As the publishing industry taps into the potential created by on-screen popularity, is it ignoring the need for good stories with original characters?

Walking through the children’s section at local bookstores, where the choice is expansive and the displays attractive, it is not difficult to detect what patterns have evolved in the last couple of years; independent novels have been replaced by series, there is an upsurge of dark, fantasy novels and most strikingly there is a range of books that have either been adapted for, or from, film or television.

Of these, the most surprising discovery was that children’s television shows that have been adapted into books are fast gaining popularity. Familiar characters like Dora the explorer, Ben 10, Hannah Montana, Phineus and Ferb and Chota Bheem have their book adaptations which attract a fairly eager bunch of readers in the children and pre-teen section. Hachette has also published five successful books based on the popular American high-school drama Glee.

These books, apart from featuring famous characters, are no more than 150 pages and make for quick and simple reading. However, do these books make children want to read more or will they just encourage them to watch these characters more on television?

Books have evolved from being just books to being part of a larger package. The ones that sell are the ones backed by television adaptations, websites and, in rare cases, merchandise and video games. In India, Chota Bheem has attracted quite a bit of attention and book stores have taken to dedicating entire shelves to this much loved character that first gained popularity through a show on Pogo, a children’s channel.

According to Manoj Mishra, manager of Landmark, Somajiguda, everything boils down to visual marketing. “When it comes to kids,” he says, “visuals have a very high impact. They come into the store looking for things they have seen on television. Now that the trailers for the new Spiderman movie are out, we have more kids buying Spiderman comics.”

At the same time, there are books that have gained popularity in India only because their Hollywood screen adaptations have caught the viewers’ attention. The success of The Hunger Games trilogy is the most recent example of this phenomenon.

The release and subsequent success of the movie has increased sales not just for the first book but also the second and third parts of the series. New editions of the book are printed with characters and cover design that correspond to those of the television series, making it easier for readers to recognise and pick them.

Stores like Landmark and Crossword reveal these books claim a high readership among children and while this can be seen as a positive development, the quality of these books does not make a convincing case for the same. Mahesh Vaishnav who mans the children’s book section at Landmark says that children prefer to begin with a book featuring characters they already know.

It is only after they have exhausted those books that parents encourage them to read classics and novels which will ‘help them improve their language’.

Maya Angelou, the American writer once said that ‘any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him’ but whether to take comfort in these words and or to question the quality of these books and real reasons behind why children are swarming to book counters is up to the parents to decide.

Readymade representations

Television shows, movies and video games crowd children’s memories, leaving book publishers and authors to fight for attention and look for news ways to engage young minds. Increasingly, novels and book series have dedicated official websites where the reader is transported to the world of the book and its characters.

The idea may be old but its application and effects have evolved, as has their impact on book sales. Earlier, authors had websites where readers could read interviews, participate in discussions, access other books by the author and keep track of new publications. Now websites also offer interactive games, applications and videos, all based on books. Discussion threads which earlier mulled over characters and analogies now excitedly discuss who will be playing their favourite character in the soon to-be-released film adaptation.

The website of the House of Night books, a seemingly popular young adult fiction series which is best described as an uninspired mash-up of Harry Potter and Twilight, has even made trailer-like promotional videos for their books.

Whether these websites truly add more dimensions to the world of the book or whether they have standardised imagination by providing readymade representations of the book is left to the readers themselves.

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