With over 30 books under her name, Delhi-based Subhadra Sen Gupta is a well-known writer for children. From historical characters to chasing mystery plots and ghosts to featuring comic book heroes and ordinary school kids facing life, Subhadra has cast her net in the genre praiseworthily wide. This year, the Sahitya Akademi chose to confer on her its annual Bal Sahitya Puraskar for children’s writing in English. In an interview, Subhadra says the real pleasure of being a writer is, however, when children hold her books and ask her questions.
A prolific Subhadra has come out with some more children’s books recently —“The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Friend” (Puffin Books) and “Caring for Nature: Bapu and the Missing Blue Pencil” (TERI). Here, she talks about the books — part of two separate series, besides giving a ringside view of the genre in India. Excerpts:
What changes have you noticed over the years in the Indian children’s book genre in terms of publishing? Considering international titles are now easily available here, how competitive has the market become for the Indian authors?
Even till the 1990s, Indian publishers were not interested in children’s books. Many still give a lower percentage as royalty to children’s writers and do nothing to nurture young talent. It improved with the arrival of publishers like Scholastic, Tulika Books and Pratham that focused only on children and had marketing plans aimed at schools. Still, for most publishers, children’s books are low priority even though it is the fastest growing segment.
Compared to the foreign books, our books are still not as smartly written, designed or printed. But we are getting there.
Your recent book, “The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Friend”, follows the popular international trend — the diary format. Do international trends dictate the domestic market?
This book is part of a series called “World’s Worst”. The diary format happened when I was doing the first book, “Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Cook.” Though it was not planned as a diary initially, I found that when I’m talking about issues that bother kids, a diary adds to the story as it is written in the voice of the kid.
I write for Indian children and have never followed any international trend. Most of my books are around history and even my ghosts and aliens are very Indian. None of the good Indian writers, like Paro Anand, Devika Rangachari, Deepa Agarwal or Payal Dhar, follow trends, they write as Indians for Indian children.
There was a time when our children’s books largely focussed on folktales, legends, etc. Now it is more about everyday life, secret adventures and is also age specific. Do you see this shift contributing to our children’s reading habit?
It was all folk and fairy tales because the publishers did not think anything else will sell. They scare easily, I’m afraid. Now that our books are selling, they are open to new ideas. I talk a lot to kids and a book is often a result of what they tell me. “The Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Friend” started with a session with teenagers where they talked about peer pressure. So kids guide me, I’m their voice to the adult world. Frankly, I have no idea if I influence their reading habits or not.
We now have children’s book festivals. But they primarily concentrate on English books, not our regional writings which have a lot to offer to the genre.
Sadly, the literature festivals are more about finding sponsors and making money. We need language festivals and as people read more, I’m hoping they will start soon. Some languages like Bengali, Tamil and Marathi have always had a rich tradition of children’s writing. For example, even today, most Bengali writers do books for adults and children as well. We also need language magazines that open a space for language writers to learn their craft.
You also wrote a book on the environment recently.
I have done a set of four books for TERI about Indians who spoke of the environment, like Ashoka and Gandhiji, or loved nature, like Tagore. We are a fascinating people and our history is full of stories waiting to be told.
You recently bagged the Bal Sahitya Puraskar. How much does it mean to you?
The trophy looks good on my bookshelf but the real pleasure of being a writer is when a classroom of kids run to me waving my books and overwhelm me with mad questions. That is the best award of all.