I grew up in a house of books and reading. Every evening, we had what was called a “quiet time”, when we sat together just before dinner, listening to classical music and reading our own books. I hated that time. I resented being made to sit still and quiet. But my parents and sisters were avid readers; so I just had to fall in line.
I started reading whatever my sister seemed to enjoy. So at the age of 12 or so, I began reading “Great American Plays” and German poet Bertolt Brecht. I was part of a theatre group and so found reading plays fascinating. It did me more good than harm to be reading way beyond my years. I went back to reading these plays much later and enjoyed them in a totally different way. There didn’t seem to be much distinction between literature for children and adults. The lines had barely been formed. And there was no parental interference, we were free to pick any book off our parent’s shelves.
Yes, I was reading William Shakespeare, Pooh and also, Brecht, all at the same time. Whatever took my fancy. The biggest change from my growing-up years to my children’s and onwards is that there were practically no Indian books to choose from other than the usual mythology and folktales, not for the young reader, at any rate. When my children were growing up, there were some books for them to choose from that lay within India. Besides Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayanan, there was also “Target” magazine which showcased some wonderful new writers like Sigrun Srivastava, Anupa Lal, Subhadra Sengupta and Deepa Agarwal, among many others.
“Target” and “Children’s World” spearheaded a much-needed trend of Indian writing in the contemporary context. Sadly, “Target” was closed down — a great disservice to children’s literature, I feel. Childrens Book Trust and National Book Trust were also bringing out exciting new writings like Arup Kumar Datta’s “The Kaziranga Trail”, which remains one of my all-time favourites along with Sigrun Srivastava’s “A Moment of Truth”.
And this trend has continued unabated. The growing number of foreign publishers coming into India and then starting a children’s imprint supports this. Of course, Penguin’s Puffin has been around for a long time, but they are bringing out exciting books that break new ground. Even Indian publishers like Duckbill, which is dedicated to young literature, Speaking Tiger launching Talking Cub, Rupa launching Red Turtle and Full Circle’s Tota Books are all important moves in the right direction.
Scholastic, the biggest children’s publisher worldwide, has been very successful in India, holding book fairs in schools. Schools themselves hold Book Weeks and book events where authors are invited. I am working with several book sellers who sell my books in the hundreds at schools. Supplementary readers are often from Indian authors.
The problem, I feel, is really one of access. While more and more schools are putting in a lot of effort to get books to their students, once that push is over and children have got excited by reading, where do they go? Where do they get more information about new releases and new authors? Media and bookseller support is a must. The growing trend of local literary festivals that has been sparked by the tremendous success of the Jaipur Lit Fest sees huge numbers of school students flocking there looking to meet and hear authors and buy copies.
Today, as I proudly receive my Sahitya Akademi Bal Sahitya Puraskar Award, I am humbled as I see how far we have come in the journey of winning a deserving status for children’s literature. Think of it, the Sahitya Akademi awards have been given since the 1950s to those writing for adults. The prize for children’s writers came only in 2010. So, yes, it has been a long time coming. But it is here.
There are now wonderful writers writing about real issues, real life — the lives that young people are grappling with every day. “Unbroken” by Nandhika Nambi (Duckbill) and “Slightly Burnt” by Payal Dhar (Bloomsbury) are wonderful books that are important in marking the paths of children’s literature in the modern context.
I speak, of course, only of Indian literature in English. There was a time when I could speak with some authority about the Indian languages but can no longer claim adequate knowledge. However, sitting on the stage to receive the Bal Sahitya Puraskar by Sahitya Akademi, I was so proud to be with other winners from 23 other languages, including Santhali, Manipuri, Dogri and others. It is important that our Indian languages and young literature in them are equally experimental, equally brave and path-breaking.
Yes, there is a place for mythology and folk tales. There is room for monsters and rakshasas, but there is also room for the monsters that inhabit our real world. The issues of dichotomy and prejudice. There is space for children to read about the issues that are already impacting them on an everyday basis as well as issues that they should know about. There is a time for fantasy and there is a time for truth. The fantasy has always been there. It’s time to put a little truth and trust in the hands of our young.
(Paro Anand is author of 18 books for children and young adults who headed the National Centre for Children’s Literature, National Book Trust)