In Susie Will Not Speak, Susie decides not to talk after boys in the park tease and call her Thoothie, for she has a lisp; and in The Shy Supergirl, Nina is given the task of finding a silver owl that has disappeared from the neighbour’s house. Many such simple and everyday stories feature in the hOle book series, published by Chennai-based Duckbill Books. They are meant for children transitioning from picture books to independent reading of longer text. Each book in the series has a hole on the right-hand corner. “Die-cut books are nothing new; we think why the hOle captured kids’ imagination was partly its sheer pointlessness and the fact that the illustrations play with the hole,” say publishers and founders Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar, in an email interview. With 22 books in the series, over one lakh copies have been sold, an impressive figure for an indie publishing house in India. Excepts from an interview with Basu and Ravishankar:
What does selling one lakh copies of a book series means to a children’s publication house in India?
The number in itself is quite modest. The last Harry Potter, one reads, sold 2.6 million in the UK alone by the first weekend of its release. For us, the number is significant because in India children’s books do not sell in large numbers unless they are well-known international series or Ruskin Bond and possibly Sudha Murthy. So for a series of Indian chapter books, many of the authors of which were first-time writers or first-time children’s writers, the number is impressive. Secondly, the Indian children’s market is notoriously skewed towards books which teach something or books with a mythological/religious slant. The numbers renew our faith that Indian kids are more receptive to fun Indian stories than market surveys would suggest.
What was the gap that you saw with children’s books that you decided to create the hOle book series?
While India has many publishers who create diverse picture books, and there are a reasonable number of interesting middle-grade novels available, early chapter books were few. These are an essential stepping stone between picture books and novels, for children to get accustomed to less illustration, more text, and the concept of division of the narrative into chapters. Given the dearth of Indian books, children who were ready to graduate to chapter books had to turn to western books. We felt it was important for young children to have books with recognisable contexts, peopled with the kind of characters they might encounter around them.
Could you take us through the process of selecting stories for the series?
The kind of dilemma or challenge the protagonist faces is usually what helps decide — is it something that a child of six to nine would identify with? Is the story complex enough for a chapter book? Length is obviously a more tangible concern, and the visual possibilities also play a role. We have also been working to have stories with protagonists from more diverse backgrounds.
What are the problems that children usually face while moving from picture books to independent reading?
In a picture book, the storytelling is done equally through visuals and words. In novels, storytelling is done primarily through words. Even if there are illustrations, their function is more decorative usually, in the sense that the progression of the narrative is not reliant on the illustrations. Picture books entice with colour, bells, whistles and play. By contrast, the novel, even for younger readers, seems forbiddingly wordy.
Did any child, teacher or parent share on how did the books help in the transition?
It makes us very happy to hear that in several government schools, where English is the second language, kids are reading these books in Classes VI and VII because the stories are interesting and the vocabulary is simple.