What the platypuses are hatching
Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu, founders of Duckbill, publishing house for children's books, tell Kareena N Gianani that the country needs fresh, strong voices in children's writing and less talking vegetables in books that preach healthy eating to kids
In an ideal world, Anushka Ravishankar loves to write what she enjoys most, pen nonsense poetry and create pink monsters with nail-like teeth. In the real world, she does all of the above and is now attending the ongoing Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. Sayoni Basu, on the other hand, is at the New Delhi World Book Fair. Part of her job there is manning the Duckbill stall, an exercise which, according to her, is essential to build character.
Why did the monster (of Ravishankar’s latest book, Moin The Monster Songster) return after you wrote Moin The Monster? Was it planned?
Anushka: No, not at all. In 2006, when I wrote Moin The Monster, I didn’t want to end it on a clichéd note or a happily-ever-after. I didn’t want to give it closure. A lot of readers thought the monster should help with a problem and ‘go back’ to where it came from, but he didn’t. By the time Sayoni and I launched Duckbill in May last year, I already had the rights to the book, so I decided to take it ahead. Moin The Monster Songster does not have a plot; it is episodic. The monster doesn’t even have a back story, so no one really knows anything about him. I wrote the sequel because I thought I’d enjoy writing it. That’s how I always write.
Why do you write? Legend has it that you started writing for your daughter…
Anushka: (Laughs) You know, I don’t really know how someone established that! It is true that when my daughter was old enough to read, I realised there was a dearth of good books for readers of her age, and that of good books written by Indian authors. But that isn’t why I began writing. I was always wanted to write, and given my background (Anushka is a mathematics graduate) it never really fell into place. True, having a daughter who was an avid reader at the age of six was a motivator. I wrote two stories and sent them to Tinkle because I had no idea how good or bad I was. Those stories won prizes and Tinkle approached me to work with them.
I wouldn’t advise parents to start writing for their kids in the hopes of being published! I write only about things I really enjoy.
What does Duckbill hope to do differently in the children’s books space?
Sayoni: At Duckbill, we hope to look at diverse genres — we all know mythology sells, so most authors want to stick with that. But, we also know how much children love detective and school stories. Not many Indian authors are experimenting with those. Authors such as Amish Tripathi, Percy Jackson and JK Rowling have made fantasy a very popular genre, so there is hope that the bar for quality writing has been raised in the process. At Duckbill, we’d love to publish historical fiction — something we find missing on the bookshelves for children.
Anushka: We’ve also noticed that, in India, few come forward to write books for children. It is understandable — there really is not much recognition, awards or an institution buying children’s books in bulk. Children’s books aren’t reviewed as widely as adults’ books are. An author gets little visibility. When you go to a bookstore, you see famous international titles such as The Diary Of a Wimpy Kid resting on most shelves. But most children’s books by Indian authors find place in a dark, little corner no one even knows of.
Sayoni: Duckbill decided to change that. We are trying our best to promote the author as much as the title — by publishing their photographs, releasing book trailers, holding book readings and contests on social media networks. It is too early to say what worked and what didn’t, but we are constantly trying to reinvent how a book is written, marketed and released.
I think we still have a long way to go. It is the first time a festival as big as Kala Ghoda has a children’s books section. Bigger festivals like The Jaipur Literature Festival or the Kolkata literature festival have no space for children’s books and authors.
And what is it that Duckbill does not want to do under any circumstance?
Sayoni: I think something we would never do is publish something didactic for children; something which tries to wriggle a moral in. I hate being told what to do, and I know children hate it even more. Every day, I read a couple of manuscripts on talking vegetables because children ‘should’ eat more vegetables.
Anushka: I don’t think a book telling a child to be something, or do something in a certain way is really going to work. A young reader can take a lot home from a story he has fun with. If you’re not a gender sensitive person, it will show in your story even though your story preaches the opposite.