I was at our local park in Jersey City with Kavya and Shaiyar the other day and saw a dad with his laptop open sitting on the bench, his eyes fully engaged with whatever was on his computer screen. His daughter was about seven, and she would run up to him every few minutes and he’d wildly gesture with his elbows, his hands never leaving the keyboard, indicating he thought he was doing some really important work stuff. More important than her. I would have liked to have gone up to this guy and slapped him in the face, flung his laptop across the playground, stomped on it, and told him to be free, just like that scene in Braveheart.
Instead, I sat there, feeling sorry. Not just for the little girl, but for the dad, at all he was missing out on at the playground, and probably at home. It takes a pretty committed workaholic to bring a laptop to the park, especially when you’re watching your kid. Maybe he reads to his kid, but I somehow doubt it. Even though most people don’t talk about it, Dad Guilt does exist. When I teach evening classes or have to bail on reading to Kavya, telling her stories, or taking her to the bookstore, it sucks. More so because I see the look in her eyes when she says half-heartedly, That’s okay, Papa.
An article in the Telegraph recently caught my attention, not for the statistics about dads who don’t enjoy reading bedtime stories (only 19 per cent of young fathers say they enjoy reading with their children), but because of the title: Dads Who Don’t Read To Their Kids Are Idiots. It’s easy to characterize these dads as ones who just don’t care and make dads who already read to their kids feel good about themselves. The challenge is engaging all dads, including dads who don’t read, or dads who feel awkward reading aloud in silly voices (let’s face it, the silly voice thing is mandatory). When my students tell me they don’t like to write or they find reading fiction boring and pointless, my response is not to call them idiots, but to find a way to encourage them and make it enticing for them to want to do it.
In the 1980s, the Russian Government had some propaganda program in India, where they supplied Russian literature for incredibly cheap prices, so whenever we would go to Punjab, I would stock up on Russian books, with gorgeous artwork, like the Firebird, five books with a protagonist named Yuri, Fables, and one where the Sun and the wind have a bet to see who can make a man remove his coat and hat. The wind blows and blows, only making the man hold tighter to his clothing, then the sun comes along and the man voluntarily removes his hat and coat. It’s a great principal for teaching methodology, or really anything in life, and applies here as well. Dads who the statistics are talking about, the ones who don’t enjoy reading, or those who don’t read to their kids at all, are not idiots.This is why the #DadsRead campaign is so exciting because every dad is encouraged to continue reading to their kids or just get started.
My 4-year-old recently picked up a Superman book set at our local bookshop in Jersey City – WORD, to teach kids how to read, filled with sight words and vocabulary like KRYPTONITE. She can make out the letters, and is on the verge of figuring out how words function. I’m excited about the day that happens, but also a bit sad because if she’s anything like me and my wife, she’s going to be that kid with the flashlight under the covers. The kid who wants to sit for hours by herself, immersed in the world created by fiction.
For more information on the #DadsRead campaign and how YOU can participate, click HERE
For more information on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, click HERE
When I first heard about The #DadsRead Campaign created by Tom Burns over at The Goodmen Project and Jordan Lloyd Bookey, who runs Zoobean, a children’s app and book curation service, I was immediately on board. Not because of Tom’s quest to build a library for his daughter, although his Wonder Woman post, with kickass old school and out-of-print recommendations, definitely helped. It wasn’t because the campaign came in just in time for Father’s day, or because sponsors like the Huffington Post Parents, along with Zoobean, and several others stepped up to support the #DadsRead iniative. Even the Twitter party with CASH MONEY PRIZES did not entice me. Okay, maybe a bit. Fine, I’m doing it because of the Twitter party.
Bottom line is I love reading to my daughter, and even though my 3-month-old son is more interested in eating his own foot than following any plot line, I love instilling a culture of storytelling. My parents were incredibly busy working, studying, traveling, and didn’t read all that much to me and my sister, but we grew up in a home where stories were cherished, at all times of the day, whenever they could make it work. Folktales from Punjab like Chiri the Kahn, with caste violence metaphors lost on us, Russian folktales about Baba Yaga, the super creepy witch who lived in a house built on chicken legs. In Nigeria, when the electricity would go out, we’d huddle with my parents as they told us stories, and it was hell when the lights came back on because that meant the stories were rushed to an unfulfilling ending. In England, everytime it rained, there would be special stories. So, pretty much everyday.
My sister, who is five years older than me, loved reading to me. Because she mostly read me books she liked. Mrs. Pepperpot, My Naughty Little Sister, Badger Girl, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton mysteries, Chronicles of Narnia. Sometimes she’d read me the Three Billy Goats Gruff. When I was older, and we lived in Dubai, Mum and Dad weren’t quite so busy, they would take the time to read me books in Punjabi and Hindi, like the Panchtantra, Birbal the witty, Jawab Natpatlal, and some wonderful Hindi comics from Sikh history, Hindu mythology, all from the power house of Indian comics: Amar Chitra Katha.
With my little family, I’ve attempted to replicate this home culture of telling stories, and read books. Physical books, the ones you can touch and feel and smell. I recently bought her a Leap Pad, which is great, but it’s no book and Kavya knows it. She likes playing on the iPad, but she loves books. And I want that to continue. If I can’t read to Kavya at bedtime, I’ll find other times to read to her, sometimes in the middle of the day, on car rides, on the train, on walks. Or we’ll go to the park with sandwiches and a bag of almonds for the crappiest picnic ever, which she really enjoys, and I’ll read to her. Reading to my 4-year-old is just a natural progression. She wants to read all kinds of stories and I get to introduce new worlds to her.
At the beginning of the year, Kavya was utterly distraught she didn’t have yellow hair like Rapunzel and that her favourite characters didn’t look like her. Read the blog post about it HERE and on the Good Men Project. Storytelling to the rescue! She slowly realized stories can be manipulated. A princess doesn’t have to be just one thing. She doesn’t have to be rescued. She doesn’t have to be white. The dragon can be kind. A princess can be a pirate. Boys can like the color pink if they want to. Doc McStuffins can make a cameo appearance in Snow White. And yes, the princess can even be a little brown girl just like her (thanks Super Why, Ms. Marvel, and recommendations from #WeNeedDiverseBooks!).
On Free Comic Book Day, just the two of us took the train out to New York and loaded up on comics Kavya chose by herself, starting with Batman and Wonder Woman, returning to Jersey City only to see the REAL Batman hanging out at our local comic book store! Then she picked out a copy of Ms. Marvel, a brown teenaged shape shifter from Jersey City. I am a comic book maniac and I’m really excited she is on her way to being one too.
If you’re a Papa who isn’t sure what the first step is, here are two things you should do:
1. GET THEE TO THE PLACE OF MAGIC!
Take your kid to the most magical place in the world: the library. Spend a chunk of time there. Let them explore the children’s section, read them books, and don’t dictate what you think they should be reading. Unless they start wandering into the Academic section. Get them out of there quickly! That’s how it starts. Then they’ll start burbling on incoherently, referencing people like Homi Bhaba, and using terms like structuralism and the confusing as hell, “one,” when what they mean is, “you.” Let them check out one or two books with their own library card. If they don’t have one, even better! Get them one and let them take out any age appropriate book from the children’s section, even if it’s a comic book. There’s nothing like the thrill of receiving your first library card, of feeling independent and checking out your own book, of being surrounded by stories from all over the world. Switch your damn phone off and if you’re going to the park, leave your laptop at home or some lunatic dad might just fling it across the playground, stomp on it, slap you in the face, and start quoting lines from Braveheart in an exaggerated Scottish accent.
2. BUY BOOKS FROM AN INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE!
The most boring way to get a book you think your kid will like is to sit at your computer, google some reading lists, and click a link to amazon with express shipping. Instead, use google to find some Independent Bookstores in your area. The reason I love independent bookshops is because they have personal recommendations, often from employees, and don’t just buy books that have made it onto some national list.
We live in Jersey City, where we are fortunate to live a few blocks from WORD Bookstore, a fantastic independent bookstore, and we are a short train ride away from many bookstores in New York City, including Books of Wonder, New York’s largest and oldest bookstore devoted just to kids! Everywhere we travel, we make it a point to find an independent bookstore and a library. We found them in Atlantic City, and took Kavya to a Kwanza book event and craft making thing at the Atlantic City library!
Seek out independent bookstores in your area and support authors you want to read more of, as well as awesome bookstores by buying from them. Especially diverse books and combine the #DadsRead and #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtags to zoom past the mediocre dads, and go straight for the Awesome-Ass Dad Award. It comes with a check for 1 billion dollars. Also, there’s the feeling of love, self-confidence, and the sparkle in your child’s eye. Or you could just do it for the BILLION DOLLARS!
I will be blogging here about books I’m reading to my kids, including some Punjabi, Hindi, and Spanish ones, comic books, graphic novels, picture books, and will make more of an effort to expand our library to include more diverse books. No matter what I read or when I read to them, it will no doubt be lots of fun. Groucho Marx puts it best: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
Leave a comment below with books or authors you’d recommend I read to my 4 year old, and if you’re a blogger, put a link.
I’m not nearly as violent as this post made me sound. It’s the media, always sensationalizing things. You know the game they play. Find me:
Navdeep Singh Dhillon on Facebook: FB is my phrand.
Instagram (@navdeepsinghdhillon): I immortalize my food before eating it, even if that means my children go hungry. That’s how committed I am to instagram. I also immortalize books before eating them. I’m perfectly sane. Follow me if you know what’s good for you. Or else. Only kidding. Haha. LOL. ROFLMAO.
Twitter (@navdeep_dhillon): My best phrand.