Once upon a time, in a land that felt like home, the big bad digital ogre held children captive, whittling their attention span and feeding them a cocktail of sound and Technicolor, tantamount to nothing. In parent-teachers’ meetings, schools held forth on the need for digital detox while parents lamented the passing of the good old days when children needed little more than the great outdoors and the company of cousins and friends to keep them engaged. The road to freedom, however, was not hard to find. How could it be, asks writer Paro Anand, 61, when it was as old as time? “No one is immune to a good, old-fashioned tale,” says the Bal Sahitya Puraskar-winning author.
Anand’s prognosis comes from decades of following the pulse of the digitally-distracted successfully. The good, old-fashioned tale is at the heart of a rollicking upsurge in publishing for children in India. From multinational behemoths such as HarperCollins (India) launching a children’s imprint to indie publishing houses such as Duckbill Books, Pickle Yolk Books and Eklavya pushing the envelope with their experiments , from the proliferation of literary festivals focussed solely on children’s writing to mainstream awards recognising it as a category of its own, it’s an exciting time to be writing or publishing for children in India, not just in English but in vernacular languages, too.
“Indeed, it is the best time to be working in this segment where the sales and distribution numbers are continuously growing,” says Himanshu Giri, CEO, Pratham Books, which has been driving some of the changes in publishing for primary graders. Set up in 2004 to address the lack of quality reading resources in Indian languages , the publishing house has upped its ante in the last couple of years not just in terms of content, but also in the way the books can be disseminated. “The average price range of the print books is very affordable — Rs 35 to Rs 45. In 2015, to provide even greater access, we built a digital platform, StoryWeaver, which has more than 10,000 storybooks in 128 languages. They can be read online and offline, or downloaded and printed by users for free. We also embedded some tools on the platform that allow users to version the storybooks into new languages and formats,” says Suzanne Singh, chairperson, Pratham Books. In 2017-18, with more than 450 books across formats, the company published over five times more than the previous year.
Last year, judges of Britain’s Branford Boase Award for outstanding children’s writing by a debutant, complained of an increase in family dramas leading to “a depressing children’s literary landscape”. Diversity, however, is not a problem in Indian writing for children. “Publishers are increasingly realising the important role they can play in helping children become more empathetic and sensitive towards the challenging environment they are growing up in,” says Tina Narang, publisher, HarperCollins Children’s books, which was launched in November 2017.
From a boy who becomes a tree (The Tree Boy, Pickle Yolk Books) to the story of a little girl with a celebrity ornithologist for an uncle (Salim Mamoo and Me, Tulika), from a wordless book about a little red string (The Little Red String, Pratham Books) to the jumble of colours that inspired the pioneering 20th century abstract expressionist painter, Ambadas (Ambadas’s Dancing Brush, Artfirst), the variety is an indication of the diversity of reading tastes . There are books addressing bereavement and bullying, nudity, violence and gender imbalance, racism, homosexuality and class struggles. In many of them, the quality of illustrations and production value are on a par with international publications. Siddhartha Sarma’s Young-Adult title Year of the Weeds (Duckbill Books), which has just won him the inaugural award for new writers at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, is set in an Odia village and deals with the onslaught of corporate greed through the story of the Gond community’s resistance to a mining bid. Another first-of-its kind book, Puu, by CG Salamander (Scholastic India) looks at the stigma faced by a young girl because her parents work as manual scavengers. Puu, which means “flowers” in Tamil, becomes a metaphor for the English word denoting excrement. Anand, whose No Guns At My Son’s Funeral (2005) dealt with terror in the Valley, recently wrote The Other: Stories of Difference (Speaking Tiger), which examines teenage struggles to fit into a normative world. “I find the question of age-appropriate children’s literature misguided. As a wise man said, do you prepare the child for the path or the path for the child? The answer, obviously, is the child for the path. It’s about time that we start tackling the dark issues that children are trying to muddle their way through. I think the best way to deal with it is to be honest,” says Anand.
The evergreen Ruskin Bond, the never out-of-fashion RK Narayan and the timeless adventures of British writer Enid Blyton, for long, had been the staple on children’s bookshelves in urban, middle-class Indian homes. Change first came in the Nineties when publishing houses such as Chennai-based Tulika Books and Delhi-based Katha (set up in 1988), stepped in with original, multilingual content. At the time, the major children’s publishers included the government-run National Book Trust and the Children’s Book Trust, set up by cartoonist Shankar in 1957, which struggled to cope with the excellent production value of books coming in with the arrival of the publishing giants after liberalisation. The disintegration of the USSR in 1991 also meant a gradual fade-out of the illustrated children’s books from Russian publishing houses such as Vostok and Raduga. “Since the 1990s, nearly 40 per cent of India’s population has been averaging below the age of 25. This was a target audience for whom little existed in terms of books,” says Shantanu Duttagupta, publishing head, Scholastic India, among the first of the publishing multinationals to set up an India chapter in 1997.
It would be JK Rowling who would cast a spell with Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. “Suddenly, children’s books became money-spinners and moved from a corner of the book shop to the main display… Publishers around the world put as much effort into books for children as they do for adult books — in terms of editing, quality of paper, cover design, illustrations. That change also trickled into India,” says writer Shabnam Minwalla, 50.
A former journalist, Mumbai-based Minwalla is the author of six bestsellers aimed at middle graders and young adults, and one of the most sought-after contemporary children’s writers. She turned writer after the birth of her daughters, when a career break set her off on writing for her children. Her stories are mostly set in Mumbai and cover everything from fantasy and school stories to tales that address the economic divide or social inhibitions. “When I started writing, I felt that there was a real absence of books set in contemporary, urban India — hardly any adventure or fantasy books set in cities, nor stories about schools. My aim, in a way, was to show that magic and adventure can be found in our grey, crowded cities just as much as they are found in cosy English villages and American towns,” says Minwalla.
Writing for children is no child’s play and the challenges and perks are being recognised by writers who work with fiction for adults. Novelist Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar debuted with his children’s book Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire (Talking Cub) last year; poet-writer Sharanya Manivannan tried her hand at a yarn for children with Ammuchi Puchi (2016, Lantana Publishing), a book on bereavement.
“What we need with the new generation is not an excessively protected world view but a gentle desensitisation,” says writer Arefa Tehsin, 39, whose most recent book is Amra and the Witch (Duckbill Books). Tehsin’s forte is nature writing, a genre nurtured by a handful of writers such as Ranjit Lal. A large chunk of this new surge in children’s writing is non-academic, non-fiction work that focuses on issues such as the environment and history. Two of the most interesting recent non-fiction work have been Tehsin’s Wild in the Backyard (Puffin Books), an introduction to the creepy-crawlies that we find around us, and, Bijal Vachharajani’s So You Want to Know About the Environment (Red Turtle), a beginner’s handbook for environmental consciousness.
This spur to diversity and the need to write about the local and the familiar have come in part from the awareness generated by book events across cities, driven by relentless lit crusaders such as the Delhi-based organisers of the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, Swati Roy and M Venkatesh. They launched the festival in 2008, at a time when there was little support or infrastructure for literary events solely for children. “When we suggested the concept, the opinions ranged from hitching it to a film festival or an adult-lit festival for it to succeed. Then, there was the concept of bus-ing in children. It gave us nightmares of reluctant children being loaded into buses almost like a punishment,” says Roy. In December, as the festival completed a decade, it spread its wings to not just cities such as Kohima and Srinagar, but also to Goa, Kuching, Jaipur and even Bali in Indonesia. “From 3,000 in the first year, we had over 12,000 footfalls last year,” says Venkatesh.
Run as a trust, with their investments dependent solely on sponsorships and donations, the success of Bookaroo has provided a blueprint for similar festivals across the country. In the last year alone, children’s literature festivals have come up in Raipur, Kanpur and Vizag, while Gurgaon and Bengaluru have been organising similar fests over the last few years. The inaugural edition of the Vizag Junior Literary Fest saw 60 sessions by 15 speakers, with close to 800 children registering for the event and walk-ins by an additional 2,500. “Unlike metros, cities like Vizag have only a few initiatives to engage children in an interesting way. The families and parents, however, have had exposure to such events in other cities. So, they understand the value they offer,” says Sonal Gandhi Sarda, one of the organisers of the festival in Vizag.
For indie publishers such as Pickle Yolk Books, which focuses on picture books and was a finalist at this year’s Publisher of the Year category at the Publishing Next industry awards, it’s the network support built up at the events that drive sales more than sessions at schools. “Perhaps, because of their easy access, urban kids show a jadedness that is wholly absent when you meet children from outside the metros. Also, I find most city schools a little unprepared for book events. These literary festivals, however, have changed the way people look at books or writers. At these events, both publicity and sales benefit, and that can only mean a good thing,” says Richa Jha, 44, its publisher. In the little over three years of its journey, Jha’s list of output as a publisher has been sterling, with books that deal with digital addiction (The Manic Panic), disability (Machher Jhol), coming to terms with bereavement (Boo!), among others, that have made it to several national and international award lists. Her advance list includes books on forced eviction in cities and unconventional mothers.
The going is tougher for one-woman start-ups such as Jha’s, which emphasise a lot on high production quality. “It’s still early years and I am yet to break even. A print run of 1,000 copies of a book costs an average of Rs 90,000. This is because of my extreme fussiness about quality of paper, printing or having printed endleaves in the paperback versions, too. Taken with the development cost of design and illustration, the costs rise to about Rs 2.5 lakh; what I can make through sales after the huge trade discounts is Rs 1.5 lakh, at best. But things have begun to look up, and hopefully, in a few years, the figures may not be this dismal,” says Jha.
Unlike the West, which has a robust culture of children’s laureates and awards for writers and illustrators, there has been little industry support in India. But funding organisations such as the Parag initiative by Tata Trusts are playing an important role. Apart from backing diversity projects in books, three years ago, it set up the Big Little Book Awards to felicitate children’s writers and illustrators in various Indian languages, one of the first to do so. “We were clear that we did not want to just give away an award but also see how we could promote the work of the winners. In the short span of three years, we have tried to involve libraries in taking up reading sessions around their work … tried to see how we can get the winner’s work in other languages…I feel our role lies in pushing the boundaries and … to enable them (children) to choose wisely and freely,” says Swaha Sahoo, head, Parag.
This freedom of choice has also been hugely facilitated by social media, says Sudeshna Shome, co-organiser of the Cosy Nook Chidren’s Literary Festival in Bengaluru, and, publisher, Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger that was set up in December 2017. “Whether through an author’s own pages, the publisher’s pages or the many reading groups and blogs that are out there, social media has been a boon because traditional media remains quite closed off to the whole area of children’s writing…” says Shome. In its inaugural year, Talking Cub published about 30 titles, a number Shome intends to stay at in the near future as well.
At The Hindu Young World-Goodbooks Award ceremony earlier this month, Vinayak Varma, whose Angry Akku (Pratham Books) won the best picture book, said, “…without the people who are quietly doing extraordinary, pioneering and often neglected work in the children’s books and early literacy space, the books and publications for grown-ups… would have no readers. You, as a reader, would not exist. The fact is good children’s books create good readers.”
The readers, those at the centre of this exciting churn, are responding, too. Anand speaks of how every child will find a book that works for her. “I was not much of a reader as a child, but every evening, my parents would insist that we spend an hour reading together. It used to seem like a punishment to me till I found the book that changed my mind,” she says. Tehsin recalls the large number of children who turned up eager-eyed at Srinagar’s DPS school, where the Bookaroo festival was held in November last year, asking them about the books they had written and eagerly reading out their poems. Sometimes, they would tell them their secrets, too. “Savio Mascarenhas, the lovely artist behind the modern avatars of Little Shambhu and Super Supandi, showed me a picture on his phone. He had asked students to come and write on the drawing board what they wanted to become when they grew up. A child had written, ‘I want to be a grenade when I grow up.’”
This article appeared in print with the headline: Along Came the Stories