Reading between the lines

World Storytelling Day (March 20) is a good time to look at the pressing need for books for children in the context of a fading storytelling environment, says Shobha Vishwanath

The annual international Bologna children’s book fair that looms around the corner (March 25-28) will once again, in its 50th year, open its doors to children’s literature from across the globe. There are 1200 exhibitors from 66 countries registered to participate at the fair this year who will showcase their books — picture books, illustrated books, activity books, chapter books, young adult novels, educational books, encyclopaedias, graphic novels, e-books, apps, and the list continues to expand as technology finds newer ways to transmit the printed word.

In India, while we continue to grow, slowly but surely, in literature for the young adult, the picture book market has somehow remained a difficult terrain to cross. Across the rest of the world, especially the western world, the place that the picture book occupies in the life of a child is not just significant, but appears almost mandatory.

As a nation and a culture, in India, picture books have never occupied any space. Our early childhood comprised of games, festivals, food, and song and dance, but being read to was never an integral part of growing up. One of the reasons for this is perhaps the abundance of stories, real or imagined, that existed in every household and was shared with the family. Stories told to very young children were often used as tools of distraction to get them to eat or sleep rather than for entertainment or enrichment.

Books were introduced to the child only after she entered school. The first printed stories that the child saw were the ones in her textbook. In light of this, there was never a market demand for books with lush illustrations or stories in which the pictures spoke more than the words.

Art or illustrations were something that added a little relief to the monotony of the page. If art was neglected, writing did not receive any preference either. Most children’s stories were retellings of folktales or from the Panchatantra and the Jataka .

Where’s the recognition?

If Indian writing in English has fast gained ground both at home and abroad, the same talent does not seem to spill in the direction of children’s writing. There are no awards that are instituted for children’s writing or illustration and the solitary Crossword Book Award somehow encompasses the whole gamut of children’s literature from picture books to young adult novels.

In the light of changing social parameters, with families shrinking and even grandmothers rushing to work, the child’s need for stories has to be fulfilled with good illustrated books.

The last 15 years have seen a few publishers recognise this need and create beautifully illustrated and well-designed picture books. Karadi Tales, Tara Books, and Tulika Publishers have made bold and interesting forays into this arena. While Tara has even won the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi Award, among several others, for their beautiful screen-printed art and handcrafted books, Karadi Tales over the past few years has taken its new line of picture books to the international market. Many Karadi Tales books have been listed on the White Ravens Catalogue of Outstanding Books.

The importance of a picture book in the life of today’s young child should not be underestimated. In the absence of a vibrant storytelling environment, it is books that we have to give our children. Reading pictures is just as important a skill as reading words.

A beautiful picture book is a medium of storytelling and a work of art.

It teaches without overtly preaching, and it has the magical quality of telling you a different story each time you read it.

There’s no better way to teach a child to value art and aesthetics than by exposing her to picture books.

In fact, there’s no better way to teach an adult either! As author and illustrator Joyce Wan says, “Picture books have the power to capture your heart and transform your soul.”

(The writer is Publishing Director of Karadi Tales)

A picture book teaches without overtly preaching and it has the magical quality of telling you a different story each time you read it

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