Children’s Literature-Trick or Treat?

GEETA DOCTOR

Once upon a time, not very long ago, a small girl asked for a doll. It had to be a very special doll, with golden hair and blue eyes, whose name, the little girl deci­ded in advance would be Gwendolyn. So the shops were searched until Gwendolyn was found. Her eyes were pools of copper­-sulphate blue, her hair stuck out of her head like a fountain of golden spikes tied with a red ribbon and the little girl was at first delighted. On closer inspection how­ever Gwendolyn was found to suffer from two grave defects. A quick look under her frock revealed that she wore no under­pants, but worse, when she was turned around it was discovered that her hair grew only in front of her head. At the back Gwendolyn was quite hopelessly bald.

When printing books for children, Indian publishers are inclined to get caught, like Gwendolyn, with their pants down. They seem to be afflicted with what can only be described as a Gwen­dolyn syndrome, printing books that appear to look all right and sound all right but are sadly lacking in imagination. The only thing that can be said for them is that it is a condition that affects not only publishers but parents, writers, teachers, booksellers as well as the children, who like the little girl have been conditioned to expect only a doll with golden hair and blue eyes. One tends to blame the publishers more since ultimately it is their lack of concern, or desire to improve, that cheats a child from getting a book that he can really enjoy.

Enjoyment here implies more than just getting to know the main points of a story which most people seem to think is the only purpose of a book. To begin with, a book should be aesthetically satis­fying. A child should be able to touch and feel a book and find pleasure in the way it looks, since an ability to read is not one which develops automatically but one which has to encouraged by creat­ing a link in the child’s mind between reading and pleasure. ‘I remember trying to bite into it’, says Maurice Sendak, famous American writer and illustrator of children’s books, about his first impres­sion of a book. ‘I’ve seen children touch books, fondle books, smell books, and it’s all the reason in the world why books should be beautifully produced.’ The stories themselves should ideally form an extension of a child’s own experiences. They should give him a representation of life as he knows it so that he can imagina­tively identify himself with the characters and situations portrayed in a story. In the best sense of the term reading should stretch a child’s imagination until it reaches out to touch the stars or dives down to explore the deeper reaches of his still untouched soul.

‘I like stories that make me some­times happy and sometimes sad,’ says a child. She is only nine, but already she knows what most publishers in India do not seem to care to find out, that stories if they are to be read have to knock at the secret garden of the heart and roam across all those forbidden places that a child senses are there, but cannot enter until someone gives him the key that we refer to as imagination. Without imagin­ation, stories remain forever tied to the dreary world of cause and effect that most children know only too well (‘if you don’t study for your exams you’re going to fail’) and which create in them a sense of frust­ration and despair. Yet the majority of Indian stories are precisely like this, con­sisting as they do either of legends or moral tales whose main purpose seems to demonstrate the relentlessness of fate.

‘Mother’ cries Karna, one of the best known heroes of this genre, when she begs him not to fight against his brothers in the war that is about to begin. ‘What you ask me to do is against my dharma.’ He tries to take a brave stand against fate, but of course it is obvious that he never had a chance to begin with and he is mercilessly put down. In most Indian stories, the main character is caught in a vice-like grip from which he cannot es­cape and the main emphasis is on accep­tance and submission, not on a freedom of choice or action.

This brings us back to the point that it is perhaps futile to blame only the pub­lishers for the kind of books that are pro­duced, the reasons are partly economic, but largely social and cultural too. Indian publishers must in fact face a dilemma for it can be argued that the very concept of a child as a separate creature needing attention and deserving a specialized form of literature is a modern, western idea. In India traditionally there are no child­ren, only small adults. This can be seen in the clothes worn by children in the old days (and perhaps even today in rural India) that were no different from those worn by adults and in the type of occu­pation designated to them. Little girls looked after babies and did household chores, while small boys went into the fields with their fathers or learnt a trade alongside them. Similarly the stories they heard were the same ones, legends and heroic exploits that changed little fror generation to generation and served to re-inforce the simple values of a rural, agrarian, basically static society.

Today the pattern has changed for those living in the cities, but emotionally, it seems, we still remain in the past. The greater part of stories printed for children revolve entirely around the activities of mythological characters and legendary heroes. Even when we take on a western form, as for instance the comic, which by its very name implies that it is meant to provide light entertainment, with only a tenous attachment to reading, we intro­duce religious and didactic overtones, as for instance in the ‘comic’ version of the Bhagvad Gila or the ‘comic’ life of Zarathustra, though to be sure these are then referred to by the euphemism ‘pictorial classic’.

At the risk of being accused of making sweeping accusations not based on fact, one can safely predict that whenever a publisher wants to undertake a new ven­ture in the field of children’s books, and there are, it seems, several who want to get into the act in the International Year of the Child, they will start with the Panchatantra, those endless tales of dubious wit and certain boredom, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, bring in Birbal for comic relief, and then go on to do the rounds of folk tales from the diff­erent regions. Children must feel like screaming and gagging at being buried under this never-ending debris from the past, but they never get a chance, for it is always the parents and fond relatives who go to buy books for them. Publishers know this and even print long forewords and introductions that speak of Indian culture, always glorious and shining, and of the past in such unctous tones that the parents invariably fall for it without even looking at the book. The result in most cases is that children politely leave these books aside and reach out for Richard Scarry who needs no long introduction to make his books sell, to Enid Blyton and Malcom Saville and all the other writers who know the way into the secret garden of childhood.

These children live in a delightful daze, far away from the people around them, while they spend their time having picnics on the grass sprinkled with bluebells and daisises that they have never seen, drink­ing hot cocoa and eating jam tarts in the company of teddy bears, or when they are older, getting lost in the exciting laby­rinths of Enid Blyton fabrication. They hardly know what happens around them and if one asks one of these children to paint a picture or write a story, these will be golden haired princesses Iiving in cast­les which they know nothing of, but which are more real to them than the muddy pavement beneath their feet, the raucous cries of their parents calling them to dinner or the washing hanging outside their window. Literature to them does not serve as an extension of reality, but an escape from it. For all such children there is not, as should be, any question of returning from their secret garden filled with an understanding that could add depth and meaning to their everyday lives. Their reading renders them for all pur­poses schizophrenic, emotionally lost in a dream world, while mechanically going through the process of living.

It would seem therefore that both the choices before the average Indian child, a journey into the past or a trip in a wes­tern fantasy land, cannot be considered to be entirely satisfying. Vivekananda in his characteristically forthright manner once declared; ‘First of all our young men must be strong … You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita.’ Similarly it can be said that the Indian child today has had enough of stories about Rama, what he needs are stories about how to play football and cricket, how to fly kites and learn what it is that makes a jet engine work, perhaps even how to get to Jupiter on a spaceship, for this is the reality that he is faced with today.

Apart from this the majority of publishers seem to concentrate on a very limited age group, the five to ten year olds, with only India Book House (IBH) as an exception trying to cater to slightly more mature children. This could be one of the reasons why Indian stories are writ­ten in such a staccato manner verb follow­ing subject, followed by an object relent­lessly in what can only be described as a police inspector style, the whole story being related like a factual deposition of a criminal act. We include two examples of the style, one from an Enka Prakshan Kendra (Ahmedabad) publication and the other from a book brought out by the Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi. Some of the words have been left out (wickedly perhaps) to bring out the sheer driving monotony of this particular manner of writing.

‘The city of Ayodhya – lovely to be­hold!

She stood on the banks of the river Sarayu.

She was full of places   .

She was full of gardens                  .

She was adorned with .

Her roads were …

They were paved with …. ‘

Or in case this is regarded as an ex­treme example, in the first paragraph of the Tales of South India, which is quite interesting otherwise, the sentences go as follows:

‘Many years ago there lived a rich

man.

He lived in a big house     .

He owned large rice fields                        .

Vembu was a kind and generous man … He had many servants ….

………………

Muthu was his most trusted servant.

He was intelligent and hard working.’

In this police inspector style it is pos­sible to get all the facts down straight but there is no attempt at all to render them emotionally or visually. It is not enough to describe a situation in which a girl cannot go to a party for lack of a suitable frock to wear and then explain how with the help of kindly relations she manages to go to the party after all. The greater part of a writer’s skill lies in writing about Cinderella in such as way as to make every child feel the utter misery and de­solation of the poor kitchen maid who was not really a kitchen maid but forced to be one by circumstance (‘everyone is being so mean to me’) and then the joy when by a stroke of magic she is allowed to take her rightful place by the side of the Prince at the ball. A true writer can create his own magic in the way he des­cribes Cinderella’s dress or the first moment that the Prince sees her at the ball.

As an illustration by what is meant by a creative writing style, here is an excerpt from ‘A dog so small’ by Phillipa Pearce.

‘They went to see Tilly’s puppies. She did not want them to go; but if they were going she knew that her duty was to go too, and to go ahead. She went briskly with a waddle being incommoded by the swinging heaviness of the milk for her puppies.

‘The sty had once belonged to some pigs but was now perfectly clean with plenty of fresh straw on the cement floor and a special lamp suspended low from the corner of the roof to give gentle heat. Underneath this the puppies had crawled together and lay sleeping in a large, thick, sleek blob of multiple puppy life.’

An Indian writer would render the scene thus:

‘Tilly had eight puppies. The eight puppies had eight pairs of ears and eight waggly tails. They were sleeping.’

A conscientious editor would then complete the image by adding, ‘Tilly was a dog’.

This is of course somewhat exaggerat­ed but the general trend towards a police inspector style makes one wonder whether Indian stories are written to be printed at all. Do they in fact echo an older oral tradition of story telling where visual images do not matter so much as repe­titive patterns of sound to create emotion and reiterate the main points of the story?

Yet the surprising thing is that many children’s books have been written either by well-known writers or people who have distinguished themselves in other spheres of art. Tata-McGraw HilI for instance has recently come up with an exquisitely produced volume with mini­ature paintings to illustrate the story of ‘Nala and Damayanthi’ written by Mri­nalini Sarabhai, the well known dancer, (complete with a foreword by Jamshed Bhabha). Mr Mulk Raj Anand has woven a charming tale around a little girl living in Mohenjo Daro in a book brought out by the Children’s Book Trust with draw­ings in a smudge-and-ink style by Pulak Biswas. The aesthetic appeal of some of these books however seems more geared to appeal to adults than to children. Mr Anand talks of Maya waking up like a sleepy lotus, a conceit that an adult would no doubt find charming but which a child would surely reject with the question ‘Do lotuses ever get sleepy?’ and in any case how many would have seen a lotus? In most such books however lotuses creep up routinely for the purposes of compari­son as do ‘eyes like gazelles’ and ‘raven tresses’ .

It is less common to find a writer who has written for any length of time purely for children. Some of them who try, quite often mothers who have despaired of find­ing anything suitable for their children to read, give up after their first attempt. Indian publishers so far just do not appear to be interested in taking the risks involved in launching an unknown writer on an yet undeveloped market. This brings us to the economics of the whole matter which most publishers will claim to be the only real explanation for the kind of books that they print. To put it very plainly, because Indian books cannot compete in terms of cost, production or content with foreign books Indian publish­ers do not feel inclined to invest any money in them. They feel, or so it seems, that having brought out books that are shoddily printed, on grey or yellow paper, hastily assembled with very little thought given to layouts and suitable drawings, and bound in such a manner as to guar­antee instant disintegration at the hand of a child, they have done their duty. The bookshops where these books are sold usually take great care to hide the Indian books on their lowest, most inaccessible racks, where they are allowed to gather as much dust as possible so that no one might accidentally notice them. Then at last after a decent interval when it has been conclusively proved that Indian books for children never sell, the publishers can throw up their hands in despair and say, ‘But where’s the market for children’s books?’

Mr Mohan Punjabi, the General Secre­tary of the Children’s National Founda­tion in Bombay has advanced the theory that the fault lies ‘also in the massive and unrestricted imports of children’s books from abroad’. An ardent crusader for providing free books and reading material for underprivileged children he is out­spoken in his criticism of Indian publi­shers. ‘They do not read the imagina­tion, they destroy it’ he says. ‘What is offered here? By and large tasteless stuff, traditional stories and half baked writings. This is no nourishment of the mind.’ He makes the suggestion that reprints of popular titles are practical and feasible. That will save foreign exchange and make books available at lower prices. Addi­tional  avenues will open in printing, binding, art work etc. Roli Books Inter­national, New Delhi, is one such publi­sher, re-printing semi-educational books which according to booksellers are quite popular.

In spite of all these apparently unsur­mountable obstacles some of the books recently on the market indicate that things need not be so bad after all. Book­sellers also point out that as the Ladybird series of books, the Enid BIytons and other popular imported books have gone up in price, Indian books at last have a chance to compete. Some of the most popular books have been those brought out by Thomson Press, New Delhi, such as the cheery hard cover Bhondoo books. What is particularly pleasing about the Bhondoo books is their size and the nice solid binding that a child will enjoy holding and the pictures, which are imaginatively and vividly drawn to enhance the story. Thomson Press has also come out with a magazine for young Indians called Target, the first issue of which hints at an exciting and much-needed breakthrough in reaching out to Indian children.

Also from Delhi, the Children’s Book Trust has kept up a steady output of books which are of a high standard in terms of production values. They do however seem to lack inspiration. Since they can afford to be reasonably priced and have used in the past a great many different writers and artists who have done good work, the CBT books are very popular with booksellers who report steady sales. Several of the titles which were first printed ten years ago have been re-printed recently, while others have been translated into Hindi, making a welcome change in the otherwise shoddy Indian language publications. One of their favourite artists is Pulak Biswas, whose work is highly elegant and sylised. Yet, one wonders how many children will be able to respond to the sketches which generally create a suggestion of a scene without lingering too much on the details and characterization. In any given book all the men look alike and both sexes appear to wear similar flowing draperies. The artist also enjoys using dull colours such as brown as can be seen in Maya of Mohenjodaro or shades of ochre, whereas a small child enjoys bright primary colours and precision as in the books by Dick Bruna. A child learns colours, per­haps, by seeing the yellow of a fried egg on his plate, a tomato, a carrot, a green banana and these are possibly the first colours that he learns to recognize when he sees them on the white page of a book. Indian artists have done some excellent work but they have not learnt to tune their work to the mind of a child. As yet no single artistic image has emerged in the manner of a Winnie· the Pooh or a  Noddy to capture a child’s imagi­nation.

The third major publisher of books for children in Delhi is Vikas with their Madhuban series. Since they are reasonably priced, booksellers say that they have been fairly well received. These books are meant mainly for small children.

The larger publishing houses in Bombay have mostly been occupied with text-books whose only criteria obviously appears to be that they should be cheap and easily available. Amongst these, Orient Longmans have established a certain standard for re-printing the classics in modestly priced editions that still manage to include a few frills to tempt the student. By and large however Indian text-books are produced with little thought given to layouts, good printing and illus­trations and abound in dull cliched writing as for instance: ‘The later Vedic age hummed with activity’.

India Book House is by far the most well known and popular publisher of children’s books and stories. Since they maintain a good sales network and have printed books that cover a wider age group than most of the other publishers, Indian children are more likely to have read a book brought out by IBH than any other publisher. If this assessment is accepted as being correct they should per­haps be more concerned with the respon­ses evoked in the children who commen­ted on Indian books and Indian authors in the informal survey conducted by Inside-Outside than anyone else. These generally negative sentiments show that publishers and everyone else concerned with children’s literature will have to be far more sensitive to a child’s needs than they have been so far.

In the famous sermon of the Golden Flower, the Buddha tired of verbal expla­nations of his philosophy held up a golden flower in his hand. His disciple Kashyapa looked up and understood the meaning. And he smiled.

It is for this ‘smile of recognition, filled with understanding’ that any person who gives a book to a child should learn to look.

*Courtesy: Inside- Outside

(Vol. III Nos. 9-10 Sept/Oct 1979)

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