Putting the 'India' into our children's storybooks

Fiona FernandezIt’s the sort of news that would make a journalist who keeps close tabs on the publishing industry, tempted to do a little celebratory jig. Last week, two publishing houses (Rupa & Co, Scholastic India) announced their entry into the children’s book segment with separate imprints, Red Turtle and Nova, respectively, targeted at this vibrant genre. Flipping through their catalogues, one couldn’t help but be thrilled (and relieved) at their focus on Indian stories, Indian writers and Indian artworks. A pleasant development, this.

It’s a far cry from the days, when as kids growing up in the 1980s, one had to make do with Enid Blyton and her ilk, who painted us candy-flossy imagery of faraway lands, where spring-time picnics meant ham sandwiches and jam tarts, even as teenage sleuths crisscrossed medieval castles and mansions, and where Anglicised names like Julian, Evelyn and Beth popped up regularly as our make-believe friends from Surrey and Scotland.

Representation pic

Barring late Uncle Pai and his Amar Chitra Katha revolution, and a few smaller publishers who countered the Westernisation of children’s reading literature in India back then, it was a clean English sweep for the Indian toddler, tween and teenage reader. Superman flew in too, so, the likes of Hanuman and co had to play second fiddle.

Even today, its repercussions are encountered whenever one drops by a bookstore in India big or small. The space and presence for Indian and English themes in the children’s section is skewed in favour of the latter to the extent even salespeople in these bookstores barely seem aware of these far-and-few desi titles, going by several exchanges that one has had in the past.

But with India being the golden goose for the printed word, the past few years have witnessed a gradual thrust in the right direction. And, we hope that with this recent news, the focus doesn’t lose steam. Apart from most of the big publishers based in Delhi who have launched children's imprints, several Chennai based publishers (Tara Books, Tulika) incorporate local artisans, designers and storytellers to tell stories about India, in a refreshing Indian milieu and landscape. It has resulted in global recognition for this showcase of content and design; another shot in the arm was when the CBSE gave a nod to incorporate titles in its syllabus.

This journalist recalls a few vignettes from a chat with Herve Tullet, the popular French illustrator-storyteller who was in India last year. He was pained to notice the lack of India’s stories, about our diverse lands, cultures, people, and of course its mythology, all of which, according to him, would make its children more appreciative of our country and its richness in every sense. We had to take him seriously after all, he is someone who practises what he preaches, back in France.

The fear is that we shouldn’t allow our children to fall into a trap of the dreaded island mentality, in the intellectual sense that is. Look at Great Britain: children’s books cannot seem to go beyond UK and US writers. Kids grow up being unaware of the ‘other world’ out there. We haven’t reached there, as yet, but publishers ought to take a leap of faith, and give back more of India to our children in a big way, especially with tough competition from the online and gadget world. The Famous Five can stay in England. For good.

The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY 

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