The best thing my parents did for me was something they actually did for themselves: buy and read books non-stop, and leave them all around the house. My brother and I had no choice but to pick them up and start reading. And once we started, we couldn’t stop.
We demanded new books (and got them) every other week and gobbled them up faster than you could say greedy. In between our own books, we devoured everything that was already in the house, from classics to encyclopedias to age-inappropriate—at the time—novels by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. We didn’t always understand what we read but that didn’t stop us from going at every book till we reached the last page.
I remember a trip to Vizag where my brother—all of eight—summoned me to stand outside the bathroom (where he was sitting on the throne, reading a book left there by my father) to supply the meaning of words that he didn’t understand. Our parents were out and we were lounging about in the hotel. The book, I still remember, was Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. It had just come out, and was on my father’s holiday reading list (and should certainly not have been on my brother’s).
When I think about it, I’m sure our parents knew we were reading stuff that wasn’t meant for us. But since this was well before the age of helicopter parenting, they probably blinked away the thought before it fully formed in their head and just ordered us to go out and play for a bit.
In a few years, all that would change. Some of the most popular children’s authors would wilt under the microscope of political correctness. Enid Blyton would be banned from libraries for racism and stereotyping the poor, and ‘Gollywogs’ would be scrubbed out of the Noddy books. Roald Dahl would be heckled, particularly for The Witches, and “portraying women as worthy of contempt by children”. The racist Huckleberry Finn and Dr Doolittle would get the stick too, not least for the good doctor’s plan to ‘bleach a black man white so that he could marry a white princess’.
To be fair to the old authors, the biases that crept into their books were probably a reflection of their times as much as their own mindset. Since we live in more enlightened times, our writers don’t have that excuse. Which is why we, or rather writers and publishers in the West, have created ‘sensitivity readers’. These are people, who, for a fee, check manuscripts for biases that the writer may not be aware that he/she nurtures and/or hurtful, inaccurate or inappropriate depictions of any minority group. Since books meant for children and young adults (YA) need the most monitoring, YA author Justina Ireland has even set up an online directory, called Writing in the Margins, of people with varied qualifications (like ‘paralegal, diagnosed with a terminal illness, gay, Jewish’) to help writers cut out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when people write about subjects outside their own experiences. Fees start at $250 for a high-level overall read of a manuscript of 60,000-100,000 words. Editing costs extra.
Now all we need are experts to stop kids from finding and reading books not meant for them. That service should be priceless.