Sunday, 13 October 2013

Once upon a time books were entertaining

When I think of the role books played in my childhood, I remember the tactile pleasure of turning pages, hungrily discovering new details in illustrations and tracing out favourite characters with my pointed finger, hearing words read in funny put-on voices and anticipating well-worn story lines that could be enjoyed again and again without ever becoming boring. It was a world that was colourfully rich, inspiring and above all fun. That’s why I feel so privileged (and excited) to be able to re-live it with my 3-year old daughter. 

There’s a book for everything in our house: bedtime, waking-up time, don’t-know-what-to-do time, meal time, sad-after-tantrum time, being-silly time. And so we begin weaving these narratives into the very fabric of her life: taking the recycling to the dump becomes a rescue adventure (The Patchwork Cat has to escape after accidentally being taken to the dump by the rubbish truck), her room is tidy, unlike Angelina’s (Angelina Ballerina doesn’t clean up her room because she spends all her time dancing) and so on.

A little while ago I popped into Toys R Us to purchase a present for the annual birthday celebration at the kid's crèche, and because books are such a big part of our lives, I thought I’d add one into the basket. I've already had a little rant about this experience here, but didn't go into all my reasons, so I thought I'd write a separate post about it now.

So there I was, standing in front of the “book section”, very disappointed with what I found myself staring at: the conventional range of Disney princesses in their uniformly bright colours and plastic smiles, the book spin-offs from various animation successes (Cars, Finding Nemo) and colouring-in books. That appeared to be it. With an admittedly unreasonable rising panic, I found some bewildered looking shop assistant and asked them if they were sure these were all the books they had.

Then I asked to speak to the store manager, who, kind yet unable to help, gave me the head office phone number. Once I got home I still couldn't drop it so I phoned the buyer for children’s books and was told that they only really stocked what had a high turnover. Dr Seuss, What-a-Mess and The Gruffalo clearly didn’t cut it. The buyer suggested I try Exclusive Books.

I know that I’m picking on Toys R Us when actually the situation is repeated in other big toy stores. The buyer’s helpful suggestion was also somewhat misdirected: I do know where one can buy books. The question is, seeing that we are not a nation of readers, do parents looking for birthday presents and items on Christmas wish lists know this? Will they make the effort to track books down in some other shop? What do children think when they enter the fantasy world of a toy store and don’t find books a part of it? What does this say about how books are perceived in our society?

I am also aware that "Toys R Us" isn’t called "Books R Us", but it only takes one glance at the impressive DVD and gaming section they have, for me to respond that they’re not called "DVDs R Us" either.  The bottom line is that clearly children’s books aren’t considered fun enough or entertaining enough to warrant much shelf space in a toy store.

And that makes me really sad.

We’ve heard it all before: Reading is important. Children should be encouraged to read books. Literacy skills and developing full reading fluency are at a crisis point in our education system and therefore should be prioritised. It’s hard to argue with these statements. Collectively, and in principle, we agree, but how much are we really willing to change to fulfil them? I can’t help thinking, that a well-curated, appealing and interesting book display in a toy shop could perhaps make a difference and entice both children and parents into the wonderful world of reading.

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