This article appeared in Torchlight’s Libraries and Adolescence issue.
When I started working as the Kids editor at Time Out Mumbai, reviewing children’s books soon became one of the most exciting parts of my job. Suddenly my desk was groaning under copies of picture books, middle grade fiction and non-fiction and YA novels. A steady diet of Enid Blyton, and Archie and Tintin comics, it was like crawling through a musty cupboard and entering into a whole new world of literature.
I quickly became drawn to the Young Adult books, maybe because in some ways it was the easiest to transition to. What really also was interesting was that like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, these books too had a crossover audience – being read by not only teenagers but also adults. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, for instance, sent them in a frenzy of Team Jacob versus Team Edward (duh! Team Wizard always wins).
I devoured everything I could lay my hands on – haunting historical fiction such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Michael Morpurgo’s The Mozart Question, the popular John Green books, all the frothy romances, the works. I re-read the classics, I bought too many books, in a quest to understand this genre. Of course, the horror ones were simply unpalatable to me – I quietly passed them on to my city counterparts in Delhi and Bangalore, citing too many books to read. They were gory and the stuff nightmares are made of.
I still remember reading the first of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I read, equally horrified and fascinated, as Katniss Everdeen volunteered to be a tribute for The Hunger Games, in place of her younger sibling. As the tasks began, the ruthlessness of the narrative leapt out at me as did the tender romance, thoughtful sacrifices. I put the book down, marveling at how the YA genre had changed from Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys to The Hunger Games and 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher’s dark book that looked at suicide and abuse. In fact, after I read Asher’s book, I roamed around the office in a funk, cursing humanity. It helped that I could interview the author who told me how the book actually helped many teenagers who were feeling alone and helpless.
This was about the same time that Indian children’s literature was beginning to evolve rapidly. From mythology and folk tale books, I started getting more contemporary books to review. I couldn’t help but notice that they were mostly picture books and middle grade books (and exciting ones at that, so no complaints at all).
Where, I wondered, were the YA books? After all, India has the world’s largest youthpopulation, a demographic that is so interesting to reach out to.
Which is why in 2013, with great excitement, I interviewed the people behind Inked, Penguin’s new imprint for young adults in India. Sadly, the promise fizzled out (I am not sure if the imprint even exists anymore).
As I read whatever I could find, I realised most were riding on international trends – the idea being that if these books worked there, simply creating Indian spin-offs should work. (It did not)
The books I read kind of fell into these categories:
- Dear Diary, I don’t really have anything interesting to tell you
- Wannabe Sarcy but Failing Spectacularly
- Earnest Hemming and Hawwing Away
It was equally frustrating to see how internationally YA books were being developed into films – for instance, I can’t seem to check Twitter anymore without seeing someone gush over To All the Boys I Loved Before, the Netflix film based on Jenny Han’s book.
Alright, but not all is bleak in the Indian YA-lit world. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed some of the books, especially the ones by indie publishers (Hi Duckbill!) – they are breaking new ground and in some ways, being bolder than even grown-up book counterparts.
ILLUSTRATION BY ALIA SINHA
So strap on your backpacks, unfurl your maps, as I take you through the Indian YA-lit terrain:
1) The Sea of Sexuality
Take for instance, Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan (Duckbill), one of the first books that, along with Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt (Bloomsbury), put the LGBT movement right in the center of YA books.
2) The Incomprehensible Labyrinth of Socio-Political Issues
Then Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water (Puffin) kind of bridges the tween and teen age group, with its story about female infanticide. A grim subject that Lal tackles deftly, with concern and humour. It made me realise that YA in India is often dark and explores difficult subjects, reflecting in many ways the angst teenagers go through while attempting to hold a mirror to society. Falling in the same theme is Paro Anand’s Weed and No Guns at My Son’s Funeral (India Ink), both books dealing with the hefty subject of terrorism in Kashmir. Taut, compelling and persuasive, these books become great ways to answer questions that teenagers may have about social and political issues.
3) The Climb Every Mountain and Come of Age Terrain
Coming of age stories, in some ways a staple YA theme, is something Rupa Gulab does beautifully – striking the right balance between drama and dry wit. I love everything she has written, whether it’s Hot Chocolate is Thicker than Blood (Duckbill), which talks about adoption from a sister’s point of view or Daddy Come Lately (Duckbill), about a “post-divorce teen” who suddenly finds herself hanging out with her estranged father.
4) The Monumental Museum of Historical Fiction
The one author who I wish would write more is Devika Rangachari – her Queen of Ice (Duckbill) is one of my all-time favourite books. Set in the tenth century, it’s a historical novel about a queen who rules Kashmira and takes on heavy themes of overcoming handicaps and social stigma. More historical fiction for teens? Yes, please.
5) The Frothing Volcano of Crushes
But in all this, I couldn’t help but wonder, where were the frothy romances, the light-hearted stories about crushes and high school? Which is why I cheered when I read Andaleeb Wajid’s Asmara’s Summer (Puffin). It is such a fun frothy read, about a teen who is forced to spend the summer at her grandparents’ frumpy locality but things look up when there enters a hunky neighbour to feast her eyes upon. Plus, lots of lovely things about bonding with the grandparents. Wajid has also written When She Went Away (Duckbill), about a girl whose mother has left the family and all she wants is for her to return.
6) The Land of Intrigue and Sorcery
Combining history with intrigue and romance is Shabnam Minwalla’s What Maya Saw: A Tale of Shadows, Secrets, Clues (HarperCollins), a Mumbai book that’s a historical mystery complete with romance and beautiful and malevolent teens. I read the book in one sitting and since then have made it my go-to gift for all the teens I know.
7) The Poet Plateau
Personally, I do think that Duckbill Books needs to take a bow for getting interesting YA lit to teens (and all of us book-hungry people). They’ve taken risks and experimented with genres, themes, and protagonists. And the result is completely eclectic and delightful. Like The Right Kind of Dog by Adil Jussawalla, a slim book of poems that are truly gorgeous and which anyone who is a word hoarder will devour.
So now I happily put away my YA compass and my trekking boots, caked with the mud from the long winding path of finding these books, and instead put up this Atlas of Young Adult Literature. Know that now there are many young adult books out there (the ones I have listed are just a few): for the geek, for the romantic, for the adventure-seeking, for the shadow-dweller, and for the word hoarder.