From contemporary themes to illustrations rooted in the Indian aesthetic, we tell you what’s new in the world of children’s literature. By Surya Praphulla Kumar
Children’s Pavilion is humming with activity. While some listen to writer Dash Benhur narrate the story of a demon with a heart of gold, others browse the many stalls, or sit cross-legged on the carpet, noses buried in a book. Amidst the chatter are discordant voices of parents asking children not to buy too many books or warning them off genres they hadn’t previously enjoyed. “A pizza costs more than a book, but you buy it without any hesitation. If you want kids to read, you need to have books for them at home,” admonishes Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, the publishing director at Hachette India, also present at the venue. “Parents must give children the chance to pick up varied titles, make mistakes, and learn what they like,” she adds. Clearly, there is no better time than now to inculcate the habit as children’s literature is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. “There are a lot more publishing houses today, signing authors with new voices, who are experimenting with themes,” explains Sohini Mitra, senior commissioning editor – Penguin Books, adding, “Today’s writers are also well travelled and many have a full time job. They come with their own experiences which they put into their stories.”
True to life: Books have found a strong sense of identity, with themes becoming inclusive, mirroring experiences that most children can identify with. “We’ve started to explore brave new worlds, not shying away from topics like single parenting, death, divorce, the differently-abled. The younger generation are quite with it. When these topics stare them in the face from TV and films, why portray a reality that is not concurrent with the ones they are familiar with?” asks Vidya Mani, the managing editor of Good Books and co-founder of Bengaluru-based book club, Bookalore.
No moralising: Another encouraging trend is the moving away from didactic stories. While the classics like the Panchatantra and retelling of the epics can be charming, author Manjula Padmanabhan stresses that they also contained “strong messages, like maintaining the rigid structure of traditional society”. “I think it’s important to break out of those moulds,” adds the author of Mouse Attack and Mouse Invaders, who is currently working on a picture book feauring a familiar orange cat named Pooni. While Deeya Nayar, senior editor at Tulika, agrees that there’s less of “talking down” to children, she believes there’s “lots of room for improvement, especially when handling sensitive themes. There is a need to focus more on quality.”
We still don’t have the ecosystem that is there in the West, which is depressing because there are a lot of talented writers today who want to write good books, and publishers who want to bring them out.
— Samit Basu
Numbers game: Duckbill Books, which many in the publishing world point to as trend-setters, are focussing on age-appropriate titles. They have introduced chapter books (for children transitioning from picture books to story books), which are really popular now. And they have a clear idea on how to choose the manuscripts. “The books must be interesting and the voice compelling. The story must be unusual, ideally a bit wacky, and the world view inclusive,” says Anushka Ravishankar, the co-founder.
Packaging: Finally, illustrations and design are also enjoying their moment in the sun. Moving away from generic and rather Disneyfied interpretations, there is now an appreciation of a child’s ability to comprehend different styles of art. At the vanguard of creating an Indian aesthetic is Tara Books. “Our art pedagogy goes back a long way. As we’ve grown, we’ve got more sophisticated in terms of design, much more adventurous,” says founder Gita Wolf, adding that their latest, 8 Ways to Draw an Elephant, explores various folk drawing techniques. Stiffer competition from the West has meant that book jackets are also getting the attention they need. Publishers state that they are investing more on special effects—from debossing and embossing to foiling and UV spotting. “The child is a perceptive buyer. Moreover, since we are also looking at taking our books international, art and presentation must meet global standards,” concludes Shobha Viswanath, publishing director of Karadi Tales.
Illustrated by Kaori Takahashi, this book challenges the traditional format of the book. It follows a little girl’s search for her teddy bear and, as she knocks on the door of each apartment in her building, the book literally unfolds, step by step, into a building full of life.
Rs. 500, Available at the Book Building. Details: 42601033
A Pair of Twins
Written by Kavitha Mandana, and illustrated by Nayantara Surendranath, it is the story of a pair of twins from a mahout family. While the girl bonds with the baby elephant, the son loves to sing and dance. But everyone realises how special they are only when they’re both called upon to save the day. Rs. 195. Details: karaditales.com
Enter the monster garden and meet a Scrumpeelious, a Sharmistickle, a Tankstomper, and many other strange creatures. But what does a Sharmistickle look like? Does the Tankstomper resemble a tank? Use your imagination to create the monsters in this unique draw-it-yourself picture book. Rs. 150. Details: amazon.in
Penned by renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, the travelogue-cum-photo journal catalogues his crazy journey—from the icy wilds of Tibet to verdant Bangladesh, down one of the mightiest rivers of the world. The coffee table book for children talks about changing cultures, languages and what you encounter on the river.
Rs. 60. Details: prathambooks.org
Stoob – Misma
Tch Mayhem | Red Turtle
There’s a girl in Stoob’s life now! Not just that, he suddenly seems to know all about Bollywood, he is keeping up with the latest on the IPL and he even attends a dance class. What led to the rise of this new Stoob? And why is he trying to be a football hero?
Rs. 195. Details: rupapublications.com
The Room on the Roof
Rusty, a 16-year-old Anglo-Indian boy, is orphaned, and has to live with his English guardian in the claustrophobic European part in Dehra Dun. He runs away from home to live with his Indian friends, plunging into the bright world of the bazaar and Hindu festivals. This special edition marks the 60th anniversary of this award-winning book, written when the author was just 17.
Rs. 175. Details: amazon.in
Dead as a Dodo
The Mauritian flightless bird gets a new lease of life in Venita Coelho’s new book. The trio from Tiger by the Tail—Agent No 11.5 Rana, Agent No 002, Bagha the brave tiger, and Agent No 13, Kela, the mischievous grey langur—are back, trying to stop a shadowy villain who is intent on stealing the last specimen of this species. Touching upon conservation and wildlife trafficking, it is a delight.
Rs. 350. Details: hachetteindia.com
Girls to the Rescue
What will happen when Snow White, Cinderella and the gang meet an author who wonders, “Now what would any red-blooded girl with brains do in such a situation? A girl who did not plan to make a living out of being obedient, sweet and good?” Six leading ladies decide not to stick to the script, and take us instead through some riveting retellings that sizzle with humour as they toss around notions of beauty, perfection and strength. Rs. 160. Details: tulikabooks.com
Half the Field is Mine
It tells the story of two girls, Oli and Champa, who are star footballers on a mixed football team. On the threshold of adolescence, the boys decide the girls can’t play on the team any more, but the latter are not ready to give up ‘The Beautiful Game’ yet.
Rs. 195. Details: amazon.in
Tweenache in the Time of Hashtags
Harper Collins India
Written from the perspective of a precocious young girl, Nina, blogging her way through school, friendship and first crushes, this is the second book in the Nina the Philosopher series and tackles difficult issues of divorce, homosexuality and growing up in today’s tech-filled, fast-paced urban landscape.
Rs. 250. Details: flipkart.com
Your Turn Now – 2
Everyone has a well of kindness within them. You just have to remind them to use it. And when they do, it triggers off a chain of happiness. Created by Rushabh Turakhia, this collection of short stories is based on true life experiences intended to help children become a better people. Rs 199. Details: flipkart.com
One Man, Many Missions
Campfire Graphic Novels
Ever since he was a child APJ Abdul Kalam wanted to defy gravity and fly high. Written by Nalini Ramachandran and illustrated by Rajesh Nagulakonda, this graphic novel shows how, even when life threw him many curveballs, he overcame all hurdles to become the country’s 11th president. Rs 250. Details: campfire.co.in
While I’m Away
Anahi and Vir are siblings. As Anahi’s first day of school approaches, Vir thinks freedom awaits him. But, instead, he realises he misses her when she is not at home. This book, which shows the bond between a brother and sister, is filled with colourful illustrations by Prashant Miranda. Rs 375. Details: littlelatitude.com
With children exposed to every kind of media, the need of the hour is variety—from fiction to bi-linguals. At Pratham Books, they believe the 373 million children in the zero-14 age group deserves books—in English and their mother tongue. “Neuro-linguistically it’s been proven that once a child is fluent in the mother tongue, in which books play a major role, thereafter he/she can pick up reading in any other language easily,” shares Manisha Chaudhry, editorial head at Pratham, adding that non fiction is currently picking up. “Young children love to read about nature, inventions, strange phenomena and the like,” she says.
Business of books
There is no denying the impact of the digital. While publishers claim ebooks have peaked and kids love the “materiality” of books, libraries are shutting down, the latest victim being Chennai-based Hippocampus. “With children glued to computers and phones, the weekend trips to book stores and libraries are disappearing,” says Himanshu Chakrawarti, former CEO of Landmark. Perhaps one of the reasons why Hippocampus, with its library, children’s theatre and activity centre, couldn’t sustain itself. On a positive note, Chakrawarti adds that this is creating more online libraries, like British Council Library in Mumbai, which is “wholly online” and iloveread.in the city. “Children’s books are one of our bestsellers, and the ease with which they can order books benefits today’s digital culture,” says Karthika Gopalakrishnan, the manager at iloveread.in.
Spread the word
For parents who’d like their children to start reading young, children’s book writer and city-based storyteller Praba Ram has a few tips. “Have books around the house. This will pique their curiosity and interest. I’d also suggest reading to them for at least 20 minutes a day,” she says, adding, “Take them to a library and buy them books regularly. Also, get them to attend storytelling sessions. Another option is exploring books online. Pratham Books has story writing options for children (storyweaver.org.in), which will get them engaged.” According to Bookalore’s Vidya Mani, fun interactive sessions—like the ones they organise with authors and illustrators, with music, creative writing, art and crafts, and more thrown in—are another great idea.
With inputs from Priyadarshini Nandy.