Students will not just learn wizardly literature but also topics of bullying, democracy, and inclusion.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a hipster coffee joint, chatting with children’s books writers and publishers, and the subject inevitably veered towards children’s books.
Over cups of fragrantly-flavoured latte, we discussed how children’s books tackle a diverse range of subjects – in India and internationally – including themes of environment, gender, sexuality, war, prejudice, and politics. We also agreed that they would make for great classroom reading, and many teachers already use some of these books.
Which is why I was thrilled when I read that the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), an examination conducted by the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, will now prescribe some of the more popular children’s books for the English Literature curriculum for the next 2017-18 session.
As an ICSE alumnus, I have fond memories of reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
When I visited The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I remembered snippets of classroom conversation about The Diary of A Young Girl.And in my final year, I found The Village by the Sea by Anita Desai compelling, especially as a relative newcomer to Mumbai. These stories have stayed with me over the years, over many other lessons (and it’s been quite a few years).
According to news reports, students will now be studying the Harry Potter series – really, I would have aced this class, got O for Outstanding, rather than T for Troll (that was almost my Math grade).
This means not only will they be reading wizardly literature, but also a narrative that a study, The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice has shown that children who read these books are more open-minded, and less prejudiced.
The Potter books, which have inspired a generation to take to reading with a gusto, also delve into topics of bullying, democracy, and inclusion. And let’s not forget, it helps to be studying about a boy, who may be The Chosen One, but doesn’t get straight Os or even EEs (Exceeds Expectations for the Muggles) in class always.
Another welcome change from the time when we were told that comics will “spoil your English” is the inclusion of comics such as Tintin, Asterix, Amar Chitra Katha and works by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
I hope that it will lead to deliberations about gender representation in comics, the different art styles in graphic novels and contemporary artists, the dominance of Hindu mythology in India, the politics of comics – oh, the possibilities are endless.Closer home, students will get a chance to read Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and Wings of Fire by Dr APJ Kalam.
There’s now a wide range of Indian literature for children to choose from – whether it’s Simply Nanju by ZainabSulaiman about a differently-abled boy and his classmates, Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar that explores alternate sexuality, Weed by ParoAnand on Kashmir, or Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian that looks at privilege and the Right to Education Act. These are just a handful of examples; the shelves are brimming with choices for reading lists.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, a consultant editor with Red Turtle welcomed the decision. However, she also pointed out that it would be wonderful if these books weren’t all intended for testing, because if children are only preparing for exams, it can take away the joy of reading.
Perhaps, she added, it would lead to different kind of questions being asked – that are more critical and analytical, in nature.
Further, many of these books are expensive, which means that the administrators will need to figure out how to make them more accessible economically. But it’s a promising step.
Stories can be powerful learning tools – offering students a different way of interpreting the world around them, while keeping them engaged because of their timeless narrative. With more contemporary novels making their way into the curriculum, children will be able to better relate with the stories and their protagonists.
Given that many of these books have been made into movies, like The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, it would also make for interesting classroom discussions about scriptwriting, critiques, and screen language.
There’s always a possibility that some students may just watch the movies, instead of reading the books for homework. But then again, what about all those plot points that the movies edit out?
Like, the entire storyline between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald in the Harry Potter books was missing from the movie. There just might be a term paper question on that.