Children’s fiction in India dares to echo the cultural arguments of the times
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IF YOU HAVEN’T heard of the Bal Sahitya Puraskar, the Big Little Book Award, the Neev Book Award, the Jarul Book Awards, the Binod Kanoria Children’s Book Awards, and the Mehlli Gobhai Award for the Best Work in Children’s Book Illustration, you are missing out on exciting developments in the world of Indian children’s fiction and young adult fiction.
Along with awards, children’s fiction in India is seeing a slew of new authors and titles, invested publishers and engaged readers. Shobha Viswanath, Publishing Director at Karadi Tales, for example, conducts three-day-long writing workshops, both offline and online, to mentor people who want to write books for children. Apart from working with them on their craft, she also gives participants advice on pitching manuscripts to publishers. “We do not expect them to publish with us; it is their story and they should have the freedom to decide where to take it. If we are in a position to publish it, we make an offer.” Riddhi Maniar Doda’s book The Boy Who Wore Bangles, illustrated by Shruti Hemani and published recently by Karadi Tales, grew out of one such workshop.
This book is set during the festival of Navaratri, and it revolves around a boy named Bhargav who likes to wear bangles. His father and his paternal grandmother dissuade him from doing so because of their ideas around gender-appropriate clothing and accessories. The book affirms Bhargav’s desire to transgress boundaries with tact and gentleness, and invites adults to reconsider their ideas from the vantage point of a generation that thinks differently.
Author-illustrator Ameya Narvankar’s book Ritu Weds Chandni, (Puffin), pushes against gender stereotypes as well as heteronormativity by celebrating a lesbian wedding. The brides arrive on horses from opposite directions, accompanied by family and friends who rejoice in their happiness. The couple does face prejudice from a few relatives but the day is saved by the child protagonist.
Karadi Tales has also been collaborating with the People’s Archive of Rural India to source powerful stories with a strong sense of place and a commitment to social justice. Their upcoming books—Jyoti Shinoli’s Learning Lost in Translation, Subuhi Jiwani’s Versova Vortex, Priti David’s Jamuna and Vishaka George’s Ammini explore issues such as home and belonging for migrant workers, housing and social security for fishing communities, education and financial independence for girls and women, and the impact of climate change on farmers.
There are other efforts to nurture children’s literature and young adult fiction. The Parag Initiative of the Tata Trusts funds the development of books for three to 16-year-olds in various languages from Hindi to Malayalam, Telugu to Santhali. The Riyaaz Academy for Illustrators, set up jointly by Parag and Eklavya with illustrator Atanu Roy, trains illustrators. Books like Ritu Weds Chandni are finding readers. As Deepti Ganesh, senior school library coordinator at Neev Academy, says, “Books on gender identity and queer relationships are something that Indian children are actively seeking out, and something that is slowly picking up in Indian children’s publishing.”
Lubaina Bandukwala, Awards Director at the Binod Kanoria Children’s Book Awards and an author and curator of the Peek A Book Literature Festival, has a slightly different opinion. “I find that the larger literary space in India, and across the world, does not take much interest in the kid lit space. It is somehow assumed that books for children and young adults are easy to write, the style is not evolved, and the content is too simplistic. We have to change these perceptions,” she says.
According to her, authors and illustrators, translators and publishers of children’s books and young adult fiction ought to get a lot more recognition and appreciation because they are “raising readers” and “promoting a lifelong love of reading”. On the positive side, she believes that publishing houses are now commissioning books on a range of subjects instead of playing safe.
Many years ago, I would have wondered if the story of a little Bohra household would interest readers. But today, I know that people are interested in subcultures, says Lubaina Bandukwala, author
Two of Bandukwala’s books released in 2022—Who’s Afraid of Z? Not Me! (HarperCollins) illustrated by Allen Shaw, and The Chowpatty Cooking Club (Duckbill Books). The former is about Z—the feisty letter of the alphabet—who wants all the other letters to know that he may come last but he is certainly not the least. The Chowpatty Cooking Club is built around the adventures of children who get unsuspectingly drawn into an adult plot to run a secret radio station, which is used by Indian freedom fighters to circumvent censorship as they try to find new ways to recruit revolutionaries for their mission. This book draws inspiration from the secret Congress radio run by Usha Mehta, Chandrakant Jhaveri, Vithaldas Khakar, Nanak Motwante, and Vithaldas Jhaveri in pre-independence Bombay.
Sayoni Basu, consultant editor, Duckbill Books, says, “We tend to think more in terms of the kinds of books that need to exist rather than what people want to read.” Historical fiction as a genre is exciting for her “because it is connected to a sense of who we are and why we are where we are today.” She published Bandukwala’s book as part of the Songs of Freedom series that explores India’s freedom struggle through the eyes of children.
Basu believes that historical fiction takes on greater significance in a political scenario wherein “history is being rapidly rewritten and twisted out of recognition so much so that people are utterly confused about the line separating fiction and reality.” She adds, “Historical fiction does not claim to be history. It only seeks inspiration from history.”
While writing The Chowpatty Cooking Club, Bandukwala sifted through newspaper archives and transcripts of radio broadcasts apart from having long conversations with her father and mother-in-law to help recreate the period. Her research on clothes worn by Bohra Muslim women in the 1940s informs the cover. She says, “Many years ago, I would have wondered if the story of a little Bohra household would interest readers but today, I know that people are interested in subcultures. All they want is a story with compelling characters and an absorbing plot; my people are part of the fabric of this city, so writing this book was also a way of celebrating our identity.”
Priya Kuriyan, an illustrator and author, has a soft corner for books that align with her political views. She recently illustrated the book Tiffin Dost (Eklavya), written by Sushil Shukla. “It’s a book about children who share food during their lunch break. For the first time, I was allowed to show meat in a lunch box. In the past, I’ve worked with publishers that have asked me to remove fish and chicken from the pages. They want to make sure that buyers of books, who are vegetarian, are not offended by the images.”
Another recent book of hers is Beauty is Missing (Pratham Books). It is a picture book that blends suspense with humour as Tessamma’s buffalo named Beauty goes missing, and constable Jincy helps to nab the kidnapper. What makes this buffalo a catch is the fact that she is a connoisseur of music. She enjoys listening to songs on the radio. Apart from telling a captivating story, this book challenges the tendency to equate beauty with fairness.
Historical fiction is an exciting genre because it is connected to a sense of who we are and why we are where we are today, says Sayoni Basu, consultant editor, Duckbill Books
Priya Kuriyan says, “I like projects where there is an exciting central character or a humorous way of looking at the world. I usually don’t ask a publisher who the author is. I want to know if they are open to stylistic experimentation; I want to try things that I have not done before.” This year, she also illustrated Help! My Aai Wants to Eat Me written by Bijal Vachharajani (Puffin). It is about a child named Avi who is convinced that his mother “wants to dunk him in soup and eat him up.” How does the author come up with such ideas? Does she have to sanitise her stories and make them palatable for adults to buy them?
Vachharajani says, “As an author, I try to write as honestly as I can. Things have changed since I was a child, yet childhood is so universal. I try my best to portray as much of the reality that I observe around me.” She was once asked “to drop a mild cuss word” but another editor understood the context it was used in and chose to leave it as it was. She adds, “I write about the climate crisis and grief but I also feel strongly that I do need to weave in hope.”
She wears another professional hat as a commissioning editor with Pratham Books, which is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in picture books. She says, “We are always looking to champion new creators, own voices and stories that reflect lived experiences.” She points out “the need for early reader books and language-first books” especially with the learning losses that have occurred because of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last two years. She has been excited to publish stories “that make readers laugh and imagine, that offer windows, mirrors and sliding doors to different worlds, that delve into themes of social and emotional learning—of empathy, curiosity, compassion.” Some of these are Pankaj Saikia’s Theatre of Ghosts, Canato Jimo’s I Love Grey, Rajiv Eipe’s Dugga, and Vishnu M Nair’s The Weather Report.
ANUSHKA RAVISHANKAR has been writing picture books for decades—including titles such as Catch That Crocodile, Today is My Day, and To Market! To Market!— knowing that “Indian parents are often reluctant to buy picture books because there are very few words in them.” She believes that the awareness about picture books as a form is growing thanks to mom blogs, children’s literature festivals, awards dedicated to children’s fiction and young adult literature, community libraries, book clubs, and “the efforts of publishers like Pratham Books, Tota Books, Pickle Yolk Books”, but a majority of Indian parents still do not understand that “children read visuals in a way that adults don’t, and picture books speak to them intimately.”
Her latest work of fiction is A Rooster for A Pet? (Tara). It draws inspiration from Rishi Chandna’s short 2017 film Tungrus. “The idea of a rooster in a cramped Mumbai apartment, growing from a baby bird into a tyrant terrorising human beings was fun to work on. Emanuele Scanziani’s illustrations capture the chaos, and designer Rathna Ramanathan’s use of white space is a fine example of how visuals can be used to evoke emotions. The form of the book mirrors the form of the rooster and buildings in Mumbai.”
Creating a picture book involves a high level of skill and dedication. Rajiv Eipe, who is an illustrator and author, has three new books out this year—Dugga, a picture book (Pratham Books), The Sweet Shop Wars that Chatura Rao wrote and he illustrated (Duckbill), and The Monster Who Could Not Climb a Tree , which Tanya Majmudar wrote and he illustrated (Kalpavriksh). When he says yes or no to an illustration project, the most important thing is whether the story or the script speaks to him or not. Eipe loves working with publishers who hire art directors to collaborate with the illustrators. “The art director is to the illustrator what the editor is to the writer—someone to guide, mentor and oversee the art,” says Eipe. He finds the process enriching, and believes that it results in “better books”.
I write about the climate crisis and grief but I also feel strongly that I do need to weave in hope, says Bijal Vachharajani, author
Priya Krishnan, senior editor with Tulika Publishers, known for its picture books, says, “We place great value on the writing. It is about distilling, paring down details to capture the essence of the story. Since stories are children’s first engagement with different worlds, the ideas and impressions they receive can stay with them through their lives, so what is said and how it is said really matters.” The words are not inconsequential in a picture book. Since there are few, the ones that make it on the page need to be well-chosen.
Kanishka Gupta, who runs the literary agency Writer’s Side, is of the opinion that Indian publishers “are a bit cautious” when it comes to children’s fiction and young adult fiction. He says, “Their appetite is usually limited to bestselling authors, celebrity authors, and authors of South Asian origin who have made a splash in the United States or United Kingdom.” He has represented Bijal Vachharajani, Arefa Tehsin, Shehan Karunatilaka, Meera Rajagopalan, Himani Dalmia and Sharanya Manivannan who write books for children and young adults.
Gupta explains that publishers’ reluctance comes from “worries about returns on their investments”. According to Gupta, children’s fiction and young adult fiction by Indian authors do not sell much in India as the market is flooded with international titles, and Indian books are not backed by huge marketing budgets. He says, “Even in such a scenario, there are risk-takers like Duckbill Books. They have created a solid list across age groups and genres, be it fantasy, horror, sci-fi, or historical fiction.” He calls on Indian publishers to spot and nurture promising talent, “else children will continue reading only Ruskin Bond and Sudha Murty because parents, teachers and librarians feel comforted by their style and worldview.”
While going through new manuscripts, originality can be hard to find since there is a desire to replicate the success of classics. Vidhi Bhargava, publisher, Red Panda—the children’s and young adult imprint of Westland Books —says that during her entire career in children’s publishing, she has read over a dozen imitations of Eric Carle’s iconic book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and is fed up. “We want something new. We don’t want to repeat what has been done to death.” She adds, “Originality, a strong voice, and a unique perspective is what we look for. If the writing is not too compelling, it can be worked on but we cannot work with someone who does not have a gripping story to tell.”
That said, she, like many others working in the children’s and young adult publishing space, have to pander to adults who have decision-making powers when it comes to buying books. Bhargava says, “We have to give books an educational twist so that parents are satisfied. Entertainment is not a priority for them. We have to package books, add activities, get the pedagogy right, and sanitise a few things that schools might have problems with. I am sorry we are guilty but this is a small price to pay. We want Indian children to read, and read a lot.”