Children’s books have always been synonymous with fiction. The make-believe world of fantasy, mythology, adventure and thrill has fascinated children since time immemorial. From JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland to JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the various adventures by Enid Blyton, we have all grown up reading a variety of fiction. Children these days, in fact, have much more to be hooked on to—think Geronimo Stilton, The Wimpy Kid, works by Neil Gaiman and Rick Riordan, to name just a few. The wide variety of comics—Tintin, Asterix, Chacha Chaudhary, Manga, etc—are another genre loved not only by children, but adults as well. And who can forget the immensely popular Amar Chitra Katha, which brought alive the lives of historical and inspiring personalities? A perfect example of entertainment coupled with information.
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But the latest trend these days, which is giving the above genres strict competition in kids’ literature, are books with a message. Think of any topic, in fact, and you can find a children’s book on it. Be it gender equality, personal hygiene, sorrow, women empowerment, mental well-being, sex education, death or even adoption, there are books out there aiming to help children navigate life’s many challenges. Take, for instance, Paro Anand’s The Other: Stories of Difference. The short story collection has multiple tales like that of a differently-abled boy infatuated with a classmate, among others. Then there is Red by Sagar Kolwankar, a picture book, which narrates how armed conflict wreaks havoc in a child’s world.
In short, it perhaps wouldn’t be wrong to say that the children’s books genre in the country is showing signs of growing up, encompassing rarely-talked-about issues and doling out pertinent advice to children on how to deal with these. Today, if you browse through any kids’ bookstore, you will find various works on serious issues lining the shelves. While Nandana Sen’s In My Heart explores adoption, Ritu Vaishnav’s picture book Pink and Blue attempts to sensitise kids about gender stereotypes. Another picture book The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan talks about death and bereavement. Then there is Puu by CG Salamander and Samidha Gunjal, which deals with caste discrimination. There are others as well, which send across important messages for children through both text and illustrations. Anju Kish’s How I Got My Belly Button, for one, tries to initiate a conversation between parents and children about sex education by giving more importance to the word ‘education’ and less to sex, while The Girl Who Went To The Stars, written and illustrated by Ishita Jain and Naomi Kundu, introduces children to Indian women achievers such as astronaut Kalpana Chawla, journalist Prabha Dutt and writer Ismat Chughtai who dared to dream and pursued their passions.
There are certain issues, however, that Indian parents still tiptoe around when it comes to discussing them with their children. Sex education would perhaps top that list. Rarely discussed, it is nevertheless a very important issue that every child should be introduced to. But there are some parents who think their children are too young for such topics. New Delhi-based risk and compliance professional Shreya Sharma, who chooses books for her seven-year-old daughter Vaanya herself, is one of them. Sharma believes her child is not ready yet to comprehend issues like sex education, death or adoption. “When she is 10 or 11, then I would prefer to buy such content,” says the 37-year-old. She, however, encourages Vaanya to read about topics such as human evolution, ancient cultures and civilisations, planets and galaxies, extraterrestrials, etc. As per Sharma, Vaanya is deeply intrigued by mummies, pyramids, aliens and the concept of life outside the solar system.
Not all parents, however, choose books for their kids. Bengaluru-based writer Paritosh Kumar, for instance, lets his four-year-old son Prashast choose what he wants to read. However, “he’s always open to suggestions. There are times when we buy him books and he doesn’t mind reading them,” says the 36-year-old, adding that he also encourages his son to read graphic novels and comics. “But as long as he is reading, I don’t mind anything… just that the books shouldn’t have vulgar, obscene or violent content,” says Kumar, adding that Prashast these days loves reading Dr Seuss and Captain Underpants.
As far as books on serious topics are concerned, Kumar has no qualms about his son reading about issues like death, adoption, sex education, caste discrimination, etc, but only when he is a little older. “Now would be too early for him to be reading such books… I don’t mind him reading books like these as long as he can understand them,” he says.
Fiction as the medium
The fact that children like Vaanya and Prashast still lean towards fiction proves that the genre will always remain popular. Although fiction has a tendency to sugarcoat reality, it can’t be denied that books like Harry Potter have revolutionised children’s literature. It’s no wonder then that some authors are cleverly combining non-fiction with fiction to make informative topics more palatable for children. These authors believe that fictional characters go a long way in explaining non-fiction to young readers, as these characters have great recall value. Festival Stories: Through the Year by Rachna Chabbria is a perfect example of this. The book explains the stories behind India’s various festivals through two young twins Natasha and Nikhil, as they experience an entire year of festivals and celebrations. “When my editor at HarperCollins pitched the idea of a festival book to me, the first thing I told her was that a non-fiction book on this topic may not work. We brainstormed and decided to create characters who would take readers through a year full of festivals,” recalls Chabbria, adding, “Readers can celebrate our country’s cultural diversity along with these curious twins who jot down every detail in their blog and journal,” says Chabbria.
Tapping in on the fact that children love to imagine a world that existed millions of years ago, authors are also writing on subjects like evolution, extinction and even climate change in the guise of a story for kids. Take, for instance, Vaishali Shroff’s The Adventures of Padma and a Blue Dinosaur, which not only educates children about dinosaurs, but also provides information on how they can become palaeontologists. Interestingly, the book focuses only on dinosaurs that lived in India more than 65 million years ago—a refreshing change from the hundreds of books on dinosaurs available for kids but none focused on India. In short, The Adventures of Padma… is an effort to make children in the country aware of the country’s rich fossil heritage. “We can’t deny the popularity of dinosaurs among children across the world. Dinosaurs are unlike any other creature they have ever heard about… the Jurassic Park franchise, too, has done its bit by making them very realistic,” says Shroff.
For those authors, though, who are taking the road less travelled and using only non-fiction to get the message across to children, it’s a decision taken out of a sense of responsibility. Take, for instance, Jain and Kundu, authors of The Girl Who Went To The Stars, a book on feminism and gender equality. “We wanted to emphasise that while there are both men and women who are doing amazing things in our country, historically, it has always been harder for women to do something that is considered normal for a man,” says Kundu.
Agrees co-author Jain: “As young kids in school, we were barely introduced to female authors, artists or scientists from India. There were a few famous names and that was it… As a section of society that hasn’t always had a chance to be heard, it’s time to bombard the world with stories of women who have made so much possible for us today. There will come a day when we don’t have to talk exclusively about women’s stories, but we are still working hard to see that day.”
Sex education is another throny issue in the country that faces a lot of societal hurdles. When author Kish, in fact, sent out a proposal for her book, How I Got My Belly Button, to publishing houses, she received many rejection emails, saying it’s a sensitive topic and they would rather not touch it at the moment. It was finally Om Publications that gave her an enthusiastic response and signed her on. “Age-appropriate sex education never corrupts. It empowers children to keep themselves safe, form the right attitude and have healthy relationships,” says Kish, adding, “I have seen the resistance to this topic give way to helplessness. Parents want to talk to their children, but don’t know how. I hope my book will help plug that gap.”
Publishers, on their part, have to be mindful of the fact that these books can’t be aggressive or overtly harsh. “The subtler the messaging and less didactic the tone, the more likely it is that a child will engage with the story and pick up the hidden nuances within it,” says Tina Narang, publisher, children’s books, HarperCollins India.
Narang is happy about the evolution that children’s publishing has undergone in the country in the past few years, with authors writing with greater confidence now on lesser explored topics and publishers, too, backing them up. It’s not surprising then that these books have now started getting the attention they deserve in the media, as well as at children’s literature festivals in the form of awards. Narang attributes the reason behind this to the need to make children more empathetic and sensitive today. “Like authors, publishers, too, believe that this can be achieved through stories that deal with tough subjects such as diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism and so on,” she says.
Other publishers, too, are seeing great merit in the genre. Penguin Random House India’s books like In My Heart, Pink and Blue and The Ammuchi Puchi all deal with contemporary and relatable issues, serving as conversation-starters for young readers, sensitising them to issues that are often thought of as taboo or too serious for them. “It’s great stories that move you. Therefore, it’s critical to have a really engaging narrative and endearing characters who leave a mark,” says Sohini Mitra, associate publisher, children and young adults, Penguin Random House India.
Scholastic India, too, has seen a significant rise in the number of kids’ manuscripts with a message in the past couple of years. “It’s true that books with a message have suddenly caught the imagination of children’s publishers, as well as parents, who have now become more open to talking about sensitive issues with their children and are more invested in bringing up their child with a broad holistic understanding of the world and life,” says Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India. “The boom in this trend proves that children want to read books that mirror their life in a way, and not just books that allow them to escape their world for a while,” he adds.