“When I walk into a bookshop, the first thing I look for is a book of short stories,” says 12-year-old Sumedha Chakravarthy, a student at Delhi Public School, New Delhi. Seven-year-old Neil Banerjee likes reading short stories because “if my parents suddenly call me for something, I can quickly finish the story”, he says. He likes short stories that are funny or adventurous.
These are just two, but readers like them probably made Puffin bring out two compilations of short stories in quick succession a couple of months ago. There were 22 stories in two volumes—one for boys and another for the girls. Not to be outdone, Scholastic India released an anthology of eight short stories titled The Moustache Maharishi and Other Unlikely Stories. The short story, as a genre, has walked out of magazines straight into books.
Don’t assume it is all folk and fairy tales. In September last year, Scholastic released a collection of science fiction. Titled 7 Science Fiction Stories, the book was a big draw. This year, Puffin resurrected Premchand’s tales in A Winter’s Night and Other Stories.
Author Deepa Agarwal—one of her stories, Cowgirl, features in the Puffin collection—for one, would love to see more. “I personally feel more short story collections should be published, especially because children have less time to read.”
Ten-year-old Rajeshwari Dasgupta likes short stories because “they finish fast”. That is the test. “The one criticism I love is ‘Your book finished too fast’. Then I know I have got it right,” says author Subhadra Sengupta, who specializes in historical fiction. Dasgupta, who finds adventure stories interesting, has graduated from short stories to novels. That is another important purpose such stories serve. They can be stepping stones to longer stories. Banerjee, for instance, is quickly moving to stories such as the Secret 7 adventures.
The choice of topic matters too. Even history can be exciting. Sengupta feels that school syllabuses make history “so unpopular that we are producing historically-illiterate kids. Children hate history in school, but love my books. So, I must be doing something right.” She is. Asked to name her favourite stories, Chakravarthy picks out Waiting for Tansen and Crossing the River by the author. Among the memorable stories he has read, Banerjee mentions Ruskin Bond’s Grandpa Fights an Ostrich and The King and the Tree Goddess, and Hide and Seek by Adithi Rao.
Tales of the Jataka, Panchatantra or Akbar-Birbal stories are a great way to start. “When children were read to (prior to independent reading), what formed the bulk of the material was short stories. Since the habit—as well as the magic—of reading develops over time, the short story is a comfortable option,” points out Manisha Chaudhry, editor, Pratham Books, which takes special care to create books in which the amount of text is not daunting.
With TV, computer games, movies and other disruptions vying for the child’s attention, a short story fits perfectly into their busy lifestyles. “Their world is much more complicated than stamp collections, bike rides and reading through lazy afternoons,” says Chaudhry. Authors, too, are adapting to the new children. Sengupta, for instance, loves to engage them in conversation. “They see this grey-haired maths teacher lookalike and then discover that I watch Channel V and am on Orkut and write comic strips. That really blows their minds,” she laughs.
Writing a short story is not easy, though. Plots, characters and ambience have to be carefully chosen. “Ambience is something I learnt from Satyajit Ray, who always had Feluda (the fictional detective character) travelling to exciting places. I hate stories of four anonymous kids set in an anonymous city with an anonymous dog,” says Sengupta.
Simplicity helps turn out a good short story. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro said: “If you look at my last songs and first short stories, there is a real connection between them.” The Booker Prize winning author explained that towards the end of his singing career, he had started to pare down the songs and make the language very simple on the surface—but quite mysterious. That adjustment went into his short stories published in Introductions 7: Stories by New Writers.
What is good for adults is good for children. “A novel needs detailed planning but, for me, a short story comes more spontaneously—almost like a poem,” says Agarwal, whose book, Caravan to Tibet, started out as a long short story.
To cut a long story short, authors have followed the basic premise that the tale needs to be told well, especially when it is short. And that, more than anything else, has captured the imagination of children. That can only lead to larger things.
The writer is the editor of Heek,a children’s magazine.
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