Writing for children demands the best and the freshest of a writer's imagination, backed by a high degree of editorial skill. The listed books are good reads and tackle a variety of themes, but in the meld of originality, ideas, and narrative skill, they fall short. We looked for empathy rather than discrimination, fun rather than instruction, audacity rather than political correctness, wonder rather than world-weary ennui — and came away disappointed. We didn't find the quality of timelessness that so distinguishes award-winning material."
This rather damning indictment of children's literature in India by the jury of the Crossword Book Awards late last year kicked up quite a storm. Many in the field of children's publishing were outraged —"condescending" was one of the adjectives used to describe the statement. Yet there were plenty who felt that the statement was quite accurate and that it was high time children's literature in India sought higher standards.
It could be argued — and some have — that an award for children's literature is in itself somewhat ridiculous because it places that great spectrum of works that encompasses this broad genre into a common pot. Yet an award such as this provides the one thing that Indian publishers and booksellers haven't been able to give: a semblance of visibility for home-grown products. Take a casual stroll through any bookshop — the big-buck chains or a local outfit — and you'd be forgiven for thinking that there is no such thing as an Indian children's publishing industry.
Yet the truth of the matter is there are more and more publishers, an increasing number of readers, not to mention authors, illustrators and storytellers, working within both traditional and emerging platforms that are broadening the appeal of home-grown literature for children. What is without doubt is many new books are being published every year. Whereas once Indian children's books comprised the ubiquitous Amar Chitra Katha comics and gaudily-produced mythology, today we have the likes of Young Zubaan, Harper, Scholastic, Tulika, Pratham, Tara, Duckbill, Hachette, Puffin, Tara, all of whose offerings snap at the heels of the somewhat slicker imports.
"Given that we produce children like there's no tomorrow, one would think that a readership and consequently sales shouldn't be such a big problem, but unfortunately it is," says Vidya Mani, editor of the magazines Hoot and Toot, and a self-proclaimed "publish-o-saurus". The reason, she reckons, is that children's magazines and books don't have a tangible value in India yet. In an earlier conversation about the state of children's publishing in India, Sayoni Basu, founder of the new children's publishing house Duckbill, blamed a lack of awards, review space and a general lack of interest paid to children's books for the insipid showing. This in turn leads to poor sales and reinforces the lack of attention — a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.
Even the recent children’s literature festival, Bookaroo, saw this incipient linguistic-class divide. While their two-week-long schools outreach programme tries to reach the smaller schools and conduct sessions in regional languages, the weekend festival remains hopelessly limited to attracting an English-speaking, well-to-do audience.
Add to this the heavy dose of didacticism that prevails in some of the writing, which puts off serious readers accustomed to reading quality literature from the West, which at least treats young people with the respect they deserve. Vanishree Mahesh of EasyLib library in Bangalore, who struggles with trying to get children to pick up Indian literature, says that there is a perception among kids that Indian writing is "boring". But this prevailing notion notwithstanding, Indian children's writing is definitely shedding its coyness bit by bit, as witnessed by some of the new literature by authors like Paro Anand, Sampurna Chattarji, Ranjit Lal, Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam. Authors and publishers are waking up the fact that young people inhabit the same flawed world as the rest of us. Thus war and terrorism, death and illness, sex and sexuality are all starting to find their place in Indian books, right next to friendship and loyalty, love and family, picnics and happy endings. And this is no mean feat, given our propensity to generally keep our children ignorant of the murkier facts of life, and the tendency of parents, teachers, librarians and other gatekeepers to filter "appropriate material" for young minds.
Be that as it may, there are many who don't agree with the coming-of-age tag of children's publishing: Vidya Mani feels it is in full bloom, and that only the lack of visible commercial success keeps it from being hailed as a success. Her own magazines face an uncertain future despite having a subscriber base of over a lakh, and this illustrates the dichotomy. Manisha Chaudhry, content head of Pratham Books, adds that an advertising-driven media that worships "celebrity culture" has to take its share of the blame. As the trendsetter, the English media does not celebrate Indian writers because they sell little, "and since English readers are wired up internationally and would rather dip into the delights of Harry Potter, Twilight, etcetera — their publicity budgets and finesse is hard to match — they don't show a preference for home-grown talents." The same media people that hound publishers for quotes "every time a new Harry Potter came out", says Sayoni Basu, fail to review Indian books or give Indian authors the same kind of space.
And if English-language children's literature can thus get the short shrift, it doesn't take much imagination to predict where vernacular literature languishes. The very term children's publishing defaults to the English market — "a sad fact of our political economy," says filmmaker and writer Samina Mishra. She seeks out Hindi books sometimes and often stumbles upon some gems, but she wishes it were easier. "Some bookshops are trying to stock Hindi books but it's a small selection [with] few publishers."
Pratham Books is, of course, one of the few that strive to make affordable multilingual reading material available — not just books, but also electronic content. Manisha Chaudhry points out that the 80,000 books published in India every year — about a third of that for children — account for 24 different languages. With 300 million children in the country, there are of course plenty of readers, but "reading proficiency is a challenge," she says. "All recent surveys will point to problems in reading ability, whether children are going to government or budget private schools. Whether books and libraries make a difference is being researched, but a general consensus assumes that books help."
The Sahitya Akademi's Bal Sahitya Puraskar, which awards children's writers in the regional languages plus English, hardly gets the same fanfare as the Crossword Awards, which is restricted to English books. Even the recent children's literature festival, Bookaroo, saw this incipient linguistic-class divide. While their two-week-long schools outreach programme tries to reach the smaller schools and conduct sessions in regional languages, the weekend festival remains hopelessly limited to attracting an English-speaking, well-to-do audience. It is not just the location, but its more or less all-English programmes, a bookshop that mainly houses English books, and catering organised by an upmarket restaurant chain. Yet Bookaroo fills a yawning need — a forum where children can come face to face with their storytellers, a celebration of reading. "It's all about enthusiasm and feeling good, but I would like it to be more than just a mela," says Samina Mishra, "Perhaps, to address a key issue every year, have a focus maybe that changes every year. There's a lot for us to think about with children's books and a festival can spark off a conversation."
Well, then, if "coming of age" is a tired cliché for children's literature, perhaps a more succinct summary would be that it is still trying to find its feet. It is inconceivable that as long as there are enthusiastic readers clamouring for stories and inspired storytellers willing to tell them, and intrepid publishers willing to bridge the gap between the two, children's literature won't yank itself out of its self-imposed adolescence and stake its rightful claim on our bookshelves.
Payal Dhar is a writer of children's and young adult fiction.