Children’s literature is flourishing in India, but further effort needed to attract new readers
The subject of children and reading has long been debated, particularly on the impact of the digital distraction on the habit. Children are reading more but, paradoxically are not.
Anoushka JS, a student of class VI and a ballerina in training, took to reading quite recently. She went from the abridged classics to becoming a diehard Potterhead in quick succession. Her attention then switched to biographies and life stories – think Trevor Noah and the diary of Anne Frank. She says, “I love reading fantasy because it’s always about things that don’t exist. I prefer not having any illustrations because I like to imagine it all. As for biographies, they are long yes, but I find the lives of people – especially rags to riches kind of stories very fascinating!”
The subject of children and reading has long been debated, particularly on the impact of the digital distraction on the habit. Children are reading more but, paradoxically are not. Explaining this, Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India says, “There are massive spikes when a big blockbuster brand like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson is published. But in terms of real reading, biblio-diversity is glaringly missing. There are readers who are die-hard and very specific in their tastes, but these are relatively small. There are the buzz readers who will follow the hype and read the books in vogue. And there is the reader who will read functionally—to get ahead”.
The fact remains that in an average classroom, it has always been a fraction of the children that read and that has been steadily increasing. “Why has that percentage increased?” asks Sayoni Basu of Duckbill Books, an independent publisher of books for children and young adults. “Because of better books and libraries as well as parents and schools encouraging kids to read. I also believe that the variety of books available these days means that there is a greater likelihood of a child finding a book that speaks to him or her. And that is what is needed to create a reader — that one magic book”.
That begs the question, what is out there for children to explore in the world of books these days? Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, Co-founder, Neev Literature Festival, a Children’s Literature Festival currently in its second year and Managing Trustee, Neev Academy, Bangalore is introducing the Neev Children’s Books Awards (NCBA) in this year’s edition of the festival scheduled on 28-29 September. She says, “We began with the bias that the quality and quantity of children’s literature from India is quite limited, but the selected list is evidence of an awakening in Indian children lit. Our authors are clearly experimenting with genre, technique and topic. Ela, by Sampurna [Chattarji] is stream of consciousness technique. It’s like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, but for kids and about kids. Shabnam Minwalla’s What Maya Saw is in the genre of new age mystery, like Dan Brown. Nostalgia as a subject or category also emerges with The Boy Who Swallowed a Nail and Other Stories, by Lalita Iyer and is also seen in the picture books by Mahasweta Devi. Biographies of important people for children emerges with The Boy Who Asked Why? There are still missing genres and subjects and the books for the 8-10-year-olds need growth, but Indian children lit is going places”.
“Children’s literature nowadays is written with great clarity,” says Jess Butterworth, the author of two international novels for children, Running on the Roof of the World and When the Mountains Roared. “Authors are skilled at writing with their audience in mind and many books tend to have a unique voice or writing style. These aspects, along with things like striking book covers and beautiful illustrations, make children’s literature more approachable”.
When he is not practicing his drum rolls, Sabyasachi Shenoy, a class IX student has his nose buried in a book. Always a voracious reader, his current favourite is Dan Brown (having just completed all his books) and James Patterson. “I love stories that have complex storylines, with sub-plots and lots of twists and turns. I also love the fact that authors like Patterson work on inputs from their readers and so you always have a sense of what is going to come in the next book!” he says.
"Through social media readers can now connect directly to their favourite authors who in turn can share their process of creating their work. Getting to ‘know’ them is a highly attractive reason for getting to know more about their books and similar books by other authors," says David Melling, writer and illustrator. David has illustrated around 100 books, 30 of which he has written and is the creator of the Hugless Douglas series which have sold over 1.5 million copies in 30 countries. He also adds that the rich and attractive use of illustrations in today’s book market has helped draw children to books and enhance the pleasure of reading.
With most of us in India being introduced to reading with illustrated mythological stories, do such tales still hold sway? “I think epics, with epic-cycle — whether mythological or featuring superheroes appeal to children,” says, Samhita Arni, writer and illustrator. Her The Mahabharata: A Child's View published in seven language editions and sold 50,000 copies worldwide, winning the Elsa Morante Literary Award and her Sita's Ramayana, a graphic novel was on the New York Times Bestseller list for Graphic Novels. “Mythology, like comic book series, often offers stories that feature re-occurring characters, and the complex, intertwined, inter-linked relationships, like the characters in comic book series and appeal to the desire for complex narratives. Mythology, in general level, is popular because these stories often reveal truths of the human psyche, that apply to us and our experiences and this is why these stories still resonate with us”.
So while it is a fact that children are reading more and children’s literature in India is a blossoming sector, we still need to work on bringing new readers into the circle. Thomas believes that there is a lot of prescriptive notions at play here. “Parents will spend on what they believe is functional and vital to ‘getting ahead’. I believe if you want reading as a leisure habit to grow then the sense of fun, and imagination needs to be stressed at least as much, if not more”, he says.
Butterworth believes that protagonists in books must reflect the world we live in and come from different backgrounds because it’s important for children to be able to see themselves in books and stories.
Gupta advises, “Know where your child is and recognise what they are reading and grow its depth and breadth. Know what’s emerging in children’s literature. There is no such thing as bad literature, but there is a lot of bubble gum”.
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