Sunday, February 01, 2015

Books and Stuff

While applying to Bangalore schools last year, one of the questions I had to answer on an admission form was something along the lines of: "As a parent, what do you think is your role in your child's education?" I had a lot of fun answering this one and it helped crystallise my thoughts on the subject to a great extent.

The first part of my answer was some predictable spiel about supporting the school's efforts by ensuring that homework and projects were completed and to provide any additional academic support as required at home. When it comes to things school-related, that is really about it. I don't see myself taking anything more than a secondary role in their formal education. Of course, if the school is not doing its job properly, I will step up in the short term (as I did for two long, painful years in Hyderabad) but in the long term, it means that that school is not working for me and my kids. Also, I never really understood why people teach their kids to read ahead of them entering kindergarten. At the age of three (or four or even five), I have been happy to read to my kids - sometimes up to 6-7 books a day- but I do not have it in me to sit and teach them to read. That's what school is for. If I have to do it, why send them anyway?! 

Coming back to the question at hand, the larger part of my answer was about supplementing what they learn at school and broadening their horizons. There are, of course, many ways to do this but I have chosen to focus on two ways - books and travel.

As a family, we travel a lot more than most other people I know. Many people cut down their travel after having kids. For us, it has been the other way around. We hardly took any trips as a child-free couple with hectic jobs and clashing schedules. But out wanderlust really picked up after Tarana was born and we have been taking 4-6 trips a year since Tarana turned one (ranging from longer trips to foreign locales to mini-breaks over extended weekends). 

Especially with Ayaan, I can now really see the whole 'broadening of horizons' thing in action when we travel. He is deeply fascinated with subway trains thanks to our trips to London and seems to have begun a life-long affair with dams thanks to our trip to the River Tern Lodge on the Bhadra reservoir. And those examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the thoughts, ideas and conversations that have been sparked off by the some of the places we have visited. 

But given the time (and money) constraints, there is only so much travel that we can do. And that is where books come in. Books are the ultimate way to travel without leaving the comfort of your home - a beautifully convenient way to access other worlds and other times. 

I take my job of keeping the kids well-supplied with books very seriously. Thanks to some friends who are the bee's knees of children's literature, books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and some great online resources like Saffron TreeCommon Sense Media, and lists like this one, I have been spoiled for choice when it comes to picking up some pretty awesome books for them. Unfortunately, we don't have a tradition of good public libraries here in India, so I end up spending a lot of our hard-earned money on buying books but second-hand book stores like Blossoms help soften the blow on my wallet.

This year, Ayaan has China as a key subject in Social Studies, and he has been quite fascinated with the country and its history. Travel to China not being feasible in the near future, I began to hunt for books that were set in the country. With advice from one of the friends mentioned above, I finally closed on two books - one fiction and the other non-fiction. Here's a little bit about them.

The Girl Mechanic of Wanzhou
Marjorie Sayer 

Set in 1902, The Girl Mechanic of Wanzhou is a work of historical fiction that follows the adventures of 12-year old Zun, who is on the run from the Magistrate after her father has been killed by his soldiers and her mother has been imprisoned as a rebel. 

To say that I have a thing for children's books that feature strong and independent female characters would be something of an understatement. Zun's character is powerfully etched - she is not bound by traditional gender roles (her feet are not bound, she can read and she often accompanies her father to work) and she is both fearless and analytical. 

While the writing and the plot could have been a little tighter, Sayer's rendition of early 20th century China rings pretty true and it gives one a good peek into what it must have been like to live in those times across socio-economic divides - as a middle class urban-dweller, an impoverished villager, an affluent and powerful Magistrate and even as a servant in the Magistrate's household. While the book deals with a pretty heavy topic (the loss of Zun's parents), there are enough lighter, even humorous, bits in the book to keep it on an even keel - a pig who can perform martial arts being the most notable.

Overall, both Ayaan and I enjoyed the book and I hope it gave him some insight into what growing up in early twentieth century China must have been like. I would think that the content (mostly the death part) and reading difficulty would make the book ideally suited to children over 10 years of age.

Not for Parents - China: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
From the guys at Lonely Planet  

This book is part of a series by Lonely Planet books for kids, each of which focus on a country or a city. The 'Not-for-Parents' tag definitely tickled Ayaan's funny bone and I got a fake disapproving glare when he saw me flipping through it. 

It's a pretty neat book which covers a lot of subjects ranging across history, culture, technology and architecture, amongst other things. Each topic is covered briefly with lots of little interesting facts and some witty quips thrown in. It is a little sparse on details, but does provide links to relevant websites at the bottom of most pages for kids looking to dive in deeper into that particular aspect of the country.  While the book clearly pronounces that it is 'not a guidebook', it would be a fun companion to carry along if one were travelling to China. I shall be definitely looking out for their books on places that we will travel to in the future! I would think that any kid over the age of 7 would find this book an easy and fun read. 

But I am still on the look-out for a more in-depth yet age appropriate non-fiction tome on China. Do drop me a line in the comments if you know of any that you might recommend.


  1. Ooh are you in Bangalore these days?

    1. Yes, just 8 months old :-)

  2. Both the books seem fascinating! Especially the first one, I think I'll enjoy that! :)

  3. Thanks for the reviews Rohini. Will get the second one for the kids. Let me go check it out.

  4. Anamom3:42 pm

    Long time ! Missed your posts...

    I was a complete bookworm as a kid (so much so that I harbored aspirations of becoming a librarian when I grew up) but not very patient now when it comes to reading out books for my 2 year old .The husband does much better in this department :) But remembering your old blog posts and how reading out to Ayaan starting from childhood has made him quite the book lover, reminds me that I should keep at it for my daughter to eventually develop a love for reading.

    On an unrelated note, hope I can meet/talk to you and your kids in person sometime now that you are in Bangalore. I

    1. Sure, would love to meet. Let's plan something.

  5. Hello Rohini,

    Long time reader but commenting for the first time. Agree about broadening their horizon through books and travel.

    I have a 4 yr old son who has speech delays. Reading books has helped him so much and i think he is a visual learner. At times I feel like if his day is captured in a book, he will be to talk about what he did during the day:)

    Kids books are not cheap. So I am Thankful that we have an awesome public library system in the US.I become like a kid in candy store when I am in the library.

    1. I think public libraries is what I envy the most when it comes to people living in the U.S!

      Maybe your son will start to write about his day when his writing skills develop!