What does children’s literature in India look like?

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Today, Indian titles attempt to rethink stereotypes with relevant story lines, inclusion of words from regional languages, and scenes set in the Indian milieu Photo: Monica Tiwari, The Hindu

Is the growing number of Indian titles in English for children reflective of reading choices, asks Apoorva Sripathi, journalist at the Hindu.

Have you revisited children’s books as an adult? How do you now relate to books that once evoked images of magic and sorting hats (Harry Potter), of cans of pineapple, cucumber sandwiches and éclairs in a picnic basket (Famous Five), of pranks and powers of telekinesis (Matilda), or of wardrobes that let us into a fantasy realm (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)?

For most, these books were prescribed childhood reading, and as we grew older, some of us switched to contemporary Indian writing in English as well. And, for a long time, the enduring names in children’s literature in the country were Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayan — they even featured in school curriculum. Today, Indian titles such as Moin and the Monster, Granny’s Sari and The Pterodactyl’s Egg rub shoulders with the hugely popular Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and the Captain Underpants series. Late last year, Good Earth (in collaboration with Puffin Books) launched its line of illustrated children’s books, with The Story of Babur.

Perhaps it’s cultural guilt. Many generations of Indian children devoured Western classics, German (and the occasional Russian) fairytales and Greek myths, with a smattering of Indian folktales on the side. For long, many have dreamt of being in boarding school learning Latin, playing lacrosse and having an English midnight feast.

Today, Indian titles attempt to rethink stereotypes with relevant story lines, inclusion of words from regional languages (example, amma and appa instead of Mum and Dad), and scenes set in the Indian milieu. It also owes a lot to the rising number of authors: Anushka Ravishankar, Annie Besant, Roopa Pai, Paro Anand, Samit Basu, Siddhartha Sarma are some well-known names.

It seems like there is no dearth of titles for the interested parent. Vidya Mani, managing editor of Goodbooks, a website that reviews and discusses books for Indian children, says that the trend could be due to parents “actively looking for books that can connect with children here. Indian books speak a lot more to children, and parents are recognising that”. However, she wishes that teachers and librarians take a little more effort to curate reading lists for children, apart from the ones put out by the CBSE. “For example, Classes III to X can study Salim Ali, especially Zai Whitaker’s Salim Ali for Schools, which would make academics quite easy.”

However, Sayoni Basu of Duckbill Books believes that the real achievement would be when children opt for books by Indian authors. “A lot of parents want books with Indian mythology and folktales; for which, there are no non-Indian substitutes. So, I’m not sure how much ‘opting’ it involves,” she says. And that may be because of parents who are partial to the ‘oldie but a goodie’ idiom — “Parents who enjoy reading Indian authors may want their kids to experience the same pleasure,” explains Sayoni.

With the number of publishing houses for children’s books increasing, the market looks relatively healthy. But is that the case? Yes, says Mala Kumar, editor of Pratham Books, citing the growing number of young readers today, despite popular opinion that millennials are hooked onto television and the Internet. “Many old and new publishing houses are widening their offerings for children. There is a larger supply to cater to the demand. It’s not just a trend, it’s here to stay.”

From a publisher’s point of view, a good children’s book, according to Mala, is one that contains a well-told story with contemporary themes and settings, lends itself well to illustration and translation and provides a fresh perspective. Pratham Books also recently launched a platform called StoryWeaver, a digital repository of multi-lingual stories (over 1,300 stories in 33 languages are available for free).

If we were to look beyond fables and fantasy, are there any topics off-limits to children? Author and parent Judy Balan has a candid rebuttal. “No. They’re going to find out about everything anyway. We might as well give them context while we can. Speaking of taboos, there were quite a few raised eyebrows over the single mother dating in my first book (How to Stop Your Grownup from Making Bad Decisions). I thought that was most interesting — just how many urban Indian parents in 2015 weren’t ready for a single-mother in a children’s book ‘having a boyfriend’.”

Conversely, Roopa is of the opinion that she would prefer children reading stories “full of laughter and hope and optimism”. She thinks these would give children the strength to believe that there is a kinder world out there. “I personally would not write stories involving egregious violence, foul language or too much despair and hopelessness. Maybe some children do experience or are exposed to these things in their daily lives. At worst, these stories will serve as a harmless but uplifting escape from the dreariness of their real life.”

Indian writing in English took time to find its feet in the international and the regional market. Likewise children’s books (that go beyond mere instructional and educational value) too, will take their own sweet time. Says Vidya, “Life’s best lessons come from books. A sea change is in how parents should see books — as necessities rather than luxuries.”

Published with permission from the author. Link to article here.

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