Till the 1990s, the only printed children’s stories that ever existed were confined to the stipulated textbooks. Extra reading, reading for fun, love for reading were alien concepts. It began to change around two decades back, but even then the books were primarily mythology or history-inspired anthologies, folktales, tales of Panchtantras and Jataka. Moreover, children’s writing never got the encouragement through any recognitions, awards or felicitations.
If this was the story of
the written matter, illustrations and art work in children’s books
were never considered something to be paid attention to. While making
purchase for books, closely written text was preferred for maximum
value for money than squandering on "just pictures". It is
only recently that Indian authors and publishers have committed
themselves to the task of showcasing
Thanks to various
publishing houses, Indian children are being introduced to their own
land which is known for its multi-linguistic and multi-cultural
character. Gond, Warli, Madhubani, Kalamkari are just a few of the
regional art forms which are finding their way out of the darkness of
anonymity and extinction to the printed pages of the children’s
Publishers as changemakers
It is encouraging that many publishers are working towards the cause with their multi-pronged approach. Katha believes that relevant education transforms a child into a community leader and through their vibrantly illustrated picture books, biographies, young adult literature and academic books; they hope to achieve just that. Tara Books is a joint endeavour of writers, designers and artists to reflect diversity of India in their books. Pratham books began their work with a mission to put a book in every child’s hand. "Almost all the books are prized below Rs 35 so as to make reading more democratised. Their books address simple everyday experiences which work aptly with children who face challenge in imagining things. They are used extensively at Spastic Society", says Sandhya, a volunteer in Spastic Society Bangalore. Tulika Books aim to highlight the multicultural, multilingual and pluralistic society that today’s children are growing up in. Their Where I Live series is a classic example of their assured steps towards making children acquainted of the world around them. The efforts of Karadi Tales are geared towards making the story time a pleasurable time for children through wonderful stories, theatrical narrations, gripping soundtracks, music or songs, on all media. Duckbill has a very new approach and their books are primarily voice of today’s kid. Rupa’s Red Turtle, the children and young adult imprint is the recent entrant in kid-lit publishing and within a few months’ time they have already published Ruskin Bond, Gulzar, Paro Anand, Nayantara Sehgal and Musharraf Ali Farooqui. Mango and Young Zubaan houses are present with their large array of children’s books too.
Target readers speak out
Anya, a Class VII student says: "I find Indian books a little boring. They mostly talk about the same things". "Books of foreign authors are much more interesting and it is hard to put them down once I start reading them. It feels as if the author is a young child like us who understands exactly what we think", shares Raghav, a self-professed fan of Andrew Clements books.
Tanvi, a young adult says, "I wonder how the minds of foreign authors generate such innovative and creative plots. I am yet to find an Indian book which can come close to Harry Potter books".
Karan an 11-year-old student of Class VI says, "I don’t see many Indian books in the stores and whatever few Indian books I have read, I find them less lively than the imported ones".
Sandhya, a true bibliophile, has an explanation for this trend; this is because we still struggle with expressing in English, so there is a breath of stiltedness to it. This is fast changing as people become more and more comfortable in English, and the officialdom in the language begins to reduce and disappear.
Many challenges & gains
There are umpteen challenges that plague the Indian children literature and a continuous perseverance is required to turn them into milestones. Weak language skills, not-so-creative plots, restrained imagination and lack of wit and humour are some of the issues that children books suffer from on the content part. Besides this, the printing is not that sophisticated either. Quality and texture of paper used is equally critical too. It is important to understand that book reading is not just about one thing, it is, in fact, a complete experience and when all aspects join together cohesively that is when a brilliant end result is achieved.
Post publishing, the journey that a book undertakes is no less daunting. "There are some wonderful titles available now but sales and marketing is one end which leaves a lot to be desired", says an accomplished author Asha Nehemiah. It is still not easy to find these titles in the bookstores and Indian public library system is yet to start working to its full potential.
Foreign publishers have an obvious advantage of working in more mature book markets where book reading/buying is part of their culture. With a larger reading population they have bigger print runs making the books more competitive.
Anitha Ramkumar, Head of School Library Services says, "In developed countries, with the availability of the public library system, reading programmes in schools, a good distribution channel etc, awareness about good quality kid-lit is much more. Accessibility and availability of good titles is still not up to the mark."
Nevertheless, we have come a long way from the days of preachy and verbose prose to simpler and subtler styles, says Praba Ram, a children’s writer and a story-time specialist. Shobha Viswanath publishing director, Karadi Tales, says, "Children’s publishing is still a very nascent market in India. Only recently has children’s publishing expanded into wider genres and ideas. We are confident that children in India will grow to read homegrown fiction with as much interest as foreign fiction."
"Children’s books have changed a great deal over the years, right from themes, language to production quality. Newer, more serious themes are now being introduced in children’s books, themes like conflict, gender, family issues, etc.", says Hina Mobar General Manager Marketing and Publicity, Rupa Publications.
Global awareness & Indian literature
Anushka Ravishankar, a fine writer feels, "While in the West, children’s literature is a well-recognised field. Here it is still treated a bit like a poor country cousin. This mindset changes the way people approach writing, reading and responding to children’s books. The only thing to do is to publish books that are so good that they can compete with the best anywhere in the world."
Saraswathy Rajagopalan, Executive Editor, Mango books says, as publishers we have to keep working to change the perception towards Indian literature. It is very important to make the world aware of our books by being present at major book fairs.
Praba believes that stories can serve as a wonderful tool to bridge cultures and to see our common humanity. Story sessions sponsored by the Indian cultural organisations could be a neat platform to share our land’s rich story heritage. Not just religious and mythological stories, but modern ones too that aptly portray India’s diverse social landscape that come out of India, would be a great way to share Indian literature."
There is still scope and space for many more for healthier competition, to keep complacency at bay and to offer richer and better.
In spite of being the land of stories, unfortunately not much was on offer for children in India as far as variety of stories was concerned. The reasons ranged from lack of fluency in English, obsession of educating children through every written word, to talking down to children rather than talking to them. Indian children’s literature has a rich treasure chest of stories that still remains untapped. though we are waking up to it. Foreign children’s books have better production values than our homegrown books.
‘I am pleased to see the growth in children’s publishing in India. Back when I was a kid, there was Amar Chitra Katha, a few children’s magazines like Champak and Tinkle and your English Gulmohar Readers were the best bet if you wanted to read Ruskin Bond. Now it is amazing to see all the fantastic work coming out of India. Tulika, Tara, Karadi, Katha, Pratham — they have all been working actively in the kidlit space to promote Indian content. More power to these fiercely independent publishers and books which portray India in an authentic way, showcasing its natural, cultural, socio-economic and linguistic diversity’ — Praba Ram