In an interview, Maurice Sendak said, “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Ask most writers, and they will say that as a child, they pretty much read whatever they could lay their hands on, as long as it held their interest. Children enjoy reading all sorts of books. Yes, they read the ones about schools and diaries in school, adventures and misadventures, but they also savour those that traverse the darker side of life that adults often shield them from. It’s a subject that has been the focus of my multifarious conversations over ten days at Children Understand More…!, a workshop-cum-residency organised by The Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan and Zubaan in Santiniketan.
Seventeen writers and illustrators from different parts of the country have been intensely talking, writing, drawing, debating, discussing, and listening everything kid-lit at the workshop. Mentors — writers Payal Dhar and Devika Rangachari from India, and illustrators Ben Dammers and Nadia Budde from Germany — have been sculpting away at the ideas and stories along with the participants, helping shape them into works that engage with the many difficulties of reality. “We have learned a lot as well,” said Budde. “About how people think differently, how they develop ideas.” All these interactions have been bolstered with superlative meals and mishti at the Mitali Home Stay, where we are staying.
Death, climate change, single parenting, religion, family structures, individuality and gender, body image, growing up in a conflict zone, social stigmas and identity are just some of the subjects that are being written about and illustrated at this workshop. “It’s nice to have the chance to move out of thinking about what can I write, will it be published,” said Dhar, the author of Slightly Burnt, a young adult book that explores queerness. “And to be able to give free rein to what you really want to write or illustrate. The constraints have been removed; the participants have carte blanche with a theme, without bothering how adults will react. It’s liberating. It’s almost like taking off your clothes and running down the beach, removing every covering that is there.” Rangachari agreed, adding, “Maybe we will don the covering when we return, but this has been a breather.”
Instead of using images, Bengaluru-based book designer Nia Thandapani is experimenting with typography and lettering to explore identity and how people are given labels by others. “It’s made me question and refresh my practice, and I can see myself taking forward the many conversations and work that’s been going on,” said Thandapani.
Novelist C.G. Salamander and illustrator Sahitya Rani are questioning the academic system through a graphic novel, while Meenal Singh is exploring grief and loss in her story. “It’s been great to see how visual and verbal language works together,” said Dammers. “Writers have seen how text can be represented visually and illustrators are working with the text in an involved manner.”
Samidha Gunjal, an assistant professor at the Symbiosis Institute of Design in Pune, said she had previously attended a similar workshop conducted by Max Mueller and Zubaan, which culminated in the graphic anthology Drawing the Line. “Such workshops provide a platform to share our stories and tell the truth about the current situations to children,” said Gunjal, who is working on two stories, one on manual scavenging with Salamander, and the other on domestic violence.
Karthika Gopalakrishnan, a writer who works for MsMoochie Books in Chennai, has teamed up with Kolkata-based illustrator Shreya Sen to develop a picture book. “Ministry of No is about an eight-year-old girl who is very good at saying no,” said Gopalakrishnan. “The picture book really deals with resilience and family dynamics.”
But what’s truly rare is being able to spend an uninterrupted amount of time in the company of those who care about writing and illustrating for children. “We all work in isolation in this field and as it is, children’s publishing is under-recognised and under-developed here,” said Rangachari, who wrote the historical fiction Queen of Ice. “So it’s a real luxury to have this time and space.”
Shals Mahajan, a Mumbai-based writer-activist, has teamed up with illustrator Tanvi Bhat for a story about Kittu, a child with a peculiarity around his food, and how his family is trying to figure it out. “It’s been a fantastic experience of being in a very peaceful, gorgeous place with a bunch of committed and creative writers and illustrators,” said Mahajan, who wrote the award-winning book, Timmi in Tangles. “It has also been surprisingly very comfortable, and the interaction has been full of camaraderie, which I did not expect. I am really enjoying working with so many people and seeing how they work. I am doing small creative projects with some, with the knowledge that there will be long-term interactions with many.”
Often, in the frenzy of lit-fests, kid-lit is relegated to an inconspicuous corner in the form of workshops or book sales. But now, festivals such as Kahani Karnival, Bookaroo, Peek-a-Book, the Chandigarh Children’s Literature Festival have been offering more curated spaces of storytelling for younger audiences. Then there’s Jumpstart by the German Book Office, which brings together creators of children’s contents in Delhi and Bengaluru for discussions and master classes.
In India, a number of books that explore difficult themes, including sexuality, class, same-sex love, body image, disabilities, and grief, are published, but they are few and far between. The majority continue to be stories about mythology, folk tales, and urban adventure stories. With dwindling brick-and-mortar bookstores, it’s often hard for parents, educators and children to find books with more slice-of-life narratives. But then again, it’s not always easy to find publishers who are willing to back the more difficult themes. Which is why as writers and illustrators of children’s books, it’s sheer joy to be able to step back for a few days, unhindered and uninhibited, to just follow what Dr. Seuss said, “Oh, the thinks you can think!”