As a child I remember spending all my pocket money on a joint library membership with a friend. We would grab five books each between us, with some Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics for good measure and finish both lots before promptly being back at the library in a week. So now, when I see my child pick up a book from a multitude of choices, I feel happy to see that reading has not altogether been lost on the current generation with access to so much personal technology. And in fact, off late, I have seen her veer towards books by Indian authors and am intrigued by what is there on offer.
The growth of Indian literature for kids
"The last 30-plus years have been a time of wondrous exploration for Indian children's books", says Aditi De, a Bangalore-based author and editor. Aditi launched and edited Junior Quest from the Chandamama group, and the Open Sesame children's supplement at the Deccan Herald. Her books include A Twist in the Tale: More Indian Folktales.
No longer do young readers have to puzzle over liquorice, scones and cucumber sandwiches, as we did with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I am thrilled by this phenomenon. Aditi De, author and editor
Aditi says, "Thanks to publishers like Tara, Tulika, Katha, Karadi, Duckbill and others, our children can now access Indian themes, characters and plots they can identify with, like Ranjit Lal's Faces in the Water for young adults, Anushka Ravishankar's Tiger on a Tree (brilliantly illustrated by Pulak Biswas) or Sandhya Rao's My Friend, The Sea. No longer do young readers have to puzzle over liquorice, scones and cucumber sandwiches, as we did with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I am thrilled by this phenomenon."
"Children's books have diversified today into a wide variety of genres and textuality," feels Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, Founder and Managing Trustee of Neev Trust, "Within this, series are popular—around a character or theme. Some of this super specialisation makes sense, but not all. Much of it is created in the cause of wanting to encourage reading. Children tend to stick to one type, one character, one series, which becomes a frame of reference, making reading each successive text easy access. Fiction has gone way beyond 'adventure stories' – into science fiction, historical and reality fiction, Dystopian literature, hypertexts, dark lit, and beyond. Non-fiction writing for children is an increasing area—autobiographies, biographies, information books, travel writing, history and much else".
And if there is one thing that seems to have remained constant, it is the special place that comic books have always had. "From being a medium that was seen as disruptive and 'not good for children', comics have grown to be loved and to be viewed as a medium that can be used to teach children school curricula, inform them about social issues and get a reluctant reader to take his first steps in reading, believes Reena Puri, executive editor of Chitrakatha, also previously associate editor with Tinkle. This, she says is because of the simplicity of their presentation, the colourful pictures and the variety of stories they can present.
Counsellors say what bothers teens (14+) most are relationship issues, so I write about those. Some kids secretly admit... that they like love stories!Ranjit Lal, author
Jane De Suza is the author of Party in the Sky, The Big Little Want and the Han series for learners. Her SuperZero series, sees a new book coming out every year. She says, "There's always been a market for humour. From the William books of the mid 1900s to the Wimpy Kid series of today. I think children naturally drift towards humour, and wouldn't mind an afternoon spent reading a rib-tickling book".
But how much reading are children getting done?
Sharing their mantra of "Grow to Read, Read to Grow" the Neev Academy recently organised The Neev Literature Festival 2017 for Children (15-16 September). The event saw parents, authors, children's writers, and of course children come together to interact and exchange ideas.
Kavita feels that children read in many forms, significantly on the internet, often taking in text in the form of videos and websites. Search engines have taken serendipity and deep reading away from this generation. Children read less and read short.
But what do children like reading these days? "That's a question I keep asking them when I interact with them!" says Ranjit Lal, author of over 35 books—fiction and non-fiction—for children and adults who are children. "Most will say they are interested in say animals and birds. Counsellors say what bothers teens (14+) most are relationship issues, so I write about those. Some kids secretly admit—perhaps not directly to authors—that they like love stories! And of course you need healthy doses of action and adventure to keep them turning the pages."
Comics have grown to be viewed as a medium that can be used to teach children school curricula, inform them about social issues and get a reluctant reader to take his first steps in reading. Reena Puri, executive editor of Chitrakatha
Authors certainly are writing about issues that affect children's lives: relationships, violence, romance, sports, competition, and so on. There are more India-based stories and characters—though there should be much more, feels Ranjit.
Jane believes that it is about what the child reader has always has looked for—a wild flight of imagination. "As the world gets tougher and more competitive, and children are forced to grow into adults while still in their teens, it has been claimed that children are choosing darker books. I think, however, that a child still looks for an escape into a crazy, almost unbelievable world—whether of wizards, Greek gods, talking animals, or as in the case of my books, superheroes".
So how does one get their children to read more? Kavita has this advice to offer. Make your house a reading household. Build your own libraries, so that children build their own. Don't push children to chapter books early. Picture books are a very rich genre—choose carefully. All the genres of reading coming out in novels are also available in picture books. Build diversity in reading choices. Look around there's lots available as reading lists by leading librarians and readers around the world.
Gaps in children's literature
Aditi would like Indian publishers to steer away from mythology and folktales, and branch into contemporary themes instead. "We could do with more about gender, nuclear families, single parents, rural schooling, domestic violence, hunger, and more. In our internet age, we can no longer pussyfoot around difficult subjects. How about more graphic novels, baby board books, perhaps even books with sound?"
Reena would like to see comics used as educational tools to reach the remotest areas of our country. These comics could then be used to spread relevant messages regarding tolerance, compassion, inclusiveness, conservation, animal rights and most importantly, the rights of children. Comics are a very effective medium which should be used in a positive and constructive way.
And Jane so aptly sums it up when she says "I'd like to see children reading books. Period. I'm not choosy about what they're reading, as long as it's not just WhatsApp messages. I yearn for today's generation to be buried in a book, not a phone—so that they can feed off the richness that different cultures, countries, characters give them. That they should tax their imaginations and not be spoon-fed through digital media alone. I'd like to see books raise children, as they always have."
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