The first book I ever bought for my son was before he was born. Unbeknownst to my family members (many of whom encourage waiting till after the birth to buy gifts for the baby), I had snuck into Boi Bichitra and grabbed a copy of “The Illustrated Quran Storybook" two months prior to the birth of my son; a gift I knew he wouldn't be able to read until he was much older. Now, at the age of three, my son has built his own miniature library consisting of three shelves and twenty books!
Having grown up a bookworm myself, it fills me with warmth to watch my son be as enthralled by words as I used to be. I started reading to him as early as at six months of age. Initially, sensory stimulation from a book took precedence for him over the story itself. So his first books consisted entirely of brightly coloured animals and flowers, cars, people, and geometrical shapes. When an image caught his attention, he would point at it, and we would learn its name, a dozen times over. This became our daily naptime/ bedtime routine. It is something I consciously established within my child's daily activities, something I deem as essential as eating and sleeping. It required a lot of work -- still does, and isn't always easy to accomplish in the hullabaloo of what we call life.
I think the simplest way to encourage hobbies in children is to lead by example, and show them how much fun they can be. So I started sharing my own love of reading with him; and my son, at eleven months old, became my partner in crime in one of my favourite activities: visiting the nearby bookstore. I let him look around, touch the books (under supervision, of course); I explained to him in simple words what they were about, and allowed him to pick his own. He delighted in the independence, and took his time to choose with an adorable frown of concentration creasing his little brows. When choosing his first books, I always considered the following:
● Sensory books with different textures, colours, and fun pop-up features which are interactive and engages all senses.
● It was also imperative that the books are tough, so as to endure his throwing, chewing and spills, which was inevitable in the early months.
Once I had those covered, the most important challenge remained: Setting aside reading time and mastering storytelling! Even in the middle of the omnipresent chaos of washing, cooking, and cleaning, the whirlwind of office emails/ calls, we set aside an hour each day for us to leaf through our favourite books together. My son loves it when I act out his stories in silly voices; his father joins us every so often. We encourage our son to pick his book for the day and it makes him especially happy when we request his help in turning pages. The idea is to create a scenario where he feels like an equal participant in our reading activity.
I encourage him to enjoy all types of protagonists regardless of gender, so that in addition to seeing himself in the stories he loves, he can also see his peers. We read about girls like Meena, Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, and Goldilocks alongside Peter-Pan, Mowgli, and other boys. I also actively started removing problematic features and stereotypical race/ gender roles in popular children's books; this is my attempt to ensure that in the future, my son is not too quick to judge a person simply based on physical appearance and gender. Our "Ugly Duckling" is never black, he is a random colour like a purple or a blue. Our Tona is a pitha-making expert, our Tuni rides a bicycle to the bazaar. And our Rapunzel knows how to save herself.
After his first birthday, I noticed my son started developing favourites from his little library. I have reread "Jack and the Beanstalk", "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", and "TonaToni" what feels like a million times. The repetition was tedious for me, but my son thrived on it. It seemed that he had finally started to appreciate his story books. I watched him beginning to draw parallels with the stories and everyday life, linking words to real objects and names to real people. For instance, every time we read the story of Goldilocks, he would point at me and exclaim: "Mummum Bear", to his father: "Baba Bear", and finally to himself: "Baby Bear". As months rolled by, the questions came: "Why was the door unlocked?", "Was Goldilocks scared?", "Was Baby Bear sad when his porridge was gone?", "Did they make more porridge later?" I could see the gears in his little mind turning, seeking reasons, and demanding answers.
Each time we read the same story, he seemed more engaged, his vocabulary expanded and he became more aware of the plot, pondering over the what-ifs, wondering about different scenarios and alternate endings. Watching my son with his books is like watching his mind expand before my eyes -- it is truly a surreal, magical experience.
When my son turned three years old, the cellphone became a very heavy distraction for him. Even though he was never allowed to operate one on his own, I do permit him screen-time during meals or when I need to complete a household chore, or write a quick email. However, when he started preferring the screen over his books, I knew I had to do something about it. It was a battle through tantrums and meltdowns, but my husband and I managed to establish to our son that cellphones are entirely personal possessions and not toys for play. This needed dogged discipline on our part, but in the end it became a great opportunity to teach him about personal boundaries.
In this fast moving world of cellphones and tablets, I believe the best way to encourage reading in children is to just be present. My son cannot "read" yet, per se, but his desire to make sense of the pictures and piece together the story has sped up his ability to recognize characters. He is able to recognize letters and match them to images in his book. For instance, if he spots an "A" somewhere in the text, he would immediately try to find an ant or an apple in the pictures. I'm so excited for him to finally start reading on his own, and unlock the magical realms of his imagination!