“Writing for children demands the best and the freshest of a writer’s imagination, backed by a high degree of editorial skill. The listed books are good reads and tackle a variety of themes, but in the meld of originality, ideas, and narrative skill, they fall short. We looked for empathy rather than discrimination, fun rather than instruction, audacity rather than political correctness, wonder rather than world-weary ennui—and came away disappointed. We didn’t find the quality of timelessness that so distinguishes award-winning material. We have listed five books for honourable mention. There is no award this year.”
This story is not about whether the jury for The Economist Crossword Book Awards 2011 was right or wrong in coming out with this statement. More often than not, award-winning books emerge from trends that are set in the year under consideration. Does the no-award statement mean that nothing of note happened in Indian children’s literature in 2011? And has it been the same this year?
The popularity stakes
When Duckbill, an independent publisher, set up shop six months ago to “publish titles by Indian authors that compete favourably with the top international authors”, it had already decided its target audience. Both Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu, the founders, knew that the excitement lay in the children’s and young adults (YA) market.
Other publishers and imprints too have made their way to children’s books during the past year. Hot Key Books, a UK-based children’s books publisher (and a division of Bonnier Publishing), tied up with Penguin India to distribute its books in India, targeted at the 9-9 age group. Bonnier itself started its trading operations in India after a tie-up with Gurgaon-based Research Press. Frances Lincoln Publishers and Walker Books have been distributing their picture books quite successfully through Macmillan India Ltd.
Children’s publishers are looking at YA fiction quite seriously. Today, 11 years is the new YA target. I happened to be chatting with Sarah Odedina, managing director of Hot Key Books, and she believes there has been “fantastically” exciting growth in YA literature, with content that is focused entirely on the audience’s interests and lifestyles. Experts reckon that the young adult category was one of the fastest growing in 2011, along with children’s fiction.
An 11-year-old girl walking into a book store today passes up Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and goes for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. A nine-year-old walks in and asks for a Robert Muchamore book because his friends are reading it. There is a change, however subtle. Children today are far less passive recipients of books from adult “gatekeepers”.
Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, editorial director at Hachette India, feels that YA is perceived as a trend, though it is not. It is difficult to categorize a book as YA with certainty. She, however, sees a clear trend in the way the Diary format has picked up. The success of the Wimpy Kid led to Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton, and a host of others. Hachette India came out with Adeline Foo’s The Diary of Amos Lee in June 2011 and followed it up with the second book in the series five months later. Book 3 followed, and coming up is a Do-It-Yourself book. There were shades of Wimpy Kid here, but Hachette sold 10,000 copies of the series.
Non-fiction has exploded too. Led by low-priced options, printed in China, bookshelves in stores have been groaning under the weight of encyclopaedias. Parragon Books has mastered the art of the low-cost encyclopaedia, flooding the market. Dorling Kindersley India, a big publisher of encyclopaedias, failed to match up to the challenge and was pushed out of shelves.
Tulika Books, a Chennai-based outfit, has a well-crafted set of non-fiction books for 8- to 10-year-olds that they claim is selling well. It has a line-up ranging from the Looking at Art series (exploring the lives and works of some of India’s great painters) to the Where I Live series (that explores living tradition and lifestyles in various parts of India through stories of children in different environments). It also publishes science picture books.
Brick and mortar book stores are feeling the brunt of online giants like Flipkart.com. Bookshop owners mourn the fact that customers walk in, get a feel of the book and order it online. Many chains have shut down branches that were deadweights. A combination of high real estate prices and lower margins because of higher discounts sent them packing.
Some independent stores, however, seem to be doing fine. Publishers, too, have adapted to the digital times. Tulika has been a trendsetter of sorts. It developed apps for books like The Runaway Peppercorn, Ekki Dokki (a bilingual book) and Who Will Rule? Says Niveditha Subramaniam, associate editor, “Our apps are on multi-platform formats. Apps are a great storytelling tool and using them should make the story come alive in the hands of the child.”
Take the case of Oluguti Toluguti, a book of Indian rhymes from various states from Tulika. It has 54 rhymes in 18 languages. Each page features the rhyme in the original language and script, a fun English adaptation, and English and Hindi transliterations. Oluguti Toluguti is also available as a downloadable e-book. Pratham Books too has e-books. Publishers like Katha and Eklavya lay great emphasis on regional language stories. Parents today actively look for stories translated from Indian languages. Queries for books from the National Book Trust and Children’s Book Trust are increasing, say many book retailers.
Flipkart has changed the way publishers, authors and booksellers think about book selling. And it has made access to books quite easy. One parent has a very interesting anecdote about Flipkart’s cash-on-delivery mode of selling. It would appear that the child would order a book online and when the delivery boy came calling, she would pay the money that was left with her to pay the maid or the milkman.
Festivals and books
Literature festivals are a great way of getting books into children’s hands. When it started in 2008, Bookaroo was the only Indian children’s lit-fest, holding centre stage for nearly two-three years. The Delhi-based festival has ventured to Srinagar too. Today, literature festivals for children take place quite regularly, and in smaller towns too.
If Mumbai had a Junior Writers Bug Festival a few months ago, Ghummakkad Narain is a travelling children’s literature festival that has been doing the rounds since 2010. The newest kid on the block is Kahaani, a just-launched storytelling festival. Many festivals on a smaller scale dot various cities and towns.
Children’s literature festivals are here to stay. What remains to be seen is how the players differentiate themselves.
There are many things that have not changed in children’s literature. Fantasy still rules the roost. Mythological fantasy, for instance, hasn’t lost steam. Children still run breathlessly into book stores to look for Mark of Athena, the third instalment of Rick Riordan’s Heroes of the Olympus series.
Indian authors are, however, making their mark. And children no longer seem to be turning up their noses at Indian writing. There is a wave of Indian authors and illustrators like Payal Kapadia, Sudha Murty, Roopa Pai, Aniruddha Sengupta, Khyrunnisa A., Ranjit Lal, Priya Kuriyan and Shabnam Minwalla who have taken children beyond the staple diet of R.K. Narayan or Ruskin Bond.
Surprisingly enough, Narayan’s Malgudi stories still figure in the top 50 children’s books for 2012, according to data released by Nielsen’s BookScan India.
Children’s literature in India is in for good times, if one goes by what Ravishankar has to say. Duckbill organizes workshops on writing for children in various cities. According to her, each of the workshops has thrown up young writers, straight out of college sometimes, who come up with great story ideas away from the conventional subjects that Indian children’s literature has endured for long. “It’s very different,” she remarks, adding, “and they are breaking the mould.”
However the scenario pans out, children still want great stories told well. And that will never change.
M. Venkatesh is a journalist, book-store owner, the founder and organiser of Bookaroo.