to name a few of them, then it would be a surprise to note that many of them were not child literature. I have read Malayalam translated versions of Greek mythologies, historical novels like The Miserables by Victor Hugo, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and so on while studying in primary classes. When I say this, some might even go to the extend of saying that I am self-boasting. But the truth is this: I was in an autopilot mode where I had no idea on what to read, and often it was just that I was given a book to read by the librarian. Yes, I have read them. But did I really read them comprehensively? Did I appreciate the book? Answer is No. I can only remember I have read that book. Not just few pages, but fully. Now the next question is How did that happen if I did not understand anything in the book? Perhaps I just liked the idea of reading, but not grasping the idea of book. I remember discussing with a friend on Oedipus and Electra Complex, where I became excited to say that “I know, I know, these characters are from Greek mythologies”. But the fact is that I knew them, but could not connect appropriately to the context. Now that I look back, I wonder how many classics were wasted by my mechanical (though devoted!) and untimely reading. I am sure that what those great books really depict will neither be understood nor be able to be appreciated until we reach a certain age. For this reason, I would love to reread all those books, and see how do I perceive and appreciate them now. Certainly, there would be a huge difference.

Well, this poses another question on the flip side: are there some books you should read only when you are a child? Probably yes, probably not. However, the relevance of children’s literature can never be compromised. Children’s literature such as myths, fairy tales and fables have an important role in drawing children towards books. It helps in developing reading and thinking capabilities which are gradually upgraded to serious literature. It also helps children respond to narratives. Unfortunately, writers who engage in children’ s literature are quite low these days. I am skeptical whether this is only true for Malayalam children’ s literature. We don’t have many indigenous authors truly dedicated to Malayalam children’s literature; all I can think of is Kunjunni Master, Sippi Pallippuram, S Sivadas and K Pappootty. That was why most of the Malayalam Children’s literature that are popularly available are mainly translated versions. For example, Aesop’s fables, Totto-Chan, Panchatantra, Russian fairy tales etc. That is not bad either. Translated children’s literature had a great role in propagating reading habits among children. That was one reason why more funds were allocated to renovate school libraries. However, are there new children’s literature emerging out, apart from what we have read during our childhood? Don’t know, probably children would end up on same books that we had read years ago. Apparently, rereading children’s literature as an adult is also another interesting aspect. Though at first glance it may sound silly, there is no doubt that revisits will bring in comfort, nostalgia, relaxation, and perhaps some trace disappointment that you can’t go back.

Parents also could play a role in childhood reading. They could watch children’s reading habits, discuss with them how did they feel about the book, whether they understand the and appreciate the book. Accordingly, parents could direct their children to choose books appropriate to their level of reading, maturity and sensibility. Websites such as amazon is used to providing reading age range, grade level, Lexile measure and category in product description. However, unlike in the past, it is seen that modern day parents tend to prefer other extra curricular activities such as drawing, bottle art, singing, swimming, karate, personality development classes rather than reading. They are all certainly good for one or another reason; at the same time, children should be also educated about the prospect of reading habit in life. Parents should also not overdo this; meaning not force their children to read heavier books just to show off to the world how well they can read at younger age.

Now, the famous Harry Potter. I remember few friends in my school were talking about it. I attempted once to read, but left with me an impression that it is a ‘hard’ book to read. Not only that, it also created in me an impression that those who finish reading Harry potter must be intelligent. Many parents consider their children reading Harry Potter at the age of five as a matter of pride and honour. While the maturity and sensibility varies from child to child, to be honest, I am dubious whether they understand it fully at younger age like five and six. Of course, there is no clear rule of thumb available to accurately assign a book to an age group. Our concept of how a child thinks should be introspected too. Some children may approach life like an adult, and may deliberately choose to read a particular book too earlier than it is supposed to be. Fine. What if the book did not work? There are two chances. One is where the child might come back to it again when become older, reads it, understands it and appreciates it. Good enough. Another is where there is no come back. This is a problem because, in this case the child is missing out what insights the book had to offer. Just like my Harry Potter case. As every book has only one chance to impress us, it is quite reasonable for a child to wait few years to read a book that is meant to an older age group. So, it appears to me that right book at right age is a matter of finding a sweet spot amidst complexities.

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