It’s all looking rather sunny for children’s literature in India at the moment. A flood of interesting, diverse new titles is pushing boundaries, taking children’s books places they haven’t gone before. In this milieu comes the launch of two new imprints – Speaking Tiger’s Talking Cub and HarperCollins Children’s Books (India), with refreshingly fun, impressive first lists. Say hello to a dinosaur called Bluethingosaurus, meet a fascinating mythical creature roaming the jungles of India, and follow the adventures of the Ninja Sparrows and Zippy the Zebra. Talking Cub’s publisher Sudeshna Shome Ghosh and HarperCollins Children’s Books publisher Tina Narang responded to questions from Scroll.in about this happy shift in children’s publishing and what led us here. Edited excerpts from the interviews:
What made you launch a children’s books imprint now?
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh (SSG): Speaking Tiger has been publishing high quality books for the general market for over a couple of years now. They have established a name among discerning readers for the high quality of books, and editorial standards coupled with a robust distribution system. To start a children’s imprint was a natural progression, given that books for children make up a good part of the market for books in the country. There are enough writers and illustrators with very sound ideas who can produce more books for children, and we felt there was a need to do diverse, entertaining Indian books for children.
Tina Narang (TN): Children’s publishing is in a happy place. There are more publishing houses for children today – including mainstream trade publishers publishing for children – than there were a decade or so ago. There are also more Indian authors writing for children. HarperCollins Children’s Books is a frontrunner in children’s publishing internationally. It now seemed to be the right time to launch the imprint in India and add some local colour to a wonderful list of authors and books. By providing an exciting mix of titles in this first list and setting the course for various series, we hope that children will enjoy what we have on offer as much as we have enjoyed putting it together.
Which titles from your first list have got you most excited? And tell us about the new ones readers should look out for?
SSG: There are a number of really exciting titles in our list. We have Paro Anand’s young adult short story collection, The Other, which is perhaps the most hard-hitting yet sensitive look into the teenage mind that I have come across.
We are also really excited to be publishing Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s first children’s book about a mythical creature found in the jungles of India and what happens when it is rescued by a family.
We have a couple of fantasy, adventure novels that are exciting. Among them is Pakistani writer Shazaf Fatima’s A Firefly in the Dark and Andaleeb Wajid’s The Legend of the Wolf.
We have Shabnam Minwalla’s novel for preteens, a series set in Mumbai about the Adventures of Nimmi. It will be very funny and contemporary in its tone and yet talk of issues that children of that age need to confront – things like peer pressure and bullying. In this segment, we also have Nandini Nayar’s Camp Sweets, which is about food, friendship with some fantasy element thrown in.
We also have some exciting anthologies and non-fiction books lined up that we will reveal slowly. Our first two titles, Prankenstein, a collection of stories on mischief had a fantastic line up of writers including Ruskin Bond, Jerry Pinto, RK Narayan, Sukumar Ray, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and many more. The other one, The Little Ninja Sparrows by Ranjit Lal, is an adventure story featuring two sparrows.
TN: It is difficult to pick out the most exciting because I’d like to believe that the whole list is exciting! But here are a few – The Flipped Anthology series will include books with two themes, two covers and two sides to open the book from. And the reader gets to choose. The first book is a bundling together of Funny and Scary Stories by some well-known children’s writers. In a play on the letter M and how it stands for a lot of what is popular with children – mysteries, magic, monsters – comes the M series. Shashi Warrier’s two charmingly told Magical Tales launch the M series. A delightful collection of poems and songs by Gulzar is on the list as is the first in the These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things series which will bring children the favourites of their favourite author, Ruskin Bond. Also coming up is a bitingly funny teen series UNCOOL – a rib-tickling tackling of teen issues by Jane De Suza, one of India’s leading humour writers. And the Good Indian Child’s Guide series by popular children’s author, Natasha Sharma, takes things that are intrinsic to India – be they mangoes or cricket – and presents a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the subjects.
Younger readers can look out for the Zippy series with Zippy the zebra and his friends. Stories with simple life lessons, such as the fun of playing together, cleaning up after making a mess and so on. The characters are all unique with very different personalities – a zebra, an elephant, a rabbit, a turtle, a leopard, a duck and more. So it’s about celebrating differences as well. The simple, rhyming text makes it ideal for a parent to read to the child or for a child who is learning to read. And to stretch the fun a bit, each picture book reader will be accompanied by an activity book that includes fun activities like mazes, puzzles, colouring activities and so on.
Who are the new voices in children’s fiction and non-fiction that feature on your list?
SSG: As of now we don’t have a debut author, but we do have authors who are writing something different from their previous body of work. Notable here is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar.
TN: Among the new voices is Nidhi Chanani, whose graphic novel, Pashmina, is about a teenager in America trying to come to terms with her Indian roots. And there is a refreshingly different Gita retelling, Gita: The Battle of the Worlds, by UK-based authors, Sonal Patel and Jemma Kattan. Author and columnist Vaishali Shroff takes children on a journey along the Narmada with a dinosaur called Bluethingosaurus to learn about the dinosaurs of India. The book is an interesting mix of fiction and non-fiction.
New authors aside, Ruskin Bond continues his run as a top children’s author in your lists. What is the secret behind his continued appeal and what is it like to work with him?
SSG: Ruskin Bond is undoubtedly one of India’s most loved children’s writers. His appeal lies across age groups and he is genuinely loved by his readers. Speaking Tiger has published his autobiography Lone Fox Dancing, and some other beautiful books like A Book of Simple Living, I Was the Wind Last Night (Collected and New Poems). We were absolutely delighted when he agreed to choose and introduce a series of classic books for Talking Cub. These are books he himself has read and loved over the years and that he feels today’s children will enjoy equally for their timeless appeal. Working with him on the series has been really interesting for he has a razor sharp memory for books, authors, people and can tell you about some really odd bits of information thrown in about the writers and the books. We also plan to do some books written by him in the coming months.
TN: Besides being one of the most widely published children’s authors in India, he is also one of the most prolific. He seems to have an inexhaustible bank of remarkable stories. And for publishers that is good news! His book is part of the These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things series – a kind of autobiography format – where he lists his favourite things from his favourite books and authors to what he likes to eat, the movies he likes to see, the places he likes to visit, his most memorable moments and much else.
There was a time not so long ago when everyone was complaining that kids don’t read anymore. What changed? Are books back in fashion or did they never really go away?
SSG: I am not sure if kids not reading was backed up by any concrete data. It is true that the allure of digital devices is still very much a distraction, but what we find is that now not only are children themselves reading, but parents too take an active interest in buying books or making them available in some form for their children. Encouraging reading is something more and more parents are doing and this can be seen in the number of mommy bloggers, book review blogs, social media pages dedicated to children’s writing that are springing up. It is of course now up to publishers to produce good books for children and for parents and schools to keep themselves informed about these books.
TN: I don’t think books ever went away. There was just a boom in the number of distractions that were suddenly available to kids, adults, everybody. New formats for publishing and consequently for reading. Gaming – video and internet-enabled. It took a while for a happy coexistence to set in. But I think we are finally at that point. Young parents are now actively seeking out books for their children, looking at curated lists to buy bestsellers and editor recommended books. Schools too are promoting reading as an intrinsic part of the curriculum, by bringing in authors, storytellers and others to make for a greater engagement with books. Children’s literature festivals, and other book and reading events are doing their bit too.
How are the sales figures? What’s working currently, and what isn’t?
SSG: For us it is too early to talk about sales figures except to say that we have had an amazing response to our first lot of books and some are already in reprint. The trade has been very supportive, as have been the buyers. Generally fiction still continues to sell good numbers, but we have also seen an upward swing in non-fiction books that are well researched and concise. Fantasy and series are other categories that sell well.
TN: Much has been written about the boom in the children’s segment and how publishers are finally beginning to see this as a growing sector. And happily, the figures seem to be fuelling this optimism to quite an extent. It is still early days for the new list, but in general in the children’s segment, some genres like non-fiction, activity, and skill builders are likely to sell more easily or in larger numbers than fiction.
Though a number of traditional libraries have been shutting down, modern spaces for reading are becoming popular, perhaps based on a more commercial model. Meanwhile, there are many more children’s literature festivals, book events, activity-based readings etcetera. Does this make the children’s publisher in you happy? What more can be done?
SSG: Yes, of course. Any initiative that encourages reading and brings books, authors and readers closer is welcome. It is a sad fact that we have very few traditional publications that review children’s books or give them any space in their pages, hence festival organisers who introduce children to authors, booksellers who go to schools and set up sales as well as schools who invite writers to speak to children and digital news space that feature children’s writing are all welcome for us publishers.
TN: Yes, I think children’s literature festivals such as Bookaroo, Kala Ghoda Children’s Literature Festival, Bookalore, Chandigarh Children’s Literature Festival, Kitabon, Peek-a-Book and others are playing an increasingly important role. Festivals are great for authors as they bring readers and authors together and this affiliation is good for the craft of writing and for publishing. There is a need to take these festivals to smaller cities and towns so they can widen their reach and accessibility. Festivals also help showcase books and provide a platform for the author to engage directly with a live audience of readers.
Storytelling sessions are a wonderful way for authors to engage directly with children. Publishing houses regularly organise such activities. Schools are also working such sessions into their academic calendar.
Conferences on children’s literature such as the Asian Festival of Children’s Content that is held annually in Singapore brings together publishers, authors, illustrators and book sellers so they can think constructively about ways to make this a more vibrant industry.Online reading communities and reviewing sites make it possible for parents and educators to seek and share recommendations and gauge the popularity of a book.
And there is no disputing the fact that social media is vital for book promotion. The one trend that publishers have benefitted from is the rise of the empowered author. Authors today are almost like entrepreneurs. These new age authors are working harder at promoting their books and are using social media effectively. Blogging also enables authors and illustrators to talk about their work and discuss the creative process.
Themes in children’s books are veering towards the more unconventional, addressing stereotypes and acknowledging subjects like death, disability and sexuality. Are you also going to be looking at some newer themes?
SSG: Absolutely. We need to move away from the safe and the tried and tested and be more bold in what we publish. Not for the sake of doing this, but because these are themes that need to appear in children’s writing. We do not need to dumb down books or make it all rosy, but tackle issues in our books with sensitivity and an understanding of what the child will take away from the book. We have many talented writers who can and are doing such books and we want to have such books on our list.
TN: Children, particularly young adults, are much more aware of and receptive to unconventional subjects than we imagine them to be. Yes, newer themes for sure, although that depends very much on discovering a brilliant story that explores a hitherto unexplored theme, or thinking of an innovative idea and commissioning an author to take that forward.
Is the main challenge to look for novel ways to publish children’s books? What is your model?
SSG: With every book we need to see that what we are doing is something new and appealing. There’s much that has been done and tried and tested, and we need to take our lessons from there and evolve. One example would be in the way myths and legends are written. There are so many books that tell traditional stories. Our challenge would be to see what has not been done or been overlooked, be more creative and challenge the readers with our books.
TN: The challenge for children’s publishers today is not just to create good content and find the most effective way to get it to the reader, it is also to create readers. Children have less time – and even lesser inclination – today to spend time with books, so we should make this impatient and on-the-move generation see reading as a pleasurable activity and not something they are being forced to do against their will. Recent studies have shown that a clear majority of kids prefer humour over much else, and like books that have characters they can identify with. Basically, books that are more entertainment than infotainment (which is the key factor for parents determining what their child should read). Surveys also show that children are much more likely to finish a book they have chosen themselves over one that has been recommended to them. And peer reviews rule, of course. We plan to publish books that we hope will stand out as engaging and entertaining in various genres from picture books and chapter books for younger readers, to middle grade and young adult fiction, non-fiction and more.
Bestselling international titles pose stiff competition. But do you think there is a growing interest in books that are more culturally familiar, that talk about the diversity of India? Or does universality trump everything when it comes to books for children?
SSG: International titles still remain much more popular among children. It is true that they will pick up a Percy Jackson over a book that talks about Indian myths. But as publishers we need to recognise this divide and see what we can do that our books are as irresistible. For that we need to build a stronger writing culture for children, so that more writers consider writing for children. As publishers we need to come up with more innovative ideas and high editorial and design standards. And we also need to get the support from the larger world too, in terms of reviews, recognition for writers and illustrators, all of which will give our books greater visibility.
TN: Yes, there is a growing demand for books that are culturally familiar, books in which kids can identify with the characters and the milieu in which they are set. International titles are likely to pose stiff competition, but what publishers need to do is help establish a strong local identity with the books they publish so that parents and teachers – as the key influencers – also buy these books with a greater degree of confidence. It doesn’t have to be an either-or, what we need to aim for is a more comprehensive offering – the best international titles right alongside what is being published here.
What age groups are you targeting? I have noticed that there is a lack of good Indian books for pre-schoolers, though there is a swelling market there.
SSG: As of now we are publishing books for ages 7-8 and above till teenage. Yes, I agree that we need more books for very young readers. There are some publishers who are doing very good work in this area, but there needs to be more. Eventually we want to extend our range to picture books but our main focus will remain books for readers who are a bit older.
TN: The target age groups are pre-schoolers and up (which includes primary, middle grade and young adult). I do agree that young parents are very clued in today to the idea of getting their child to read and to finding age appropriate books. They look out for curated lists, editor recommendations, online reviews and such like. They visit bookstores and book fairs to choose from a more comprehensive range and most importantly they are making informed choices. This is a good trend. And they could well find what they are looking for in the extensive international product ranges such as those of Usborne. Publishers will try to bridge any gaps they perceive, and this might well be one of the age groups that could be more in focus going forward. Exposing a toddler to the wonderfully tactile world of picture books can help establish a bond with books that is likely to last a lifetime.