Taking children’s writing seriously

Nandana Dev Sen speaks about her latest book, Not Yet! and how Bengali Literature played a role in shaping the writer in her

February 25, 2017 06:16 pm | Updated 06:16 pm IST

Nandana Dev Sen has had a long day. Her trip to Bengaluru entailed the launch of her children’s book, Not Yet! at Hippocampus, besides other sessions she conducted with school children. “That is the most fun part about writing for kids,” says the stunning Nandana as we settle down for a chat, “My sessions are noisy, interactive, and high-energy with fun games, animal masks, play-acting, tail-swishing and wild noises!

Just this morning, I was sweetly mobbed by 150 kids in the Bangalore International School, who refused to let me leave and one little girl burst into tears. I so didn’t want to leave them either! I had seven sessions at the Jaipur lit fest. What made this trip especially fun (if a bit frenetic) is that my talks ended up having a diverse and colorful mix of topics and audiences, from raucous sessions with children, to reading poetry in multiple languages, to speaking about censorship in children's books, or about encouraging kids to read in their mother tongue, about the intimacy of translation, about girl-child nutrition in India, about the representation of women and alcohol in popular culture, and so on!”

The author of two other books, Mambi and The Forest Fire and Kangaroo Kisses , is excited about Not Yet! published by Tulika Books. It is about a little girl who delays bedtime, and has some incredible wildlife adventures. “The inspiration came from my niece Hiya, and all the nights when her mum and the rest of us have tried desperately to put her to sleep. Hiya has an incredible collection of excuses for not going to bed! I actually wrote the book as a birthday present for my Hiya Pari (Heart Fairy in Bengali), as I call her. Also, I've always been fascinated by the time between wake and sleep, a time rich with leaps of imagination and flights of fancy, when I think of all the adventures I could have, and have long conversations in my head with friends and family (including my grandmothers, who have been gone for years). From a child’s point of view, it’s also a moment of warm closeness and love that both parent and child look forward to every night. I wanted to capture all these elements - how does a child who doesn’t want to sleep delay bedtime? Where does her imagination take her when she wants to keep playing with the animals that surround her, even though they are toys? What does this moment reveal about the playful intimacy that exists between mother and child?"

There is a wealth of children’s literature. Regional languages in particular have powerful stories. Bengali literature, for example, has some of the finest children’s stories. Nandana, whose mother is the award-winning Bengali author, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, agrees and says: “Whether it is Rabindranath Tagore,Sharatchandra, Bankimchandra, Ashapurna Devi, or in more recent times, Satyajit Ray, Sunil Ganguly, Mahasweta Devi, or my mother, our most celebrated writers have written for children as well as adults.”

Not Yet!, published by Tulika Books, too has come out in English and in eight bilingual editions across India. “I feel it is increasingly important to encourage kids to read in their mother tongue as well as English. Honestly, I can't imagine what my childhood would have been like had I not read Bangla. Even graduating from one level of Sahaj Path to the next was delightful! I know that my identity as a Bengali, or even an Indian woman would not have been the same had I not grown up loving Bengali literature,” says Sen whose other books for children include Mambi and Friends series, and Kangaroo Kisses .

Nandana also writes Op Eds, from time to time: “They are based on my work in child rights - an area that is still insufficiently addressed in our journalism – and as a result, I had been asked by a few publications if I’d write a regular column on it. While I did want to address thus under-represented issue, I felt very strongly that when we talk about the rights of our young people, the discourse, though it can be quite passionate, ironically hardly ever includes the voices or opinions of those whose rights we argue about. Most often they get left out of the discussion, either because they don’t read what we write, or because we talk about their rights in an abstract and normative way. Somehow the personal stories get lost in the statistics, as important as they are. So, I decided to write the column in a narrative rather than editorial format, choosing topics that otherwise I would write op-eds on, such as domestic abuse, coming out as LGBT, or sexual violence in adolescent peer groups. But instead, these are fictionalized stories, though inspired by current affairs and contemporary reality, written from the point of view of a young person.

How does she balance between writing and acting? “All my life I’ve had a number of creative passions, and I have always resisted binary definitions of my identity – Writer or Actor? Sexy or Arty? Indian or International? And so on! (laughs) The truth is, these interests have always been complementary in my life. So yes, I love acting in films and I am sure I will continue to do so. I've recently written a screenplay set in the interconnected worlds of cinema, journalism, and politics in a Bombay, and I am very excited by the traction it is getting on this trip.”

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