The New Age of Children’s Literature in India
The quality of books published in India is beginning to rival those produced internationally; not only in form, but also in content. And, while educational, such books stimulate and fire the imagination, writes Chitwan Mittal
More children in India are reading books for fun than ever before. It’s heartening to see this steady increase given that excessive screen time has become a serious concern for most parents, especially since the pandemic began. But what is young India reading and how has English children’s literature changed in recent years to foster this habit.
Of Tales, Myths and Fables
Over many generations, in part through convent education, Indian children, especially during their formative years, were exposed to a basic reading regimen consisting mostly of translated Western classics, such as the 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 Panchatantras and Jataka tales.
However, the format, language, tone, and presentation style of these books were rather simplistic and dated. Production quality, inexpensive and basic. The illustrations were vivid and colorful yet simple and unimaginative. And the language was stilted: the tone was instructive and direct. He left no room for interpretation. Quite commonplace, even today such books continue to be produced, purchased and read to very young children. They are primarily aimed at parents looking for a proven way to instill core values; give a moral and religious education to their children.
However, more recently, a niche generation of parents, who are themselves avid readers, has emerged. Increasingly, parents with disposable income, mainly in urban centres, see reading as having less to do with the school curriculum and more with a child’s cognitive development. The moral didacticism seen above has now given way to a brave new voice in children’s writing: one that experiments with genre, form and language.
brave new word
Slowly but surely, the quality of books published in India is beginning to rival those produced internationally; not only in form, but also in content. Paper and print quality improves to give books a premium feel. The font, illustrations and images are becoming more colorful and aesthetic. The language used is pedagogically sound and less didactic. It is descriptive without being intellectually undemanding. Most importantly, while educational, these books stimulate and fire the imagination, especially for small children who are not yet reading independently. For example, in an effort to produce engaging and more culturally grounded books, a group of authors, illustrators and publishers draw inspiration from our collective Indianness. They do this by creating characters with names and physical characteristics set in a medium that is relatable. The creations feature and showcase native folk art styles. Likewise, the stories incorporate regionalisms despite being told primarily in English. All of this gives the artwork and stories a distinctly Indian flavor.
Lack of comedic sense
Besides storybooks, another form of storytelling and presentation that continues to be quite popular among children, who are independent readers, is comics. However, aside from the Amar Chitra Katha series which sought to pack Indian mythology, and later history, into the comic format to make these themes accessible to younger audiences, there is little that India can to boast. Likewise, while there are others, like Tinkle, through such evergreen characters as Suppandi and Shikhari Shambu, and Chacha Chaudhary, who have entertained and educated in equal measure, little noteworthy happens. have been produced in this space since their creation.
Likewise, a great void remains to be filled in the genre of superhero adventure fiction. While Indian graphic designers have in the past, through characters such as Nagraj, Commando Dhruva, Doga, and Parmanu, tried to create an alternate, locally-developed superhero franchise to match Marvel and DC, they haven’t. not made the kind of lasting impact that their foreign counterparts continue to have in India. The same goes for graphic novels.
Reclaim the mother tongue
But there is good news. We are beginning to realize the value of stories written in the native language. And slowly but surely, children’s literature in regional languages, through translations, is beginning to impose itself at the national level. However, much remains to be done in this segment and publishers should focus on creating more children’s literature in regional languages as well as bilingual books.
Far behind, far ahead
Despite having the largest English-language readership in the world, English-language children’s literature from India has a weak presence in the international arena. Most agree that the flow of children’s books has always been west to east. For example, my 8 year old was more familiar with Dr. Seuss (a book last published in 1998!) and Julia Donaldson’s books, compared to some of the books published in India today. The lyrical quality of the texts lends itself to repetition and retention; imaginative illustrations and subtle coloring make them favorites with kids.
Is it because most editors, publishers, educators, and parents view children’s books as essential for learning simple reading and writing skills? Is reading for leisure still a foreign concept in a country that boasts of a vibrant and ancient oral tradition of storytelling? Or is it perhaps related to the status of children’s literature: that there is no real incentive for stakeholders to provide children with books that challenge them?
However, the headwinds in the children’s publishing industry are moving in a favorable direction, which deserves our attention. A multitude of multinational companies have turned to the South Asian market. They not only seek to market their international titles and price them competitively, but also actively seek to publish books specifically for South Asia. This, it is hoped, will compel local actors to step up and improve both production and content.
Established publishing houses in India, including Penguin and Harper Collins, have begun to focus their efforts on children’s literature. However, the biggest game-changer has been the rise of smaller independent publications over the past decade. Independent publishers such as Tulika, Tara, Pickle Yolk Books, and AdiDev Press are entering the market with high-quality content.
There is comfort to be sought. I believe that India and other South Asian countries have so much to offer the world of children’s literature. And thanks to these small but significant changes, in the future, English writing for children, I think, 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 written and published 6 children’s picture books and is committed to creating high quality books, encouraging engagement and diversity, values-based education and bilingual learning by emphasizing l focus on South Asian culture.