Many of us have grown up on books written by Enid Blyton. I remember my first exposure to the ever green author. Every page in the book thrilled and delighted me—and I was hooked. Not just to mystery-adventure stories, but to reading. Today Rowling’s Harry Potter has the same effect, setting children on the path to reading.
Bookshops today are filled with titles by foreign authors. However, it is the elite children in big metros who can relate culturally to the characters and settings in these books and can afford to buy them.
What about the rest of the vast majority? Along with the spread of literacy, the habit of reading too, needs to be promoted to ensure a broader and wider education rather than functional literacy. Unfortunately children of small town and rural India neither have access, nor can they be expected to appreciate the strange unfamiliarity of a Blyton or a Rowling. To entice them to read, attractive books in English as well as in their mother tongue, with stories drawn from local and contemporary setting, need to be made available. Fortunately, a variety of titles suitable for the Indian child is available today. But booksellers prefer to display foreign books as they provide better returns. Distributors, too, fail to reach the smaller towns. So, though enough reading material is produced today, it does not always reach its target, children of small town and rural India.
Publishers are well aware of the need for attractive children’s books set in the child’s own social and cultural milieu, in English as well as in other languages. Scholastic, Penguin Puffin, Ratnasagar, Kitabghar, Diamond have already entered the market. Several new publishers, like Ponytale Books, IndiaInk, Tarini Publishing, Radical Books are catching up with them. Katha, Tara, Karadi Tales, Young Zubaan and Tulika have published attractive picture books that compare well with the material produced by traditional, established publishers such as Children’s Book Trust, Hemkunt, Frank Brothers, Vikas, Sterling, and Government organizations such as Publications Division and National Book Trust. Several non-governmental organizations have done a commendable job in publishing low-cost, attractive children’s books, in different languages, to reach the non- privileged child. They are Pratham, Room to Read and the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC).
Regional languages like Marathi and Bengali have a rich literary culture and there is no dearth of good reading material for children in these languages. It is Hindi, the national language, where much more needs to be done, though writers like Dr. Harikrishna Devsare, Vishnu Prabhakar, Madhu Pant, Kusum Singh and several others have made a mark.
The Children’s Book Trust, founded by Shankar Pillai, was the first to encourage young talent to take up creative writing for children. Shankar organized workshops and later ran competitions to discover new writers. Soon, original, creative writing emerged, in the form of mystery and adventure novels, short stories, picture-books for the youngest age group and non-fiction for information seekers. They were translated into Hindi and other languages and became widely popular. Thus a variety of writing for all ages was born out of the pens of authors like Arup Kumar Dutta, Nilima Sinha, Sarojini Sinha, Loveleen Kakkar, Deepa Agarwal, Ira Saxena, A.K. Srikumar and Mathew Panamkatt. Some specialized in picture books for the younger age group. Shankar’s Life with Grandfather was a hit with children. Pratibha Nath’s Barber at the Zoo and Sigrun Srivastava’s Home were other popular picture books.
Manorama Jafa, expert on children’s literature, ran workshops to guide other budding authors. Surekha Panandiker’s Chitku became popular with children. The late Dilip Salwi got known as a science specialist with his book, The Story of Zero, his science fiction novels and biographies, titled Our Scientists, and Nita Berry received awards for her well-researched information books like The Story of Writing and The Wonder of Water.
The magazine, Target, which unfortunately does not exist any more, also saw the emergence of several good authors in English, under the guidance of its brilliant editor, Rosalind Wilson. Several writers like Subhadra Sengupta, Sigrun Srivastava, Paro Anand, Swapna Dutta, Indira Ananthakrishnan, and Vandana Singh found an outlet for their original writing in the pages of the magazine.
Today, younger and fresher talent is making its mark. New ideas, new writing is being recognized, also internationally. The prestigious international IBBY Honor List saw the entry of original fiction like Devika Rungachari’s Growing Up, Paro Anand’s No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, Deepa Agarwal’s Caravan to Tibet, picture books like Manorama Jafa’s Tiger Call illustrated by Ajanta Guha Thakurta, AWIC’s Once Upon a Time in India, a collection of folk tales illustrated by well-known Indian artists and designed by Atanu Roy, Ira Saxena’s The Lonely Duckling illustrated by Taposhi Ghoshal and Tara Publishing’s That’s How I See Things written by Sirish Rao and illustrated by Bhajji Shyam.
This brings us to the role of artists who breathe life into picture-books through their colourful illustrations. There is no shortage of talent, for our illustrators are equal to the best in the world. Atanu Roy, Jagdish Joshi, Mrinal Mitra, Subir Roy, Sonali Dasgupta, Suvidha Mistry, Subir Roy, Suddhasatwa Basu are only some of those who have won accolades at the international level, and there are many others who are just as gifted.
Indian writing for children may not have got the recognition that adult writing has received worldwide, but today there are enough names to represent the various genres. For picture books there are Manorama Jafa, Pratibha Nath, Vinita Krishna, Girija Rani Asthana, Asha Nehemiah and so many others. Subhadra Sen Gupta is recognized for historical fiction. Mystery-adventure brings to mind several authors like Arup Kumar Dutta, Nilima Sinha, Deepa Agarwal and Loveleen Kakkar. Humour has writers like Gulam Haider, Vandana Singh and Asha Nehemiah. Deepak Dalal writes adventure books set in exotic locales like the Andamans and the Sahyadri hills. Manoj Das, Nilima Jha and Swapna Dutta have written folk tales and mythology, and, as far as short stories are concerned, a great deal of exciting, contemporary writing related to the problems of the modern Indian child is being produced by various talented authors like Kamlesh Mohindra, Deepavali Debroy, Benita Sen, Santhini Govindan and several others today.
Unfortunately the work of those in the field of children’s books has largely gone unrecognized in India. Instead, children are fed with material that originates in the West and which may not be appreciated by all, especially by those unfamiliar with other cultures.
The only way books can reach children in the hinterland is through school or public libraries. This was understood well by CBSE authorities who circulated a directive to all their schools. Attractive reading material must be available in all school libraries and students encouraged to read for pleasure. A list of books was enclosed, but Indian authors and their books were missing from it. The Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children, which has been active in the field, was shocked to note the conspicuous absence, and protested. The Director, CBSE, responded very positively, asking the Association to prepare another list. AWIC promptly responded with a list of Indian authors and their books. We hope children in Indian schools would soon get acquainted with Indian literature too.
Reading should not become a pleasure only for the elite, while the rest remain unaware, deprived and not completely literate. While enjoying hot dogs and pizzas from the West, we must remember that our own cuisine is no less delicious. The mental nutrition or stimulation that a good book provides must reach every child, either through proper distribution of low cost books or through libraries in every locality. That is, if we want Indian children to have a more comprehensive education by developing in them a love for reading.
Nilima Sinha is a writer of children’s books.