Last week, one day, I logged into my Facebook account and scrolled down absentmindedly and mechanically. For a while now, a new book with a cute cover had been popping up repeatedly, ever since its release. Everyone seemed to be saying how much they had loved it or were looking forward to reading it. But that day, at least ten people had already shared a news item about the book. Curious, I clicked it open, and recoiled in shock.

The Art of Tying a Pug, a book by Natasha Sharma and Priya Kuriyan had been withdrawn by Karadi Tales, the publishers, after they received threats of legal action by Sikh groups who, aggrieved by its content, had called it “blasphemous, insulting and hurtful”. It had not stopped at threats of legal action, but there had been online harassment and threats on the phone as well.

“The book attempts to present the proud Sikh tradition of the pug and kesh to a larger audience, using humorous interplay with a ‘pug’ (the pet). The book was intended to familiarise children with the process of tying the ‘pugdi’ (Sikh turban).” Shobha Viswanath of Karadi Tales said in an official statement.

“The book was…intended to foster open-mindedness and respect for the Sikh community and their traditions. While it received glowing endorsements from many readers including other Sikhs, Karadi Tales simultaneously received several abuses and threats from those who objected to the wordplay and the cover image. After careful consideration and concern for the creators, we decided to withdraw this book across all channels.” Karadi Tales said in a Facebook post.

I sat stunned for some time trying to understand the implications. A children’s book, a picture book, had been deemed so objectionable that people had reacted in the worst possible way. Why had they been so riled up?

New to India

Children’s books have long had their share of detractors and calls for bans. Adults, who write these books, and who also serve as gatekeepers of what children can read, have not always seen eye to eye. From books in the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to works by Judy Blume and Mark Twain, several works have been censored or even banned in the past. Harry Potter was deemed “un-Christian” in its content.

Mostly, the reasons for banning children’s books have been anything from religious offence through “emotional inappropriateness” to matters of language, sexuality, colour and more. But funnily, all of this has happened primarily in the West, particularly in the US.

India, where the children’s books market and publishing in English is still quite new compared to the West, has never seen an upheaval at this level. There have been instances of books being withdrawn from school libraries when the content has offended the librarians or teachers for some reason.

“I have never once, I repeat, never once had an objection from a child or an actual reader about the subject or content of what I have written,” said Paro Anand, who has not shied away from talking about difficult topics in her books and stories. “Never once. It is the gatekeepers, the adults, who object to certain things. In my book, The Other, young people just loved the stories around the themes of death of a parent and a coming out story. But both of these met with some objections from gatekeepers, who said it was too much for teens to handle.”

A growing space

For years, children’s books in English were something of a hidden nook among the thousands of books being published annually in India. But in the last six or seven years, the segment has seen an explosion of sorts, with small and big publishers putting books out there at the rate of anywhere between two and ten a month. Most of these books are written by Indian writers and illustrated by Indian illustrators.

Along with the publishing there is a growing sense among parents and schools of the need to emphasise the importance of reading, which is perhaps why more people are joining online discussion forums centred around children’s books. The threads here range anywhere from book reviews through cute videos of babies clutching books to requests for recommendations.

Take one of the most popular and animated of such Facebook groups, The Reading Raccoons. With a membership of over 22,000 and growing, this space is perpetually buzzing, keeping the moderators on their toes. Additionally, there are children’s bookstores and libraries that are trying to bridge the gap between the publishers and the readers, taking book sales and book fairs into schools and neighbourhood communities.

It is clearly a place where everyone speaks their mind, and there is a healthy give and take between readers and writers and those who buy the books. Till about a fortnight back, it seemed a happy bubble of which I was a satisfied member. But that bubble was burst when the latest controversy erupted.

Rightfully, many authors, editors, illustrators, and readers came out in support of the withdrawn book. There is a space for dissent and discussion, they said. Banning and threats of bodily harm are not what we want to see more of in our public life. But even as the arguments raged around us, as an editor and publisher of children’s books, my thoughts were on what might come next.

“Difficult” themes abound

Worldwide, there are more and more calls for diversity in children’s books. In the US, We Need Diverse Books is a movement propelled by YA and children’s writers and editors. In India, we have seen difficult and nearly taboo topics enter our books. Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt talks about sexuality and coming of age. The Hidden Palace Adventure by Ranjit Lal is an inter-faith love story that brings up honour killings.

Talking of Muskaan by Himanjal Sankar speaks of suicide and bullying. Year of the Weeds by Siddhartha Sarma is about the usurpation of tribal lands by big businesses. A Cloud Called Bhura by Bijal Vachharajani is climate fiction that talks of political apathy and ignorance about the environment. There are books on domestic abuse, grief, privilege, disability, caste, gender, displacement, and more.

Why are writers turning to these topics? When I asked Ranjit Lal about this, he said, “My main line of defence/argument usually is, ‘what are you objecting to? The child can get/see everything on the Internet these days, usually in ways that could actually be harmful.’ When I present such subjects, I just present them as well as the consequences that may follow.”

How do booksellers, who interact closely with buyers feel about this? “It is wonderful to see the growing portrayal of diversity in children’s books, especially in India,” said Aashti Mudnani, owner of the children’s bookstore Lightroom in Bengaluru. “Sexuality, gender, religions, beliefs, otherness...all of these have made their way into children’s books. And I cannot begin to say how positive I feel about this. Especially when we get feedback from parents saying that their child loved a particular book. Books like Ahimsa (about the Civil Disobedience movement), The Night Diary (Partition)… have been bought and enjoyed by children and what could be better than that!”

And is there something she would consciously decide not to stock? “The only reasons I would not keep books is if they are not written well or have an overtly moral message with an intent to proselytise. Sometimes, the line is very fine.”

What do parents think? “I will ensure that my child picks up books on age-appropriate topics, especially during their formative years,” said Radhika Kaulgud, mother of two voracious readers. “I will try not to let my discomfort or personal biases interfere in my decision to allow my child to read a particular book…Providing a coherent atmosphere for the child to read as extensively as possible and discuss this in an open manner is critical.” But she added, “A children’s author has to determine if their book is nudging children towards exploring the world along a creative, positive and, in some cases, a scientific axis.’

As for the pug...

And what about the book in the centre of the storm? Said Anand, “Rather than a lecture on piety we have an actual lesson on Sikhism and we have a gentle laugh along the way. What’s wrong with that?”

So, in the hands of a sensitive writer, backed by a conscientious editor, books that speak fearlessly are much needed. They have to be appreciated for their imagination and boldness and literary value. It is clear that children’s publishing in India has reached a point where audacious and engaging books will be published. It is also a space that is no longer hidden away from the public eye.

The danger grows when writers and illustrators start second guessing and self-censoring during the process of writing and creation. Is writing about following your heart? Mostly, yes. Not every book will be universally liked. Some will perhaps be disliked more violently than others. It is the right of the reader to dislike or disagree with a book. But as book buyers and readers we all have a choice.

A choice to not buy a book. To write a scathing review. To invite an author or illustrator to a dialogue about the book. To perhaps read the book before joining in an online lynch mob. To spend time with children as they read, and understand their reactions. To read the books that they read and see how words and pictures imprint themselves in minds. To not always be moral guardians, but also guardians of the spirit. To understand humour. To have the ability to laugh at ourselves. To debate, discuss and dissent. To read.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is an editor of children’s books.