In a brief but albeit highly productive five years, Duckbill has made its mark with its focus on new voices and a wide range of topics says Bijal Vachharajani
Over the last five years, Duckbill, a publishing house based out of Delhi, has been pushing the boundaries when it comes to creating books for children and young adults around brave and unusual themes, and introducing new authors. Crucial at a time when children’s literature continues to be dominated by Hindu mythology, the usual set of authors, and more recently, celebrity children. “Anushka [Ravishankar] and I set up Duckbill because we wanted to publish fun contemporary fiction, which we could not focus on our then places of employment,” said Sayoni Basu, one of the chief platypus at Duckbill. “Also we wanted to find new voices, because there seemed to be a certain lack of diversity in Indian children’s writing in English. We wanted more joy and more silliness,” asserts Basu.
A lighter touch
The joy and silliness is evident from their “P…P…P…Platypus” song they launched the publishing house with. It’s rather catchy, and if you look it up on YouTube, it might just become your earworm for the rest of the day. Of course, since the time of their launch, they have published a wide range of books, including stories on LGBT teenagers, bullying, adoption, and differently-abled children. At the same time, they have an entire fun series called the Hole books, which are crisp, short stories that make for quick reads, as well as the History Mystery series that takes a light-hearted but clever look at different facets of our history.
Not all their books work, but what keeps them interesting is that the themes are often different from the usual mainstream stories. “Over the five years though, we have found that in addition to the silly and funny books which are our first love, we feel compelled to publish books with different focuses (though ideally, these are still funny). [It’s] because the range of books available for Indian kids seems so inadequate compared to the range of interests, challenges and dilemmas that Indian kids face. So clearly, we also need to publish on a wide range of subjects,” said Basu.
In July this year, they released two books written by the winners of the Children First contest. Last year, Parag, an initiative of Tata Trust and Vidyasagar School, Chennai teamed up with Duckbill to run a contest to find books featuring children with special needs. “The idea,” said the press release, “behind Children First was to publish books which treat children with special needs as children first – with all the hopes, fears, mischief and fun that comes with being children.” The four winners are Lavanya Karthik for Neel on Wheels, R.K. Biswas for Vibhuti Cat, Harshikaa Udasi for Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Day, and Shruthi Rao for Manya Learns to Roar.
Another way Duckbill discovers new writers is through their workshops. “I think they succeeded better than we had expected (though we never really had defined expectations) and we have seen some very exciting new voices emerge,” said Basu. “I think a focus – which writing at workshops or in a contest provides – really helps authors, whether unpublished or published, to write at their best.” Duckbill so far has introduced some 19 new authors, including Shals Mahajan, RamG Vallath, Shalini Srinivasan, Arundhati Venkatesh, Parinita Shetty, Pavithra Sankaran, Archit Taneja, Zainab Sulaiman, and Tanu Shree Singh.
At the same time, their author list includes established names such as Adil Jussawalla, Anushka Ravishankar, Jerry Pinto, Ashok Banker, Asha Nehemiah, and M. Krishnan. “While the focus on books about differently abled kids was a conscious one this year, the rest has happened serendipitously,” explained Basu. “We had already published/ signed up two books about differently abled kids before the contest happened. And the LGBT, adoption etc books happened because authors were unconventional enough to write them, so we can take little credit!”
Duckbill keeps a one-arm distance from mythology and folk tales, books that dominate most publisher’s lists. The only one that sounds like mythology, is Ravana Refuses to Die by Rustom Dadachanji and it’s actually a laugh-out-loud story about a group of children in the town of Babubari. “Since we can publish a maximum of 12 books every year (and we frequently don’t publish that many), we have to be extremely focused in what we choose,” said Basu. “There are so many collections of folktales and mythological stories available that we feel we should publish on subjects which are less talked about. And also, it helps that Anushka, Ayushi (Saxena, described as ‘More than Editor and Pleasant Platypus’) and I are not huge mythology fans. And given the times we live in, mythology is also quite problematic to publish.”
Another reason that authors seem to root for Duckbill is because the publishing house goes the extra mile when it comes to promoting their authors. Whether it’s on the shelves of bookstores or online. Also, we are told that bribes to complete manuscripts include huge slices of homemade toffee cake and cuddles from the resident Duckbill dog. “Our main marketing is through social media, so we have to keep it going. And it is fun,” said Basu. “We like talking about children’s books in general, and Indian books in particular, not just our own books. And our authors are always sporting enough to write blog posts and do silly things like write platypus poems and serious things like talk about books they have read, so it is all very much a collaborative project.”