This children’s issue of The Book Review comes out in a post Harry Potter world. In July 2007, to much hype and anticipation, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and the last in the series, was published. And publishers all over as well as would be Rowlings scratched their heads hoping to conjure up another readily believable character such as the scrawny, bespectacled Harry Potter.
The Potter books in every respect set a new trend in the arena of children’s writing, though to impute that the world of children’s literature knew little beyond Potter in this last decade is decidedly unfair. The Potter books broke almost every set rule, as it were: They were unwieldy, each successive book in the series seeking to outweigh the one before in its number of pages. They were unillustrated, and as J.K. Rowling herself pointed out, they were largely centred around the theme of death. In the very first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we come to know that Harry is an orphan, his parents having been done in by the evil Lord Voldemort.
The success of the Potter books lay precisely in their ability to overturn these rules, and in the formula, almost magically arrived at, of tapping the consumer-reader of every hue. Note the secrecy as publication date neared, the queues, the deliberate leaks that formed the prequel to every new Harry Potter release. The magic then lay also outside the book’s pages. At the same time, Harry Potter did follow certain set patterns of children’s literature—a hero of supernatural powers, an entire new world of Hogwarts, the effortless mix of unreal characters—but because it came to weigh such an overwhelming influence, the world of Harry Potter, with its Potter memorabilia, Potter films, an entire industry outside the Potter books, was also a constraining one .
Where then does all this leave children’s literature? There have always been two ways of defining what such literature is all about. One, books for the young reader that must be formula or thematically set, and are besides clearly age defined and the other kind, as one of our reviewers in this issue puts it, books that ‘stretch’ or transcend such set boundaries. And arguably the Potter books have their feet firmly grounded in both categories, though they still have to pass the test of time. The perennial children’s classics are those that have aged well in spite of being formulaic—think of Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Tolkien’s Hobbit series—books cited by two highly
regarded children’s authors in this issue and you will know what I mean.
And immortality is also assured by the illustrator—think of the Dr Seuss books, E.H. Shepard’s timeless illustrations for Winnie the Pooh books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Sukumar Ray’s ‘mad’ illustrations that accompany his nonsense verse in Abol Tabol will no doubt ensure that the book is a must read for every young reader and those young at heart. The best illustrations are those that do not set constraints on the reader’s imagination but delight and stretch it.
In an age when information flows seamless and disenchantment is rife, there is little that is taboo for children’s literature, even Death, a subject that Sally Nicholls’ in her book, Ways to Live Forever, deals with in a matter-of-fact, funny and prosaic way. But the arena has also considerably widened and our children’s review special provides just a rich sampling of this. There is the usual upturning of myths to produce interesting fiction such as Philip Reeve’s take on the Arthurian legend, Simon Pulse’s recounting of the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem in his Alphabet of Dreams, Aditi’s adventures with fabulous and legendary creatures as aptly narrated by Suniti Namjoshi and Atisa’s travels across time to the Seven Wonders. Ghosts and detectives—the staples for any book to hold a young reader’s unwavering attention—stay the course as well, though they have to work hard at providing entertaining reading. The Ghost of Gosain Bagan is about a ghost desperate to scare and Younguncle who goes to the Himalayas in what is only his second appearance is a wonderfully created detective, combining childlike curiosity with worldly wisdom. And there are protagonists distinct in their own right such as Percy Jackson, half boy, half Greek God; Urgum the barbarian, and the quite unique Count Drunkula von D’eth, the Transylvanian vampire trouble shooter who subsists on a regular liquid diet of single malt whisky. The ubiquitous talking, thinking animals feature too—any book for a young reader would be incomplete without them—and so there is a runaway giraffe and a bear with an impressive pedigree. Ruskin Bond’s merry menagerie features along with little known, shy animals that inhabit our too rapidly diminishing forests. School subjects too take on a fun life all their own—as Anita Ganeri shows in her geography series while Kjartan Poskitt insists that maths can never be murderous.
The world of children’s literature then is a big one, and will remain an ever expanding one. The test, as two essays in this collection emphasize, lies not merely in creating heroic characters who fit just right into a child’s curiosity and imagination as Harry Potter once did, but in treading newer areas. Uma Krishnaswami writes about writing fiction for the young Indian Diaspora, and Nibedita Sen asks why girls do not feature as heroes with as much frequency as boys.
And as parents and educators perhaps bewail the rapidly declining habit of reading among children and young adults, a purview of the literature produced, and our issue provides but only a bird’s eye view, shows that the world of reading for the young is an ever growing one. Unlike older readers, the young reader reads not merely for pleasure or to understand and be educated, but in the hope of being challenged. The young have always been more demanding readers. There is an entire realm of the imagination that the young reader inhabits and books, or those that go on to become classics, help vitally to widen and enrich this world. To taste only a bit of this wonderful world, we invite you to read on … let the fun begin!