Mixed feelings of delight and disgust @ World Book Fair, Delhi- Feb 28, 2012

So I finally made it to the book fair today, with mum. It was heartening to see the sprawling, enormous fair spread over many halls bustling with families, kids in tow. With nani and mumma wanting to buy kiddie books, we headed straight for Hall No 14, where the children’s book were supposed to be.

However, instead of seeing colorful story books and delightful fantasy, we were confronted with rows and rows of stalls displaying:

1- Bizarre, technical books and charts that would help your child practice cursive writing, read the alphabet better, learn the tables better, learn names of fruits, vegetables, animals and so on and so forth

Grammar, phonics, quiz, cursive writing- What, is your child not the best yet? Buy, buy!

2- Knowledge enhancing category of books ranging from plain boring to creative, curriculum related to the extra knowledge and trivia variety, many many books on science math and general knowledge particularly

3- E-learning software- We saw a screen with a voice that drones “billi, c-a-t cat, this is a cat”, with the picture of a, well, cat! We saw a stall where smart execs counseled (read gave them the spiel!!) parents about the merits of giving their children more exposure via their online programs, CD-ROMs etc. The parents looked completely zonked as if they were getting life’s gyaan and the kiddos were knee-high in most cases!

Parents begging to be conned, in my opinion

The sight of the above terrified me today. What are we wanting to turn our children into? What is this crazed competitive society we have created where kids barely out of diapers are expected to fill scores of cursive writing booklets and fill color into outlines of various objects and toon characters till eternity; then move on to solving puzzles, go through personality development modules, memorize general knowledge and trivia by rote, do math using a confusing array of techniques…and much, much more? Why are parents so paranoid? It’s not that these books and technologies aren’t necessary, but the sheer volume of labels, brands creating these had me stumped and the quality was mostly questionable, at first glance, with some exceptions of course.

I spoke with a sales manager with one e-learning stall who was giving me the ‘kids need exposure’ story. Kids already have so much exposure, I told him. What is wrong with growing up with less aids and more creativity using simple things like blocks, books, free art? Isn’t it all, ultimately, to sell your stuff? He gave up and grinned and waved me away! I was, in his head, the crazed, irresponsible parent, bent on leaving my kids in the dark ages!

Another thing that disturbed me was the emphasis on math and sciences and precious little focus on the social sciences, life skills, all round development for kids (the personality development modules did not inspire confidence; again, they looked like a con job to me!). After seeming to have come a long way, we middle class urban Indians are still stuck in the ‘sciencies are best, artsies are the losers’ trap..very sad indeed.

Lastly, the children’s fiction I saw confirmed my fears that we live in a firmly gender-divided world, from about age ten onwards. Except for classics like Ruskin Bond and Kipling, the new books were (mostly) geeky and techy and macho for the guys and flowery pink ‘n purple for the girls. Utterly disgusting, to say the least!

Genders firmly divided-flowers, butterflies and angels vs monsters, superheroes and giants- disgusting!

The stalls from Katha, Pratham, National Book Trust and some others were a saving grace and we managed to haul up a bunch of delightful books for both Udai and Aadyaa. The Indian publications are real value for money; the foreign ones often not worth the crazy prices!

As for us, we feasted on the Rupa and Penguin stalls and came home loaded with a satisfying haul of books for the entire family :)

Mum browsing

Fun elements like this orange Ambi and cheerful, helpful staff made Penguin's stall the most appealing to me

7 thoughts on “Mixed feelings of delight and disgust @ World Book Fair, Delhi- Feb 28, 2012

  1. Lack of natural places for kid’s where they can just explore, find souvenirs in the dust and just be kids, is the main reason for the boom in the kid’s development aides (educational cds, technical books etc) industry. They learn to identify birds and insects not in the garden or a broken down house down the lane but in scientific books which according to me is just such a passive (read : uninteresting) way of learning. I would like to believe that the whole emphasis that parents place on being a ‘sciencie’ and not an ‘artsie’ has reduced over the last 10 years but then we definitely have a long road ahead.

    • Yes, open spaces and indeed spaces where kids can just ‘be’ are critical. Even more, parents need to believe they are good enough for their kids they way they are instead of constantly competing to be a good parent by buying more stuff (toys, books, software, classes for everything-on-earth) for their kids. We all need to step back, take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the simple things in life, I feel :)

  2. I found that even towards late afternoon, the crowds were not as much as i remember on earlier trips. Of course, yesterday was the All India Bandh and there were some transportation issues! Although, our stroll was brisk and focused, and hence these comments are not a reflection of the whole Book Fair, I am disappointed that the Hindi presence is not growing, the buyers were the ‘not-yet-moved- to-the-ebook-online store’ middle aged variety or as you have commented, those going after knowledge with a vengeance!! After all,the biggest stall in Hall 6 was of Flipkart. It is an annual event and the trade stats reassure us that publishing is thriving. But, sceptics like me wonder, how these stats are generated!!

  3. So many things to say, that I will go bullet points:
    1. I have, very voilently at times, had the same reactions when I have walked into any toy shop in sydney – there is a shockingly blue section, and there is a shockingly pink section, and there is a shocking divide in the “typology” of toys for boys and girls. Considering creativity and problem solving and analogy making should encourage diversity and not typecasted categories, it is all very disappointing, MORE SO when many parents I meet just smile and say, girl hai na, pink hi chahiye!!!
    2. Kaivu was gifted a “scooter”, a two or three wheeled push with your feet bike in Oz, by very good friends. Well, the upshot is that the scooter is pink in color, because the friends who bought it had to choose between black and pink, and very reasonably thought black is too serious a color for a toddler, so they chose pink. Now, every park he goes to, the little girls ask him, why do you have a pink scooter, and laugh. Well, I just told him to laugh right back and say, colors are just colors!!! meant to be enjoyed!!!
    3. There is loads of research in creativity that shows that the more time kids are spoon fed with ultra cool (read ultra conning) DVDs and such like books, the less time they actually spend problem solving, thinking and creating in their heads. So there is such a thing as too few toys and books and DVDs, but there is also such a thing as too much – that is equally harmful.
    4. At Kaivu’s preschool, the primary stress all of last year was “social skills”, “emotional skills”, and “interaction with peers”. They do not do letters, and numbers, yet, explicitly (I do that at home because Kaivu seems to enjoy it a lot). Their philosophy is that the child should FIRST learn to be a good, functioning, constructive, TEAM human being, before the full bout of academics sets in. When children have a fight, teachers come up with innovative lines for the children to remember – “words, not muscles, when I am angry” is one of my favorites. Also at pre-school, they use old newspapers, rocks, cereal boxes, and other material packaging stuff that especially western society generates in plenty, to make craft. So for example, Kaivu and I turned a half cereal box into a truck yesterday. And while walking home, it is standard for him to “gift” me a rock or a leaf, splash in puddles as we are walking home in the rain, and do all sorts of things that children, in the absence of too many material things, just construct and imagine out of thin air. When academics sets in, in the latter stages of life, this idea of free play MUST NOT be lost, else, not only would structured academics lose its play value (kids HAVE TO study, instead of WANT TO study), also would be lost the very basic techniques that we learn in childhood that enable us to jump out of rote learning, apply ideas in trans-disciplinary manners, and create new knowledge, and actually feel the joy of having understood or made something new in the world. Because that is what the final aim of academics is, no?
    4. Although we feel Kaivu has way too many toys and books, we actively try to encourage play without too many aids, using things from the kitchen, from the garden, from anywhere in the house. Instead of paper and pencil, maths is frequently done with hot wheels cars, and instead of cursive writing, free drawing, introducing shapes, and textures, and in general, instead of memorizing, applying and generating and reasoning. (Children by the way have natural memories, so some memorizing I have realized comes naturally, without forcing).
    5. I LOVED Udai’s painting – dont mind me saying this – i liked his painting more than yours, because it captured more of the “spirit” of pattern generation, the branching out, i mean. Do show him some pictures of fractals and lindenmeyer trees and richard dawkins (blind watchmaker etc.) generated figures – in fact, the guy who started the whole fractal mathematics business, benoit mandelbrot, says in one of his books that he became a mathematician not by doing lots of numbers in childhood, (though that is important too), but by doing lots of visual patterns.
    6. We often forget in this mad world of today, that the world is NOT divided into arts and sciences, dividing the world into disciplines is something that we do, as an act of abstraction, because it makes it more convenient for us to understand some part of reality. But we forget, that the world is just one thing, not science and art and engineering and management and mathematics, but just the world. It would be great if our education helped us remember this more often.
    I should stop now, but I could go on and on…you have outlined so many of the reasons why even play becomes “boring” for children – it is also like studies, something that has to be done, instead of it being the other way round – studies being like play – you look forward to both, and want to do it. Parents have a HUGE responsibility in what they make of their children, by explicit or implicit example, it is sad if they get conned. It has more implications societally, than just the conning game.

    • Glad we talked this over on chat. Agree with most of what you say Som….so how do we do business, grow economies without resorting to selling mindless products to gullible folks? and damaging an entire generation?

  4. well, for starters, there are some people in the business of making education fun for children. my personal favorite (and Kaivu’s too), for example, is Sesame Street. Or our very own Australian Wiggles, who are FANTASTIC business people. So, its not the idea that is at fault, it is the way it is implemented. I mean if you want to make aids to educate children, AND run a business, at least fulfill BOTH aims well, not just the latter one by making a pitiful excuse of the former!!

    I am reminded on some nursery rhymes DVDs I got for Kaivu from India when he was a baby. The singing was shoddy, the animation was badly done, the words of the rhymes were all over the place, and the poor children in it were wearing the most horrible rouge and lipstick!!! And I contrast that with my childhood vikram aur betaal, dada dadi ki kahaniyan, and jangal jangal baat chali hai, and ek chidiya anek chidiya!!

    • of course, there could good stuff around that is made these days too, i may be out of touch, or else it is a statistically insignificant part of the whole children’s media world…i saw a production of baby krishna for example from a couple of friends who have just arrived from bangalore to sydney, and I loved it!!

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