A few publishers are working hard to make reading an enjoyable experience for Indian kids with their beautifully crafted, child-friendly picture books. Will parents, teachers and libraries please take note? PANKAJA SRINIVASAN reports

For those of us who read or were read to as children, names such as Dr.Seuss, Margaret Brown, Maurice Sendak, Peggy Rathmann and Crockett Johnson spelt magic. These would be familiar names if we bought picture books for our kids. Odds are we don’t. Because we are inordinately fond of words, say Shobha Viswanath Creative Director, Karadi Tales; Sandhya Rao, Editor, Tulika Publishers; and Gita Wolf , Director, Tara Books. But they are trying hard to change that by publishing good quality, attractively-illustrated books for Indian kids.

Let the pictures speak

A picture book is the result of a highly creative process, they say. “It’s humbling when you think of the kind of impact it can have on a child, an impressionable mind. A good picture book takes you …to a world of feelings and ideas and thinking. That’s why each word has to be so carefully weighed, each emotion has to be considered and conveyed just so, each picture has to speak. It is a dialogue between the words and the pictures, and it is this living world that a child enters with her imagination and vulnerability and willingness to believe…” says Sandhya.

Sadly, not many Indian parents have cottoned on to this. “Words, words and more words is the name of the game. There are picture books in the West without words - can you imagine any parent here paying Rs. 400 for a book without words for a child of three?” asks Shobha. No one expects the pictures to communicate anything, she rues.

That is probably because it is the Indian way, says Sandhya. “We love words, the more the better, never mind if the verbal diarrhoea is sapping the life out of our young readers. We love talking, we are bombastic, and no, we will not pay for an uncluttered book. That too for children, forget it! We don’t take children’s books and the need to create quality books for them, seriously enough,” she says.

Gita is a little more optimistic. She says “Price used to be an issue, but I think this is no longer the case, as middle class parents are now willing to spend on their children.” However, she admits, “parents would still rather have more words.”

In an article in a Swedish Magazine, Gita explains why this may be so. “Children’s literature was never a genre in the Indian storytelling tradition. Stories were largely oral and audiences were mixed. The teller of tales did not differentiate between the world of the child and that of the adult. From 19th century Europe, came the notion of the child’s world as intrinsically different, and children’s literature as a genre followed.” The West perfected the genre. Sandhya points out how there is serious history and documentation of children’s literature there. Also, great support. Writers and illustrators are invited regularly to schools / libraries to interact with children, and share their worlds with them, she says.

Lack of support

The reason that has not yet happened here, feels Gita, is because of lack of awareness, visibility and distribution. “For an independent publishing house with a tiny marketing budget, this is a problem. To add to our woes, we don’t have a reliable buying system for libraries and schools, which is where most foreign publishers score over us.”

But publishers such as Tara, Tulika and Karadi Tales are making huge efforts to reach out to as many children as possible. Tulika has around 80 titles. And, after they have been translated into other Indian languages, it is over 500. There are many more in the pipeline.

Karadi Tales’ imprint called Dreaming Fingers has rendered Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a tactile book for children who cannot see. It is also coming out with the bilingual v-Chitra picture books.

Tara Books is collaborating with one flagship store in each city that will showcase its books. Amethyst in Chennai is the first such collaboration.

A responsibility

“It is important that a publisher engages with writers and illustrators to transform good ideas into compelling books. How many publishers assume this responsibility, is a question worth thinking about.” Gita, Shobha and Sandhya say there is no dearth of good illustrators. “It’s just that they don’t always look at children’s books as a professional option. The money in children’s publishing, to put it baldly, is not so inviting. You need that extra bit of heart, I think,” Sandhya concludes.