On a recent family holiday, I eagerly showed my younger sister a copy of Little Dipper Publishing’s latest book, Where Is Mr Thookam. The book about two young girls trying to look for the elusive Mr Thookam (sleep in Tamil) had touched a chord when I had read it. It was as though author Anusha Veluswamy and illustrator Janan Abir had drawn our own summer holidays spent at our maternal grandmother’s house, trying to sleep in the oppressive humidity. From the clothes and earrings the girls wore to the mosquito coil placed under the bed and the elaborate banana plant front door décor – every single detail felt familiar and I desperately wanted to share it with my sister who had had the same experiences as me.

Growing up, summer reading was all about Enid Blyton’s characters and their picnics in the lush green fields of small towns in England. Where the characters had scones and clotted cream with strawberry preserves and lashings of ginger beer for breakfast and ate cucumber cream cheese sandwiches and thick slices of cherry cake for lunch. My mother’s humble sambar rice and potato fry just did not match up! As much as I loved reading about their lives (and secretly hoped I could emulate them) there wasn’t a lot I could relate to. Sure, it taught me there was a world beyond what I see and opened my eyes to unending possibilities but I wasn’t ever a heroine in any of the books I read. My favourite book characters didn’t live my reality.

Long awaited Indian representation

Indian children’s literature has often talked about representation and how much we suffer from the lack of it. In the past few years, authors and publishing houses have changed the narrative by producing stories with diverse characters from around the country. Authors from the North Eastern states and Southern states of India are now making sure children from these regions are represented in the books they write. Hannah Lalhlanpuii’s When Blackbirds Fly is set in Aizawl and is about a character forced by events to become inexorably linked with the Mizo insurgency and the utter dissolution of his dreams because of larger conflict.

The much-acclaimed Children of the Hidden Land by Mandira Shah in which April and Shalini traverse the byelanes of Imphal to uncover a sinister racket dealing with insurgency, child soldiers, and people they love. The Theatre of Ghosts by Pankaj Saikia is a stunning wordless wonder that shows young girls and boys making their way through fields of Assam to watch a Bhaona performance. With traditional masks, botanical features, costumes, and vibrant pictures – Saikia brings alive the local flavour of Assam. Mita Bordoloi’s Bumoni’s Banana Trees is a charming book about an Assamese family’s relationship with their immediate environment and what happens when elephants are added to it.

The southern states have also been represented recently through the award-winning Beauty is Missing by Priya Kuriyan about a woman who loses her buffalo in small town Kerala and a local cop, Jincy Jose who cracks the case. Kavitha Punniyamurthi returns after Shoo, Crow with Chitti’s Travelling Book Box, an endearing story about little Chitti who inspires her friends to read and sets up a travelling library. Filled with characters with clever Tamil names, this is a book representative of children growing up in small town Tamil Nadu. Maari – A Gift from the Skies, by Anusha Veluswamy is a book about a small village in Tamil Nadu grappling with a heat wave and coming together as a community to pray and play the Parai Attam as an offering to Mother Earth. This book is like parting a curtain and peeking into small town Tamil Nadu. Illustrated by Shruti Hemani, the reader sees kolam-decorated homes, wild tulsi plants, blue and white hawai chappals coexisting with sun-dried vathal in front of homes.

Keeping it real

Little Dipper Publishing’s founder, Anusha Veluswamy said she felt a strong need to highlight stories from Tamil Nadu because there is almost a “sense of invisibility, erasure or even worse – misrepresentation” when it comes to stories from that region. Her stories come from a space of her own “lived experiences and are authentic as they carry all these beautiful, raw, nasty, intense people, stories, images! Diversity in literature is most definitely what we need but the most pertinent issue is to allow diverse voices to speak their stories and that may just bring about equity in publishing.”

Creators enjoying this new wave of acceptance of stories from their region are keeping it real. They are aware their stories and visuals may be a tad bit exotic for those not from the region but they are willing to take that risk.

Pankaj Saikia author-illustrator of The Theatre of Ghosts and illustrator of When we are Home said, “Visuals from the North East region will feel a bit exotic because the visuals are primarily new. As an illustrator, I try not to exoticise things but the only thing I can be conscious of is that I can put everything in context and be true to the story. It has also been a struggle because there is no reference point for illustrators from this region because there have not been enough visuals or tradition of visual arts in the medium that we work. It feels like a very fresh ground and you are trying to decipher newer visuals out of it.”

But creators, publishers, illustrators, and authors can agree they write their stories so young children from their region can see themselves in the books they read. Representation is important and it needs to start from a very young age. Children want to see someone like them and people like their family and friends in the books they read and that goes a long way towards raising lifelong readers. In her ground-breaking article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”, educator Rudine Sims Bishop highlights the importance of representational literature for children by comparing books to mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. She writes, “Books can be windows into worlds previously unknown to the reader; they open like sliding glass doors to allow the reader inside. But books can also be mirrors. When books reflect back to us our own experiences, when scenes and sentences strike us as so true, they are anchors mooring us to the text, it tells readers their lives and experiences are valued. When children do not see themselves in books, the message is just as clear.”

Closer home, I love how Priya Kuriyan, author, illustrator of Beauty is Missing puts it. “I make sure the characters are diverse and look like the people, that they can relate to or see on the street. The thing is it should also give you a sense of validity when you read the book that you are worth it, to be the hero of a story.”