Why are adults stuck on those oldies but goldies? Possibly because they don’t know that Indian publishers – especially children’s publishers – have moved on from didactic tales to racy, edgy, slice-of-teenage life drama, as Sayoni Basu, co-founder of Duckbill Books, points out.
Here are eight writers whose children’s books you should look at once the kids are at home are done with the latest Rick Riordan or Jeff Kinney.
Her last job before she turned author was as Brand Manager for Pizza Hut in India. Sharma’s first book, Icky Yucky Mucky, published in 2012 by Zubaan, presents a king with disgusting habits, who consorts with an equally “yucky” queen. “It started out as a set of poems on disgusting habits, inspired by well…I can’t really tell you that now, can I?” she says.
Her other books include Squiggle Takes a Walk – All About Punctuation, Rooster Raga, Anaya’s Thumb, What Should I Wear Today? and Kaka and Munni. Bonkers received the international SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for 2014 for Asia and Middle East and was “greatly influenced by my childhood amidst 40 animals including four dogs.”
A teacher and playwright who has recently moved into writing adult fiction, Sengupta believes that “writing for children is the most difficult form of writing and the responsibilities are much more than in writing for adults.” Her first picture book was The Way to My Friend's House, followed by others like The Story of the Road, How the Path Grew and Waterflowers.
“All of them have something to do with roads and travel and I did not do that consciously,” she remarks. “Children must know that the world they are familiar with can also have stories and exciting adventures. But most bookstores push these books to the bottom of the last shelf. We need constant publicity – reviews in newspapers, magazines and children's channels on TV. Frankly, there is little support from publishers. The authors have to fend for themselves. There are IPR issues, and our stories are ‘lifted’ and published in textbooks without permission or even acknowledgement.”
She has a soft spot for rakshasas and asuras, inspiring her characters Junior Kumbhakarna and Bookasura – The Adventures of Bala and the Book-eating Monster. Venkatesh worked in information technology for several years, before “discovering the wonderful world of picture books in London’s public libraries”.
The Petu Pumpkin series, she says, is “inspired by all the fun I had growing up!” Most parents, she agrees, haven’t heard of Indian authors, “apart from the ones they themselves read as children, and possibly Sudha Murthy. Online communities like The Reading Raccoons and Saffron Tree have made it possible for parents to seek and share recommendations.” Venkatesh also recommends a good public library system – “a CSR initiative by the private sector, perhaps?”
A much-loved author for children, Ravishankar worked as a systems analyst for several years before joining Tara Books as editor. She wrote her first book there. “It was named Tiger on a Tree. It included a set of illustrations by Pulak Biswas, which were so graphic that they already told the whole story. The challenge was to write text that could go beyond the pictures. So I wrote the story in absurd verse. I've written many books for children between five and eight – 18 picture books for Tara Books, the retellings of folk tales for Ladybird and Karadi Tales, the Zain and Ana series and Song of the Bookworm for Scholastic, the Moin and the Monster series and Phiss Phuss Boom for Duckbill Books.”
The co-founder of Duckbill, Ravishankar believes there's a definite bias towards foreign authors and books, though this is changing. But, she adds, “We have some world-class authors in India, like Devika Rangachari, Ranjit Lal, Paro Anand, Natasha Sharma... it's a pretty long list. But not only do they not get recognition internationally, even Indian kids don't know of them. With no review spaces, very few big national awards and little recognition for children's literature as an important literary form, things won't get better in a hurry.”
Author and the brain behind the now iconic Karadi Tales, which made audio-books popular, Viswanath believes children’s publishing is on the threshold of a big boom. She adds, “Writers for children understand the genre today so much better. In fact, many of the picture books from Karadi Tales over the last couple of years have sold rights to several countries in Europe. Our picture books have found such a wide acceptance in mainstream North America.” On the importance of Indian kids reading homegrown books, she says, “With good books written by Indian authors, the connect and the context makes the reading experience so much more satisfying.”
India’s favourite mythologist, he wears many hats, including those of management consultant and physician. His books for children include the Fun in Devlok series and Pashu. He explains, “These books were meant to help parents bring mythology into the lives of their children, make the gods more accessible in the case of Devlok, and make the animals of Hindu mythology more popular.” Mythology, he believes, shapes the way we think. “Greek myths evoke ideas of heroism. Abrahamic myths evoke values of submitting to authority. Hindu myths evoke the idea of adapting to circumstances and different people.” Why do Indian children read what they read? “Parents are often the limiting factor,” he says.
It was sheer serendipity when Arni wrote her first book, a retelling of the Mahabharata, when barely eight years old. “I was working on it to occupy and entertain myself – I didn't imagine that it would become a book and find a publisher. That happened by fluke.” A friend of her mother’s introduced her to Geeta Wolf of Tara Books, who also later published Sita's Ramayana, a graphic novel. Arni adds, “In a country that is inundated with lit fests, I do think Indian children's writers don't get as much visibility as writers of adult fiction.”
Besides writing advertising copy and then becoming a freelance feature writer, copy-editor and teacher, Nehemiah has also been part of an educational trust which set up a school in Walajapet. Her first book was Granny’s Sari. She recalls, “One of the biggest creative challenges lay in writing my chapter books for beginners, aged seven or eight (Trouble with Magic and Meddling Mooli).” She argues that the enormous potential in the children’s book market in India is not being tapped by Indian publishers. “This is such a pity as publishers from other countries are eyeing the market as a fast-growing one.”
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