I was tired of reading princess stories,” says 13-year-old Ananya Mukherjee, who has just finished reading The Hunger Games and can’t stop raving about it. Suzanne Collins’ book is a story about a competition in which teenagers fight death on a live television show. The violence-and-betrayal saga has sold close to 150,000 copies worldwide. Mukherjee picked it up because “her friends were reading it” and because the “reality show concept sounded interesting”.
Another topper on the teenager reading list globally is Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah. It is the story of Jamilah Towfeek, who hides her Lebanese-Muslim background from the other children at her Australian school and poses as Jamie “to avoid people assuming I fly planes into buildings as a hobby”. Sarwat Chadda’s Devil’s Kiss starts off with the carefully planned killing of a six-year-old (who is not human, according to the story) by the 13-year-old heroine Billi SanGreal. Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is into its third instalment and this time the 11-year-old protagonist, Greg Heffley, is coping with bullies. Miriam John, 12, finds the book really funny despite the bullying, constant ragging and mean characters. “The bully does not bother me or scare me. If the ending of a book is good and the bully gets to learn his lesson, I will like it.”
Life lessons: (from far left) Ananya Mukherjee, Miriam John and Soumyo Roy enjoy reading books with gritty, real life themes.
The 12-plus reading list has got grimmer.
Somewhere along the way books about fantasy lands, fairies and over-indulgent godmothers have got pushed to the background. Stories about unsettling contemporary teen and pre-teen issues such as budding sexuality, bullies, rebellion against religion are making it to the top of book lists because children say what the protagonists in these books face is what they deal with in “real” life. “I like books in which the children behave, act and deal with situations just as adults do. I also like physical action in a story,” says Soumyo Roy, 15, who finished The Hunger Games in one sitting.
Srishti Sehgal, 15, finds Abdel-Fattah’s stories realistic. “I can relate to what she is trying to say and identify with the characters. A girl’s school and personal life is often affected because her parents want her to behave in a certain way,” says Sehgal. She has also read Abdel-Fattah’s first book Does My Head Look Big in This? in which a Muslim girl debates donning the hijab. “The conflict in that book can be applicable to a boy who has to wear a turban or a girl (who) is forbidden to wear skirts and shorts,” she explains.
Smita Pandey Bhat, a Gurgaon-based child counsellor and clinical psychologist, says children are opting to read this kind of fiction because there is a lot of exposure to violence—even in relationships. There are many things that children of today are aware of which my generation was not. Most children want to find a way to cope with what is happening around.
According to Sayoni Basu, publishing director, Scholastic India, children are used to reading or listening to stories that have some degree of brutality in them. “How many times have you told your toddler the story of The Little Red Riding Hood where the big bad wolf with huge teeth eats up grandma?” Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, editorial director, children’s and reference books, Hachette India, believes that not all books with death and violence are necessarily bad. “It depends on whose side the violence is on. After all, no one wants children to grow up thinking it is okay to kill senselessly.”
Chadda too has his defence ready. “I wanted to show that violence has terrible after-effects and that the person who carries out the deed is made less human by it,” he says, explaining why he chose to have a violent death scene in the first chapter. “In Devil’s Kiss, everyone is made a victim through violence, even the winners.”
Unsettling as it may sound, parents are not banning reality fiction just yet.
“I don’t screen everything Srishti reads. Children should be aware of what is happening, whether it is violence, ragging, bullying, or other things. Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is about domestic violence and such books sensitize children to what is happening in the world. I would say it is a kind of an education,” says Sehgal’s mother, Sapna Sehgal, a Delhi-based physiotherapist.
Amit and Swati Roy, Soumyo’s parents, too are comfortable with his choice of books. “Books in a way represent what is happening around you. And it is okay if the child is exposed to that through contemporary fiction. Or non-fiction,” Amit says. Bhat, however, believes that too much focus on violence and reality in fiction is not good for children. “I think the child loses his sensitivity. While I am not saying all reality fiction should be avoided, parents should ensure the book has a good moral lesson,” she says.
John’s father Danny John keeps a tab on what she reads. “We make it a point to go with her to the bookstore. When she chooses a book, we flip through it and buy it only if we find it appropriate. We do not encourage her to read garbage—books which won’t help her grow, or be useful in life. We are not too edgy about violence or death though, but we do want to know where the author stands when it comes to morality,” he explains.
Given the grim storylines, some parents say publishers should introduce a rating system such as that seen on video games. “As a publisher I wouldn’t put mindless violence just to get eyeballs. On the other hand, perhaps, a little note on parental guidance is not such a bad idea. However, I would urge parents to encourage children to read books about problems in life and then come to them with questions. For example, if you have to explain alcoholism and divorce, do it. Children are intelligent and they need not be protected from everything,” says Banerjee.
Mukherjee’s mother, Supriya Mukherjee, believes in letting her daughter choose the books she wants to read. “I think she can decide for herself. As long as the book is touching some aspects of ‘real life’ I don’t mind what she chooses,” she says.
The writer is the editor of Heek, a children’s magazine.
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Photographs by Madhu Kapparath / Mint