The New Age of Children’s Literature in india

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The New Age of Children’s Literature in india

Sunday, 27 February 2022 | Chitwan Mittal

The New Age of Children’s Literature in india

The quality of books published in India is beginning to rival internationally produced ones; not only in terms of form, but content as well. And, while being educational, such books stimulate and ignite the imagination, writes Chitwan Mittal

More children in India are reading books for fun, than ever before. It is heartening to see this steady increase given that excessive screen time has become a grave concern for most parents, more so ever since the pandemic began. But what is young India reading and how has children’s literature in English changed over the last few years to foster this habit.

Of Fairy tales, Myths and Fables

Over the course of many generations, thanks in part to convent education, Indian children, especially in their formative years, have been exposed to a staple reading diet that has primarily comprised of translated Western classics, such as English, German, Russian, and Greek fairy tales, myths and fables. These are coupled with Indian folk tales, epics and myths in regional languages, translated into English, such as the Panchatantras and the Jataka tales.

However, the format, language, tone and presentation style of these books was rather simplistic and dated. The production quality, inexpensive and basic. The illustrations were vivid and colourful but straight forward and unimaginative. And the language was stilted: the tone was instructional and direct. It left no room for interpretation. Quite unremarkably, even today, such books continue to be produced, bought and read to very young children. They mainly cater to parents looking for a tried and tested way to inculcate basic values; impart moral and religious education to their children.

However, more recently, there have emerged a niche crop of parents, who are avid readers themselves. Increasingly parents, with disposable incomes, primarily in urban centres are viewing reading as less to do with the school’s curriculum and more to do with a child’s cognitive development. The moral didacticism seen earlier, has today given way to a brave new voice in children’s writing: one which is experimenting with genre, form and language.

 

Brave New Word

Slowly but surely, the quality of books published in India is beginning to rival internationally produced ones; not only in terms of form, but content as well. The paper and print quality is improving to give the books a premium feel. The font and illustrations and pictures are getting more vividly hued and aesthetically pleasing. The language employed is pedagogically sound and less didactic. It’s descriptive without being intellectually undemanding. More importantly, while being educational such books stimulate and ignite the imagination, especially for little children who aren’t reading independently just yet. For instance, in a bid to produce books that are engaging and more culturally rooted, a clutch of authors, illustrators and publishers are drawing on our collective Indian-ness. They do this by creating characters with names and physical features set in a milieu that is relatable. The creatives feature and showcase indigenous folk art styles. Likewise, the stories incorporate regionalisms despite being narrated mainly in the English language. All this lends the artwork and stories a distinctly Indian flavour.

 

Lacking Comic sense

Apart from story books, another form of storytelling and presentation that continues to be rather popular amongst children, who are independent readers, are comic books. However, aside from the Amar Chitra Katha series that sought to package Indian mythology, and later history, in the comic format to make these themes accessible to a younger audience, there’s scant little India can boast of. Similarly, while there are others, such as Tinkle, through evergreen characters such as Suppandi and Shikhari Shambu, and Chacha Chaudhary, that entertained and educated in equal measure, little noteworthy has happened in this space ever since their creation.

Likewise, a large vacuum remains to be filled in the superhero adventure fiction genre. While Indian graphic artists have in the past by way of characters, such as Nagraj, Commando Dhruva, Doga and Parmanu tried to create an alternative, indigenously developed superhero franchise to match the likes of Marvel and DC, they haven’t made the kind of sustained impact their foreign counterparts continue to make in India. Same is the case with graphic novels.

 

Reclaiming the Mother tongue

But there is some good news. We are beginning to realise the value of stories written in the mother tongue. And slowly but surely, children’s literature in regional languages, by way of translations, is beginning to make its presence felt at the national level. However, much remains to be done in this segment and publishers need to focus on creating more children’s literature in regional languages as well as bi-lingual books.

 

Way behind, Way forward

Despite having the largest English-language readership in the world, children’s literature in English from India has a meagre presence on the international stage. Most agree that the flow of children’s books has always been from west to east. For instance, my 8-year-old used to be more familiar with Doctor Seuss (a book last published in 1998!) and Julia Donaldson’s books, over some of the books published in India today. The lyrical quality of the texts, lend themselves to repetition and retention; imaginative illustrations and subtle colouring make them children’s favourites.

Is this because most publishers, editors, educationists and parents view children’s books as essential for acquiring mere reading and writing skills? Is reading for leisure still an alien concept in a country that boasts a vibrant and ancient oral tradition of storytelling? Or is this possibly connected to the status of children’s literature: That nothing really incentivises stakeholders to provide children with books that challenge them?

 

Slow Churn

However, headwinds in the children’s publishing industry are moving in a favourable direction, one that warrants our attention. A host of multinational firms have shifted their focus to the South Asian market. They are not only looking to market their international titles, and competitively pricing them, but are also actively looking at publishing books specifically for South Asia. This, one can hope, will force local players to step up and improve both production and content.

Established publishing houses in India, including Penguin and Harper Collins, have begun concentrating their efforts on children’s literature. However, the biggest game changer has been the rise of small independent publications in the last decade. Indie publishers such as Tulika, Tara, Pickle Yolk Books and AdiDev Press are entering the market with high quality content.

There’s some solace to be sought. I believe India and other South Asian countries have so much to offer to the world of children’s literature. And owing to these small but meaningful changes, going forward, English writing for children, I feel, will see more content from South Asia to the rest of the world.

The writer is the Founder of AdiDev Press, an independent publishing company based in India. She has recently authored and published 6 children’s picture books, and is committed to creating high-quality books, encouraging engagement and diversity, value-oriented education and bi-lingual learning with a focus on South Asian culture

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