Children’s Literature in India: A Fairy-Tale?

Shobha Viswanath  

When Gandhiji was asked what he thought of Western civilization he replied that it would be a good idea.

Children’s Literature in India would be a good idea too.

One does not mean to be facetious in saying that but despite the number of publishing houses with a separate imprint for Children and Young Adult books; and a growing number of independent publishers that focus on children’s books alone, it is still no surprise that the majority of the young reading population in India are reading books that are published abroad.

One can regale statistics and surveys on how many books are published in India, the reading population, the variety of books, the percentage of exports and all other data to support a dynamic and rapidly growing literature for children in India but visit any bookstore and the story stands as a paradox.

Ashwin Haradilkar, the store manager at the popular Chennai Book store Odyssey, says, “Children rarely come asking for books by Indian authors. Geronimo is the current popular flavour, an all time favourite is the Wimpy Kid series and of course there is Percy Jackson, and the unbeatable Harry Potter series.

What are kids reading?

In a trade report published at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013, the author Manasi Subramaniam makes an astute observation.

“A very close look at the Nielsen Bookscan data is extremely revealing. As a sample set, in the ‘Top 1000’, a compilation of bestsellers in India by Nielsen Bookscan for the month of March 2012 alone, the first children’s book to make an appearance is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published by Bloomsbury) at 23, followed by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever (published by Puffin) at 24. After more books from The Hunger Games series and the Percy Jackson series and a few by Roald Dahl and other well-known writers, the first Indian book for children that makes its appearance is at 151 and it’s Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan, a book that was first published in 1935!

Enduring Narayan

At 254 and 255 come two more titles by R. K. Narayan. At 304 is The Magic Drum and Other Favourite Stories by Sudha Murty (published by Puffin), and it is the first children’s book to appear on the list that is both of Indian origin and published in the last decade.

Every so often, dictionaries, thesauruses, and atlases make an appearance as children’s books on the list. The Kashmiri Storyteller by Ruskin Bond (published by Puffin) is at 476. At the end of the list (a whopping one thousand books), no original, and contemporary children’s books published in India within the last decade have made an appearance.”

In the light of this and the realities of children’s book sales, one can presume, if not conclude, that children’s literature in India is still very much in its nascent stage.

While several independent publishers in India such as Karadi Tales, Tulika Publishers, Tara Books, Duckbill, Katha, Pratham Books etc. have brought quality to children’s literature by creating content though contemporary stories that are well written and illustrated by talented artists, children’s literature in English in India still occupies a space that is very small and unrecognised. This is easily evidenced at the various literature festivals held all across the country where a panel to discuss children’s literature is quite often absent.

Regional literature

Ask any child to name five Indian authors for children and the only two names that will surface will be Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayan.

The plight of children’s literature in the regional languages is sadder still.

According to publishing statistics, India ranks third in the list of countries that publish English language books in the world.

Experts in the industry suggest that the children’s segment accounts for about 15 per cent of the Rs. 1,200 crore publishing industry in English (inclusive of imports).

But of this 15 per cent, it is important to understand that almost all books published for children, barring text books, is termed as children’s literature.

This would include activity books, comics, colouring books and anthologies of various folktales, the Panchatantra and the Jataka stories. Stories from the folk and mythological traditions are the most popular among children’s fiction published in India.

Reluctant topics

Enquiries from customers for books with good morals are a norm rather than an exception.

Irreverent retellings of popular tales, stories laced with dark humour and those which deal with controversial issues are still reluctant topics for children’s publishers to engage with.

However, not everything is so bleak. Even the few who dare go against convention and publish stories without morals and lessons in them, blaze a trail for others to follow.

And in this regard children’s literature in English in India will come to its own not long from now just as it took as long as it did for Indian writing in English to find its place in the domestic as well as the international market.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 8:11:51 PM |

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