Tale of a storyteller

THE WORLD OF “WHY NOT?” Writing for children is no mean task

THE WORLD OF “WHY NOT?” Writing for children is no mean task  

Children’s writers on how to keep the young readers hooked

You see things; and you say, “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?” - George Bernard Shaw

Storytelling is no easy matter – be your young listener of wizard-kind, a Jedi, hobbit or a muggle, for tales need to be showered with imagination, narrative skills, considerable artwork … and what makes Harry Potter the next best-seller after the Bible: le plot.

The landscape of a child’s tale is full of pitfalls: the target audience has a ridiculously small attention span; is going through the formative years of growing up, perceives a world full of question-marks … and adults as more than capable of answering them. Not to mention that dreaded word of doom every storyteller faces: “Boring!”

Reflecting the present

“I try to reproduce their main concerns, current pre-occupations and excitements,” says Scharada Bail, who began writing in response to a call by the NCERT for stories on national integration. “But I do think that one has to maintain a kind of quality – more than a writer for adults.”

Quality eventually rules the roost, in children’s literature. The general perception of a writer for children seems to be that little effort goes into them; certainly not as much as an adult book. “Many people are confused,” admits Sandhya Rao, senior editor, Tulika Books. “They somehow can’t seem to imagine that books for children are produced like others.” Today’s books for children have certainly progressed beyond simple tales with a pretty moral – though Tenali Raman and Panchatantra tales are aplenty. But the next generation wants to relish stories in different settings. Add interesting characters – and even a subtle dosage of “The Ten Rules of Best Behaviour” might not be amiss. Everyone’s favourite children’s author, Enid Blyton achieved this – her Malory Towers and Famous Five series continue to kids. But even they, set in a time far removed from the present, contain a few outdated notions.

“I’m keen on kids enjoying a story with the right values – but based among cities and places they know and recognise,” says Sandhya Sridhar, who has been writing adventure and mystery stories for more than a decade. “Kids like knowing what’s happening in the here and now.” Many of her current fans are those who grew up reading her work.

But of course, the sheer thrill of waiting for that next instalment of a serial story is now on a steady decline. “It’s a pity, yes. For some, the economics don’t work out,” says Sandhya. “You can’t write for children with monetary benefit in mind.”

E. S. Hariharan, who writes under the pseudonym ‘Revathy’ and has won more than 40 awards for children’s literature in Tamil, agrees. “There are many writers for adults, but very few for children. It requires more effort, creativity, style… and never come into this field for money. For my part, if Indira Gandhi always had a copy of Ambulimama on her table during her regime, that exhibits their power.” However, to see the kind of magical realism stories that were earlier looked down upon, reappearing and enthralling children in channels like Jetix, is a little too much to take. “Old wine in new bottles,” he chuckles wistfully. “The circle draws to a close.”

All agree that, as writers for children, their perceptions are different. “You need to get into their world, think and communicate to them,” reiterates Jeeva Raghunath, storyteller and writer. “That’s why I write for kids in Tamil – I think, feel and understand it better.”

Being identified as a writer for children, no matter how politically correct, does invoke mixed reactions. “I’m often asked if I’m still writing for kids, after 40 years,” laughs Hariharan. “I tell them that I always will”. Scharada shrugs. “I’m quite unaffected by such evaluations.” To Sandhya, the knowledge that her stories reach some child in a remote part of the country is humbling. “Just knowing that some child somewhere feels fulfilled, that books answer some need, is satisfying.”

Storytellers, just like stories, do live ever after.

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