CHAT The founders of Duckbill explain their publishing philosophy
The platypus is a creature of curious assemblage. When it was first discovered, naturalists thought that the beak of a duck had been stitched onto the body of a beaver. The platypus is also unique in that it is the only known egg-laying mammal and one of the very few venomous ones. It is cute, but deceptively so.
Duckbill, a new publisher of books for children and young adults, seeks to channel these traits into its publishing list. Started earlier this year by Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu, Duckbill will be run in partnership with Westland Books.
Anushka, a prolific writer, has previously worked in publishing at Tara Books and Scholastic India. Sayoni has worked in publishing for over 13 years, including at Oxford University Press and Penguin India. “We wanted to do a certain kind of books which working for a larger company wasn’t allowing us to do. And as it happens in all jobs, if you are good at something you inevitably end up doing administrative and HR work, which is what both of us were doing. And we wanted to get back to books,” says Sayoni, on the sidelines of the recent Bookaroo festival.
The next few books that are hatching at Duckbill include The Stupendous Timetelling Superdog by Himanjali Sankar, which tells the tale of Rousseau, a silly, happy dog who becomes the sole source of telling the time when creatures from outer space stop all time-telling devices; The Wordkeepers , a futuristic young adult novel by Jash Sen; and Jobless, Clueless, Reckless by Revathi Suresh, a coming of age novel. Also in the mix are Alice In Deadland by Mainak Dhar, the second in his trilogy of zombie novels, and a book of poems by Adil Jussawalla.
A deliberate move towards what the duo calls “wacky” is patterned in this list. “We feel that there’s not enough genres in children writing that are being explored…We do look to find genres which haven’t been published very extensively or not at all in India,” says Sayoni.
One of them is the horror genre. “Horror is something kids and young adults enjoy reading. While in India we have a lot of ghost stories, they tend to be gentle. There is a certain sensibility in children’s books that it must be a very safe, protected world with moral lessons coming out at the end of it. And children really aren’t innocent; they are living in quite a complex world and they are sensitive to what is happening,” she adds.
With the implementation of the RTE, children’s literature will come to play a big role. Sayoni and Anushka find it exciting to be part of the children’s publishing industry at a time when it is maturing, but they also outline some of the challenges they will have to overcome.
One of them is to get schools to stock their books. As custodians of knowledge, schools tend to be quite rigid about what children read. “Some schools can be quite blinkered when it comes to books which they consider suitable for their library,” says Sayoni. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney was banned in schools in Kerala for its irreverence and poor spellings. Some schools in Maharashtra banned Horrid Henry and Captain Underpants . There have also been instances where books have been banned on grounds as flimsy as the mention of word ‘ghost’ in them, they point out. “It’s ridiculous, because children will read what they want to read.”
Anushka adds, “In one of my books a dog was called Teacher…When I went to a school to do a reading, the teachers said ‘We wanted to ask you a question. Why did you call the dog Teacher? Don’t you think it gives a very bad message to the children?’ I said ‘thank you so much for bringing it to my notice. I’ll think about it.’”
Of course she won’t.
We do look to find genres which haven’t been published very extensively or not at all in India