From friendship and gender differences to disability and stereotypes, children’s books now deal with a variety of issues subtly. Behind these books are young writers whose focus is to pen stories that are local, poignant and fun. A few authors tell Anusha Parthasarathy what it takes to write about social issues in books meant for kids
Tharini has been illustrating and writing stories about cats and witches for as long as she can remember. Her love for the written word and stories has culminated in two degrees in English and an MPhil in Children’s Literature from Cambridge University. Catch That Cat!, her first picture book for children, hit the stores recently. “I enjoy telling stories, and it so happens that the stories I tell and write can be enjoyed by both children and adults. I think Catch That Cat! is a book for everyone,” she says. Catch That Cat! is about a girl called Dip Dip who goes in search of and rescues a friend’s cat. Dip Dip does not let the fact that she is in a wheelchair stop her from helping someone in need. “When I first started the story, Dip Dip’s character was that of a self-sacrificing, goody two shoes. And I quickly realised how boring that was, especially in a story for children. That’s when I decided that Dip Dip was going to be a naughty child, unmindful of her ‘disability’, who goes out of her way to make things happen, rather than thinking about the things she can’t do,” Tharini explains. She also wanted to drive across the point that people with disabilities are not those who ‘cannot do things’. “I have worked with children with disabilities in the past, both in Chennai and Cambridge. Despite the difficulties they faced, the kids were absolutely fantastic. I hope Catch That Cat! captures at least a little of how amazing differently-abled children can be.” As for her next book, the 25-year-old says, “I have several stories in mind — of dancing elephants and friendly clouds. However, they are still in my head.”
(Tharini will be holding a book reading session at Hippocampus on January 25)
Entrepreneur Amrutash always wrote stories and now that he works in the company of books (Amrutash runs an online library), he is writing even more. A couple of months ago, his first picture book for children, Aditi Zoo was published. “It is about a little girl who wants a younger sibling and asks her parents. But her parents put her up to some challenges. She has to cross them to convince her parents to get her a sibling,” he says. Writing for children is difficult because of how much simpler the language has to be, the 28-year-old feels. “One has to use fewer and simpler words. You can only use words that a five-year-old can understand. That’s the challenge. Even the idea-complexity should be age-appropriate.” Aditi Zoo’s protagonist is a spunky, adventure-loving girl, breaking stereotypes. “The most important idea we explored is that of a go-getter girl. Picture books typically show little boys as outgoing and adventurous. I think this is very untrue. Little girls are just as brave and outgoing.” Amrutash is now working on more children’s stories. “I am working on a picture book for children between ages four and six. I am also contributing to two short story collections for children between ages eight and 10, and on two collaborative projects for kids,” he adds.
An editor with Tulika Books, Nivedita has written and illustrated many books for children. The most recent book is the second of the Mayil series, Mostly Madly Mayil, written along with Soumya Rajendran. “Mayil began with a different idea — to be a gender resource book for children. But when we approached the publisher, they liked the idea but told us that kids would immediately know if we were trying to teach them something,” says the 28-year-old. Mayil eventually became a paperback fiction series for older children. “The first book dealt with gender, sexuality, discrimination and other issues. In the second book, we have tried to look at abuse, gender and caste. It sounds heavy when I say it, but we bring them up in a natural context.” Nivedita says that the first breakthrough with children’s books is in the language. “You also have to draw incidents from your childhood and things you don’t understand, and present them. Children understand class in a different way and so you go back in time, take those incidents that you found troubling and write about them in a way that is relatable. Growing up issues are not different, only the contexts are.” There is one important point that Nivedita always keeps in mind when she writes for children — “Never dumb down things. The moment you try to over-simplify, the kids will lose interest.”