Children’s authors across India are a happy lot. Since the Harry Potter phenomenon exploded across the globe, these writers now have a more receptive audience, and medium, finds Preeja Aravind
If publishing industry was a parent, then children’s book publishing in India would be the unloved, unappreciated step-child. This has been a long-standing reality for children’s book authors and illustrators. At a time when writers such as Ruskin Bond, RK Narayan and Anant ‘Uncle’ Pai have been hailed as stalwarts of children’s writing, the newer generation of children’s writers are having difficulties in finding foothold.
Or are they? In words of author Shabnam Minwalla, “It’s a strange situation. When I started writing there was almost nobody I could send my books to… suddenly in the last year, things are very different. Now publishers are coming to me. I have now written for five different publishers.”
Minwalla’s first book The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street was published by Hachette India and her latest book What Maya Sawis part of HarperCollins’ maiden foray into children’s publishing.
Although it may look like there isn’t enough being done for children’s books, there is a huge market in young and early readers, and publishers are taking notice. Children’s Book Trust or Britannica are not the lone rangers; there are several publishersacross the countrywho have been printing and promoting children’s books for years.
The Lesser Knowns
There is an exhaustive list of children’s publishing houses with award-winning titles. Pratham Books, which won the 2017 Publishing Next Industry Award for Publisher of the Year completed 14 years of existence on January 1, 2018. Duckbill, started by Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu in 2012, was shortlisted for the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards in 2015.
Tara Books and Tulika Publishers have been collecting awards over the two decades of their existence. The most recent entrant Talking Cub—thechildren’s book imprint of independent publishing house Speaking Tiger—has already found traction as it introduces the more popular titles with introductions or editing by Ruskin Bond. And, who can forget Uncle Pai’s own Amar Chitra Katha that gives us our delightful Tinkle comics?
These are apart from the multi-nationalpublishers such as Bloomsbury, Puffin (the children’s imprint of Penguin) and Scholastic who have been present in India for quite a while.
As Ravishankar mentioned, with the advent of social media, parents are now more invested in their children’s reading. “Schools are now more proactive, too, as compared to even 10 years ago. Schools are inviting authors and organising festivals… Children’s authors are now being looked upon with so much more respect than earlier,” she comments.
Veteran children’s writer Poile Sengupta agrees. “It is much better now. There is a lot happening for children in the Indian (book) market and the production value has increased tremendously. The publishers have understood that children of younger age (four to six years) need a lot of pictures with the text. And their format has improved. They also have a lot of translations now, which is lovely,” Sengupta says.
Minwalla had a similar opinion. She says the publishing industry is focusing on contemporary content for urban children. “For example, Scholastic is very strong with its school networkand it has these children’s book clubs in schools through which it encourages children to read. Then there are these book festivals in tier 2 and tier 3 cities, which is heartening and endearing,” she says.
Ranjit Lal, who has been writing for children for 15 years now, however, thought there is quite a lot of scope for improvement. “I believe we have too much of an imposition from the West. It’s probably ingrained in our psyche that anything foreign is good. I understand the foreign publishers present their work beautifully and we might not match up, but it beats me why the children’s section in bookshops will have foreign authors up front, and the Indian authors would invariably be stocked near the bathroom,” he says.
The Rowling Effect
There is a marked change in attitude towards children’s writing, and authors and publishers, unequivocally, said it is all because of JK Rowling. According to Sengupta, Rowling has done “a great service to children’s literature all over the world”and broken a lot of barriers by writing the Harry Potter series. “All of us children’s writers have at one point or the other heard the disdainful, ‘Oh, you write children books, why would do that?’, but it is now changing,” says Ravishankar.
“When I used to write in the 1960s-70s, they wanted all of us to write historical stories. We were to recreate legends from the epics and folk tales. They were handsome productions, no doubt, but we struggled to tell modern stories,” Sengupta says about the general outlook towards children’s book publishing.
Lal, who has written only contemporary stories for children of age 10 and above, said children need to read about relevant things in their own surroundings. “We have our own background of culture and stories which affect a child’s perspective. A children’s book has to reflect all that,” he asserts.
Voices in Local Languages
Contemporary literature for children is being produced not just in Englishbut also regional Indian languages. Tulika Publishers publishes in eight Indian languages, while Pratham Books has titles in 20 regional languages. Duckbill has sold rights for a few titles to be translated into Hindi and Telugu, and is in talks for Tamil translation as well.
Ashok Kamath, who founded Pratham Books in January 2002, says he started his publishing house, “Because there was a paucity of children’s literature in local languages when we started it.” Suzanne Singh, chairperson of Pratham Books, explains the publishing company’s philosophy, “Pratham Books was set up to fill the gap by publishing good quality, low cost storybooks in Indian languages. Our mission statement is ‘a book in every child’s hand’. In recent years, we have invested deeply in technology to further our mission.”
Pratham Books has taken it a step further with its open source content platform called Story Weaver. “It is an open source content platform that provides free access to children’s stories in multiple languages. All the stories on the platform can be read online, downloaded and read offline—even printed and used,” Singh says.
In the two years of existence, Story Weaver has grown from 800 stories in 24 languages to more than 6,500 stories in 104 languages, she claimed. Minwalla is a contributor in the platform.
Apart from the publishing houses, there are several organisations and trusts that have taken it upon themselves to promote regional literature for children. The Big Little Book Award (BLBA)—a collaboration of Tata Trusts’ Parag Initiative and Tata Lit Live—in 2017 honoured authors and illustrators for children’s literature in Bangla.the BLBA had showcased Marathi children’s literature in 2016.
Despite the increasing recognition, regional language books for children are not getting enough attention on national level. Perhaps, as Minwalla says, “It is a market-driven thing.” But as she rightly points out, there is a big question that is not being asked: “Why is there no demand because there are so many children who would want to read in their mother tongue?”