The curious case of children’s literature

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/the-curious-case-of-childrens-literature/article17821510.ece

Why don’t international book lists really get Indian kid-lit? A question I have often pondered, and am sure others in the industry have as well.

Two years ago, The Guardian, which has excellent recommendation for kid-lit and YA Books, published an article titled, “What are the best children’s books about India?” The list included some outstanding books, but most weren’t really representative of the country’s diverse kid-lit. Especially if you’re looking for slice-of-life stories. Two of the selections, for instance, were folk tales. Another pick, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, isn’t really the best example, when there’s an entire fleet of publishers creating some fantastic new children’s literature in English in our country. The more updated list actually comes from Duckbill’s Sayoni Basu in the comments section of the piece.

Where are the books?

More recently, website Book Riot did a list of “Young Adult/Crossover Titles from India”. The writer bemoans how hard is it “to find the casual inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters in YA”. But then the list doesn’t even include Slightly Burnt by Payal Dhar or Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar, two tremendous examples of LGBT books for young adults.

Let’s accept it — international writers aren’t really culpable here. The fact is that it’s hard for even Indian children, teens, and parents to find good literature — and that’s not because it isn’t being published. Children’s publishing in India is evolving in leaps and bounds — we are seeing an upsurge of powerful storytelling, writers breaking traditional moulds, and publishers bashing stereotypes. And when done right, those books are fun and fabulous.

By now many of our writers should have become household names, much like J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan or Enid Blyton. Yet, we still haven’t seen the kind of national or international recognition that they deserve. Of course, Tara Books, as well as Tulika Books and Karadi Tales have an international presence and as does the Pratham Books StoryWeaver platform (disclosure: I consult with Pratham Books). In fact, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings often features Tara Books in her list of must-read books, giving realms of virtual space to their gorgeous illustrations.

The year 2017 is turning out to be promising for children’s publishing in India. Bookaroo, India’s own festival of children’s literature, aptly won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair International Excellence Award. Young Zubaan’s Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, a feminist anthology, edited by Payal Dhar and Anita Roy from India and Kirsty Murray from Australia, was published in the U.S.

Discovering fresh talent

But it’s really “discovery” that continues to be a big problem. How do you find out that these books are in the market? Bestselling lists are packed with international books, mythology and folk tales. That is when you can find a physical bookstore. When you do, Ruskin Bond, Abdul Kalam, Rudyard Kipling dominate bookshelves, and few publishing houses flex their marketing muscle for other books.

If then, you’re buying books online, how do you know which titles to buy? Stories about children’s books and their authors are few and far between in the media. Websites like Good Books or Saffron Tree are excellent resources for book reviews, but we need to find other ways of sending traffic their way. Bookstores such as Trilogy by the Eternal Library and Kitab Khana in Mumbai or Lightroom in Bengaluru are incredibly rare and precious. Once you step into them, a veritable trove of kid-lit is in front of you. Then there’s Reading Raccoons on Facebook, which has interesting discussions on children’s books fuelled by parents, educators, editors and authors.

Making a start

Last year, I started BAM Books on Instagram with a friend, Maegan Dobson Sippy, to create a visual space to talk about diverse books, and the response has been phenomenal. We are finding interesting books, having some fantastic conversations, and learning so much about our classic and contemporary stories.

To add to the first question, what if you were looking for a list of must-read YA books from the U.S. or say, the best children’s books about the U.K.? Imagine a list that mostly included YA books such as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot? Or was dominated by Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton? It wouldn’t ring true, would it? We feel the same.

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