While people were gushing over Abhijit Banerjee’s dhoti and Esther Duflo’s saree at the Nobel Prize event, I had the urge to grab people by their lapels and shout, “Hey, hey, do you know, my book just got into the Nobel Prize Museum at Stockholm!” Checking the impulse, I tried instead to find out how three children’s books, including one written by me, got into the hands of Duflo, and why the Nobel laureate deemed it fit to present these for display at the Nobel Prize Museum.
It turned out that the two economists had been evaluating the reading programme of Pratham Education Foundation for over 20 years through the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab that they set up at MIT. Pratham uses simple, multilingual books in their reading programmes which include extensive Randomised Control Trials to evaluate reading skills. Duflo chose these picture books published by Pratham Books, because Nobel laureates are encouraged to present objects intrinsic to their work. With that, she won the hearts of all of us working in the children’s book publishing field.
A couple of days after the Nobel surprise, I was on a high as I took my books to Kathavana, a children’s literature festival for students in government schools. The sessions were called ‘Meet the Author’. After a brief introduction, I brazenly asked the first group of students to ask me anything they wanted to know. “What is a―ut―hor?” asked a Class 7 student, clearly unimpressed by the introduction. That’s why I love kids—they are so good for keeping one’s ego in check.
“Why did you want to be a writer?” asked another student. This was the question I was asked in almost all of the dozen sessions I conducted in three different schools across the city of Bengaluru.
“Because I like to write! And it allows me to be with kids like you!” I answered.
“When did you start writing?” asked a young girl.
“I started writing funny essays when I was in middle school. Some teachers scolded me for doing it. Thankfully, some encouraged me, and here I am,” I answered.
My mind wanders, and I love to observe people, especially children at play. Together, they come in quite handy for a children’s writer and journalist. Some years ago, I wrote a column for Open Sesame, a children’s supplement. The challenge was to present a mathematical problem each week, in the form of a story. That was how Mazy was born, and week after week, the goofy ten-year-old came up with a situation that needed an answer from readers. Later published by Scholastic India, Crazy Mazy’s Maths Puzzles became a collection of all my favourite things and values. So, the book sneaks in dogs, cats, chocolates, composters, trees, gardening, family, books and sports without really being about any of these.
“You’re eavesdropping!” I’ve been told. Or, “Ma, you’re staring at them!” In my defence, all I do is keep my ears, eyes and nose open. But yes, I love to watch a bored child. You can almost see his mind searching for something forbidden to do. One such moment led me to write I want that one! The book that is now at the Nobel Prize Museum. A very simple slice-of-life story, it has an illustration showing a mother reading a book. Many children found it strange that a woman was shown thus ‘whiling away time’ because they were used to seeing book-mothers cooking and book-fathers reading the newspaper. These are the stereotypes that one tries to address while writing for children. Thanks to the more robust and progressive times we live in, a father can be shown cooking in our books.
During my 12-year editorship at Pratham Books, many of my books were written to fill a gap. The Rupaiya Paisa series was written because we felt children needed to know about money. But some stories just burst out. Ritu’s Letter Gets Longer came from watching a toddler pick up a bag and walk to the door. The idea for Paper Play popped up when I saw a crumpled sheet of paper at a waiting room. Whether it is Ritu’s walk or Syeda’s dream of setting up a candy store in Paper Play, I like to capture the first steps of freedom, at each stage of a child’s life, in my stories. When nurtured, these are the steps that, hopefully, will lead children to being balanced citizens.
Not all children can enjoy reading, and that is perfectly fine. But I think it is important for them to be given enough opportunity to see, feel, and read or reject books. When I was asked to write about hearing impairment, a koel was making quite a racket in the silk cotton tree outside my window. The noisy bird featured in The Koel with the Sore Throat. “Is it a sad book, like most books to do with disability?” asked a friend. “No! It’s a happy one,” I told him, realising once again that it is adults who foster their rigid views on the young.
There is an amazing pool of authors, illustrators, translators and publishers in Indian children’s literature today. A great feast is on offer for young readers. I do hope that when a child says “I want that one!” and points at a book, adults will get her the book, or at least, let her see it.