One of my highlights of visiting India as a kid was to buy an obscenely large number of Tinkles and Amar Chitra Kathas . I was so accustomed to reading Western children’s literature that to me these books with stories (and stereotypes as I later discovered) rooted in India and free of stuffy British aristocracy felt like kindling a broken cultural connection.
Thankfully, kids today don’t have to make the same choices. Over the last two decades, children’s publishing in India has burgeoned, moving away from quasi-encyclopaedic tomes to works that break with the industry’s earlier conservatism and span a variety of genres. Part of this has been driven by Tara Books, Karadi Tales and Tulika Publishers, which focus solely on children’s books and helped build up an ecosystem of children’s publishing in the country.
More recently, even other publishers have seen the green (if not storytelling possibilities) of the children’s book segment. Two recent children’s book imprints are Talking Cub and HarperCollins Children’s Books, both of which were officially launched on Children’s Day last year. Their initial bets are entertainment-driven, not a bad choice in a market where educators and parents still largely expect children’s books to edify.
Humour and horror
In Talking Cub’s The Little Ninja Sparrows , Gouri and Chiddy are mercilessly bullied by their siblings and along the way manage to find their strength to defeat evil Siamese cats. The humour in the book lies in its Indian aphorisms and characters like a dove called Chikna Talcum P. Prankenstein , a collection of rib-tickling, gently humorous and moving short stories by Jerry Pinto, Paro Anand, Shruthi Rao and Vinayak Varma, among others, feels like classic children’s fiction.
Grandparents snap at each other because their dentures get interchanged, a little girl turns into a sloth, a young boy steals money from his father’s cash register and is immediately struck by a beggar’s open-heartedness and a cat goes from catty to affectionate with the family’s new dog.
HarperCollins Children’s Books also has an interesting slate. Some are traditional like Meet Zippy , a picture book series hopeful which contains rhyming verses and an array of anthropomorphised animal characters. An interesting experiment in melding humour and horror, both of which employ incongruity and transgression as key elements, is the Flipped book series which has funny stories on one side and horror stories on the other. And who says only novels like Maximum City and Shantaram are worthy of being called city literature? What Maya Saw is an engrossing fantastical mystery-adventure and a bildungsroman whose most compelling element is its documentation of the city of Mumbai.
Both Talking Cub and HarperCollins Children’s Books have ambitious plans. Talking Cub will publish around 15 to 20 original titles in its first year, including The Other , a book of realistic teen fiction by Paro Anand and a melancholic novella by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar about a dragon found by children in a tribal hamlet (sign me up already!).
Coming up for HarperCollins Children’s Books this year are Pashmina by debutante Nidhi Chanani, a graphic novel about an Indian-American teenager grappling
with her roots in America and a biography of Amrita Sher-Gil by Anita Vachharajani which will be the start of their Timeless Biography series. HarperCollins Children’s Books aims to release around 20 books in its first list which is already underway. These releases will jostle for space with titles from publishers like Duckbill which has built up an enviable catalogue of over 100 titles in five years and Karadi Tales, Tulika Books and Tara Books, which have steadily churned out a variety of books over the last two decades.
Can the market support these many children’s books? Publishers themselves seem to think that this competition is a good thing, reflecting the health of the industry and allowing more writers and illustrators to shift away from the traditionalism of children’s books. Two of the winners of The Hindu Young World-Goodbooks Awards this year are conspicuous in their break from a publishing past where mythological tales were endlessly recycled.
Tulika’s Gone Grandmother , sensitively written by Chatura Rao, is a gorgeously illustrated picture book about a young girl who deals with her grandmother’s death. Another one is Duckbill’s Unbroken by Nandhika Nambi which upturns the notions of an inspirationally disabled individual by letting the protagonist beangry and unlikeable.
While earlier books had a notion of preserving a (monolithic) Indian culture, in recent times, there seems to be an acknowledgement that this culture is pluralistic. Inclusivity has become a buzzword among Indian children’s publishers. Notably, it largely extends to disabilities and economic marginalisation, rarely caste.
In 2007, Navayana released the stunningly illustrated book Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times written by Kancha Ilaiah which speaks about caste-based professions and aims to inculcate dignity of labour. Yet, it still remains one of the few children’s books to actively invoke caste.
Theinevitable question then is whether diversity in children’s literature in English is largely cosmetic. Other than the smattering of Hindi epithets, are they largely the same stories transplanted to the East? The Little Ninja Sparrows could have taken place in any setting, for instance. Of course, it is an unfair burden to place on these books to represent a culture that has so many facets.
With publishers attempting pan-India appeal, it’s clear why they shy away from stories that are so rooted to a time and place. But specificity is what leads to excellent children’s books. Sample Duckbill’s Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman, a wonderfully entertaining book about a school mystery that is consequential only for adults but whose heft is courtesy its nuanced glimpses into the lives of the differently-abled, including its protagonist who has a spinal disorder.
This is still an industry fraught with challenges though. While bookstores stock up Indian authors in adult fiction, their children’s section is lined up with fantastical or zany adventures from the West, whether it’s Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Geronimo Stilton or the Wimpy Kid. It’s telling that the two Indian children’s author who come to mind for most are R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond, both of whom have been published for decades. While Sudha Murthy has managed to make a dent in recent years, her stories largely emulate the classic mould of Indian moralistic folktale.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, who heads the Talking Cub imprint, admits that their biggest challenge is children’s books from the West. Sayoni Basu, co-founder of Duckbill Books, notes, “The principal challenges that we face, as a very small English-language publisher of contemporary Indian fiction for children, are probably the lack of distribution outside the metros, diminishing retail spaces, and a certain amount of apathy towards reading for pleasure among many parents.”
Tina Narang, the publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, feels that getting children to read is itself a challenge. “Children have less time, and even lesser inclination, today to spend time with books, so we need to make this impatient and on-the-move generation see reading as a pleasurable activity and not something they are being forced to do against their will.”
All these publishers are also testing different ways to make their brand names and books visible in the market. Karadi Tales organises Bak Bak With Karadi Tales, a series of storytelling sessions around Chennai, and has recently started bilingual storytelling sessions in Korean in order to expand the reach of their books. Tulika prioritises affordability over production quality.
Tara Books, whose spectacular art, superb production and high prices have made it a bigger success abroad than in India, had an exhibition at the Itabashi Art Museum in Tokyo that featured hundreds of pieces of their original artwork. Duckbill published the official novelisations of movies such as Dhanak .
Pratham Books’s StoryWeaver provides thousands of stories in over 30 different languages on its platform, allowing anyone to download them. Narang notes that authors are the best way of marketing these books. “The one trend that publishers have benefitted from is the rise of the empowered author. Authors today are almost like entrepreneurs. Blogging enables authors and illustrators to talk about their work and discuss the creative process.”
Social media has also been indispensable for publicising books, particularly for independent publishers like Duckbill and Tulika. One of the largest Facebook groups, The Reading Raccoons — Discovering Children’s Literature, has more than 16,000 members.
Founded by Tanu Shree Singh in 2011, it has become a welcome forum where parents share Indian children’s literature recommendations with one another. Singh even started a free children’s library in Faridabad based on book donations from members of the group. She notes that many children ask her for books in Hindi and she hopes more publishers like Tulika and Pratham make books available in different languages.
It’s undeniable that children’s books are a fast-growing segment and despite these numerous challenges are estimated to grow between 14-18% every year. Yet, the simplest pleasure of this children’s publishing boom is that finally Indian kids have a dizzying array of narratives and genres that are culturally specific to them.
Watch out Geronimo Stilton; our homegrown animals are ready to outmanoeuvre you!