The challenge in reading Indian mythology to young kids

The truth is that while these stories are illustrated in comic-book style to appeal to children, not all of them are suited for little kids.

What’s not to like about Indian mythology? Powerful Gods and their myriad weapons and vehicles, equally powerful Rakshasas or demons sporting multiple heads and other eye-popping features, tales of special boons and awful curses, demi-Gods with boundless valor, princesses with unparalleled beauty and virtue , epic battles between good and evil where justice finally prevails….need I say more?

Indians know these stories well because of that beloved series of comic books, Amar Chitra Katha(ACK), without which these myths, orally told and passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years, would have been lost.

The ACK books were part of many of my summers growing up. And I was very eager to share these stories/books with my kids. So I was thrilled when my daughter received her first set of books “Tales of Shiva” as a gift when she was as young as four.

tales of shiva

In retrospect, that wasn’t the ideal age to introduce those books to her. The vivid, detailed drawings of ACK are its hallmark. Yet those illustrations scared her. On seeing Shiva burn Kama to ashes with his third eye, my 4 – year old shut the book quickly and declared, “Shiva is bad”.

I had no adequate explanation that would soothe her. Kids, after all, don’t appreciate nuance and cannot readily see the “greater good” that usually emerges in these stories. And as I later pored through other books in the collection, I came across similarly scary themes.

At 6, she still does not care for such stories. I try telling her the story of Monkey-God Hanuman as a little boy, who once mistook the Sun for a fruit and flew up to try and eat it. To stop him, Indra, the King of the Devas, struck him down with his Thunderbolt causing the boy’s cheeks to swell and his chin to elongate, earning him the monicker “Hanuman” – one with a long chin. But my daughter shuts her ears every time she hears this. To her, it seems unfair that a child should be punished so harshly for being, well,…just a kid.

My friend Mallika Ravikumar (check out her wonderful blog IndiaTraveltales4kids) recently blogged about her own experiences sharing such myths with her young boys. Her son was petrified after hearing the story of Shiva beheading Ganesha in a fit of anger and replacing it with the head of an elephant in order to placate an inconsolable Parvathi.

Mallika’s own conclusion was that one needs to be careful in picking out mythological stories to share with young kids. There are many more benign tales one can share with young children, as she shares in her post.

I expressed my misgivings about reading Amar Chitra Kathas to kids to a friend, who scoffed at me for becoming “too soft” after moving to America. “We read this stuff when we were kids and thought nothing of it.”

It is true that we grew up reading these stories and other fairy tales that had a lot of darkness in them. And famous childhood authors like Roald Dahl relished in dark, but funny tales.

Perhaps kids need to reach a certain emotional maturity to read these stories and my 6-year-old isn’t there yet.

It could also be that the current generation of grade-schoolers live in a far more sheltered world of TV entertainment where they can selectively pick shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime that have no bad characters or scary storylines.

Contrast that with my own upbringing in India in the 80s where there was virtually no children’s entertainment or books. We just watched what the grown-ups were watching, which wasn’t R-rated by any stretch, but definitely not child-centric.

For that matter, parents did not really know what we were reading and did not really censor anything. And since we spent little time hanging around grown-ups, we did not ask profound questions such as “But why does God get angry? And can he really reduce you to ashes with a glance?” So my parents totally dodged that bullet.

The truth is that while these stories are illustrated in comic-book style to appeal to children, not all of them are suited for little kids. The pictures likely draw them in, but the content and themes are mature. Many parents argue that their 7 and 8-year old kids devour ACK, which I readily believe. But if they aren’t disturbed by some of these images or don’t have questions, I wonder if they really understand what they are reading.

To be sure,  all avid young readers should be introduced to great mythology be it Greek, or Indian or even Tolkien! In today’s world where fantasy fiction and TV rules, these stories remain a big draw despite their ancient roots.

Myths are an opportunity for children to explore what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what isn’t.

I just don’t think there is any need to rush them into it. Sure, I read the Ramayana and Mahabharatha before I was 10, but I truly appreciate it only as an adult, having read it multiple times and having opened myself up to multiple re-tellings and interpretations. Why not let our kids read them in their teens when they can truly handle the maturity of the content in these epics?

Early exposure is great, but I find it most effective to simply tell these stories to my children during mealtimes, much like it has been told for generations by grandparents. In my storytelling, I get to pick and choose the details, focusing on what appeals to kids and weeding out violent stories or complex ideas.

I do pick up an occasional ACK every now and then. When I do, I am careful to get a story that isn’t violent and has appeal to young kids such as those involving Krishna and his quest for butter, or his friendship with Sudhama or the story of how Ganesh and his brother Muruga competed for their parents attention — much more relatable to kids and their everyday issues.

As for the larger collections of Amar Chitra Katha? Those are simply for my reading pleasure.

Author: Tales of India

I am an Indian mom raising two little "American" girls in the U.S. I love reading to my children and it has helped me rediscover my love for books written for children. Growing up in the 80s, I, like most middle-class Indians, read books by British authors such as Enid Blyton and Richard Crompton. While I credit those books with developing my imagination - after all, what did a child in south India really know of English boarding schools - they have, in some ways, let me down. I remember dreaming about scones and crumpets as a little girl and came to the U.S. with an appetite for them, only to discover that they paled in comparison to samosa and masala dosa! That's what made me realize that for all my love for the English language and western literature, I still needed books that resonate with my personal experiences. Surely, my 5- year- old daughter, growing up in America but with Indian roots, feels the same. So I had my parents bring the Indian children's books I grew up reading - Amar Chitra Kathas. Yet some of these stories seem too advanced for a 5- year- old, with several characters and complex themes of good and evil. Then I did some research and was amazed to find the hundreds of age-appropriate books that have been published over the last 20 years. It appears that Indian children's literary landscape has undergone quite a change and those of us who have grown up and moved away from that world are quite out of touch. There are picture books that have wonderful illustrations that reflect all of India's diversity and they are available in several languages that can truly be appreciated by bi-lingual parents. While the neighborhood I live in is pretty diverse, the books that she reads are sorely lacking in representing the world around her. I want my daughter to read books that are filled with pictures of children with black hair, their "ammas" in a sari and bindi, speaking a mix of English and Tamil (her mother tongue, which she is still to fully embrace). Hopefully, reading these books would ensure that her own culture will not feel alien to her as she grows up in the U.S. And I know this sense of identity is what millions of Indians settled in the U.S. also want for their kids. This blog is dedicated to discovering new books for Indian children that have global appeal but are rooted in authentic Indian storytelling.

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