I was brought up in a literary family, surrounded by constant debate and dialogue. We didn’t have a television until I was a teenager. Our childhood games were make-believe stories, spontaneous recitations, and memorised soliloquies delivered with theatrical flourish.
As the middle child, I found it simpler to remain in the shadows of my exceptionally articulate and prodigious older brother, Shashi, and my precocious and loquacious younger sister, Smita. Our parents placed fewer demands on me, and it was easy to be invisible.
Reading was my primary pleasure, and I always found a corner to bury my head in the pages of a book. As a child, I devoured Enid Blyton, from the playful Noddy series to the Famous Five. I loved the boarding school mischief of Mallory Towers. As I grew, my tastes matured. The more literary, tongue-in-cheek delights of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, the wisdom and remarkable wit of Shakespeare and Shaw, and the fatalistic gravitas of Thomas Hardy drew my adolescent interest.
Children today have many more options for entertainment than we did, but this often means that they end up losing themselves in screens. In pandemic times, it is arguably safer to turn on a TV set or pick up a tablet than to visit friends. Children have lost their school environment and their playmates and outdoor activities to the daily monotony of indoor instruction. Covid-19 has challenged all of us to find new ways to keep ourselves and our children informed, engaged, and amused at home. But these new ways just might be the old ways.
I write children’s books, including short stories, poetry, picture books, and non-fiction. I am also a professional voice-over artiste with a home studio. Since the pandemic hit, I have become something of an informal consultant on indoor word games and activities, both “low” and “high” tech, which I draw from my own childhood and from my parenting and grand-parenting experiences.
Here are four ideas to try at home when the children simply cannot be let out.
Old fashioned ‘elocution’
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I attended a school that emphasised the value of clearly enunciated speech and well-formulated sentences. “Ann met an Ant, and an Ant met Ann. Hello said the ant, hello said Ann.” I still hear our elocution teacher’s voice in my ears, her emphasis on the exaggerated vowel, on sounding the consonants clearly.
“The T must always be audible to the listener.” Your voice is an instrument and even a whisper, if expressed correctly, can be heard at the end of the room. Clarity is crucial. As students we had “read aloud” activities and learned to cherish the sound of words – the way they rolled off our tongues and the music they made in our ears. This is the learning that I brought home when I had my own children.
Here’s a delightful tongue-twister that I use in my introductory class to Voice Over basics, that also makes for good fun with kids.
Betty Botter bought a bit of butter.
The butter Betty Botter bought was bitter.
So, Betty Botter bought a bit of better butter
To make the bitter butter, Betty Botter bought, better.
Give it a try! How fast can you say it?
Even if today’s school curriculum does not include the memorisation of poems in class, or the daily habit of reading text aloud, we can always include some sort of “elocution” in our leisure time. Have a family share time where every member can tell a story, read aloud to one another, or memorise and recite a poem. These read-alouds are an opportunity for practised eloquence.
Rediscover the classics
In the early days of the lockdown, I did read-aloud sessions for 70 days of stories that I had rewritten in a three-minute format from the Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, and Tenali Raman. I then shared this work on YouTube. The stories of Tenali Raman were unfamiliar to many of the 1,300 new subscribers to my channel, who formed an international virtual community, delighting together in stories of the clever court-poet Tenali of Krishnadeva Raya’s court in Vijayanagara.
Stories of adventure and characters with heroic ability have always appealed to children. Mythology too is a wonderful vehicle where protagonists who have a “higher power” capture the imagination of children who seek heroes and adventures in their lives. I’m pleased to see the resurgence of children’s books from the Indian epics and folklore for children, and was glad to contribute with these videos.
As readers we are always interested in the lives of others, especially when we discover how much the “other” is just like us. Just as Enid Blyton stories appealed to a young Indian girl like me who had never experienced treacle or scones, or touched snow or worn galoshes, children all over the globe can enjoy learning about Indian festivals, or reading about Ganesha’s mischief, or comparing the Jataka Tales to Aesop’s Fables. Thanks to the accessibility of platforms like YouTube, my granddaughter can hear about Tenali Raman from her home in Arizona.
Writing exercises and journaling
Many years ago, I volunteered at a weekend enrichment programme for elementary school children, where I designed and taught a class called “Fun with Poetry.” I was surprised at how daunted young people were by the idea of poetry, and what they saw as inflexible forms with rules for rhyme schemes and meter. By the end of the day, however, the students had written creative poems and had fun with their own compositions.
The idea of a “poetry reader” that unpacks poetry in an accessible way had been percolating in my mind since that day. It was the impetus for writing my latest book, How Many Lines in a Limerick?, which is an illustrated poetry reader that uniquely mixes “how-to” poems that teach about poetic forms (like sonnets, villanelles, and haikus) with examples of those forms.
Recently, I did a fun writing exercise with my granddaughter that was reminiscent of “Mad Libs”, the word game where one player prompts another for a list of words to fill up the blanks in a pre-made story. The result is a laugh-aloud crazy tale.
When Mrinalini and I played, we made the game more specific and challenging and the result was equally funny and creative. In our version we wrote a story using only a dozen words that I had solicited from her, using prompts like “name a noun”, “a verb”, “a part of the body”, and “an animal”, and then we had to build a story from the words with a pre-picked title. We had the most hilarious tale to recount to the rest of the family.
When my children were little we played “one word makes little, little words” at home. How many three- or four-letter words can you make from “Constantinople”? Or “Imagination”? It’s quite an interesting and challenging exercise. And our family invention of “Unscrabble” (where you get to count the number of tiles you take away from the Scrabble board, while leaving complete words behind) can help hone vocabulary and spelling skills and is great way to spend time when you are stuck indoors.
Children can also be encouraged to keep a journal or a dream diary. This sort of record-keeping is an entertaining way to process thoughts and feelings.
What pictures tell
What if a child is not yet old enough to write or read on her own? Well, they can always look at the pictures.
Picture books perform a double function. These short, illustrated books expand imaginative worlds by introducing children to new characters, settings, dilemmas, and sources of laughter. The images give an overview of the story, which encourages the first-time reader to want to read the whole thing. By looking at the images, they get a sense immediately of what is happening. When there are words and images young children usually return to the text again and again.
Picture books are in many ways like the Amar Chitra Katha or Archie or Asterix comic books we read as youngsters, and the graphic novels that have a broad appeal to older children. The combination of words and visuals allow kids to experience how much fun reading can be, sparking a passion for books that will last a life-time. Picture books are the building blocks that promote vocabulary skills, sentence structure and story analysis and are, for toddlers, the first step in learning how to read.
To take the picture book idea further, I think back to the game my siblings and I played as a child, where we “painted pictures” with our words for descriptions. My brother usually started the story. The rules were that it had to be vivid and a dramatic tale. He stopped after two sentences, and the next player had to use their words to “colour” the next part of the tale. We came up with some bizarre stories, but many were quite brilliant and often very funny.
These are four ideas that spring from my own experience, but there are so many more creative pastimes emerging in the pandemic. I see children sharing their first cooking efforts on social media. Some are experimenting with spoken word poetry, and creating their own “at-home” theatres.
Some of us children’s writers have joined an online community forum called Talk A Book in which we sign up to read with children online, and share the magic of poetry and prose. So much about writing and reading is about discovery, for both the author and the reader. “When one teaches two learn.” And when two play with words together at home, a more contented world is made.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.