Obedient, docile characters that preached are a thing of the past in children’s literature. Now, protagonists of children’s books are ‘real’ characters, who deal with action, adventure and dilemmas on a daily basis.
By Ananaya Banerjee
One would think that with India’s legacy of oral storytelling, noticeable in most Indian families, children in the country would never have to look elsewhere forreading material. But when the buck stopped at the likes of the otherwise hugelypopular Panchatantra and AmarChitra Katha,where stories lacked variety and were always sermonising and preaching, children found excitement in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five,CarolynKeene’sNancy DrewandRichmal Crompton’s The JustWilliam series,latergraduating to WE Jones’Biggles,authors like Perry Mason and Agatha Christie, and the imprint that drew the most flak from traditionalists: Mills&Boonromances.Thesebookswerepure fun and introduced children andyoung adults to a different spectrum of culture altogether, whichwas a noveltyin an agewhere the Internet didn’t exist even in science-fiction. Not much later,the same children grewup to write stories that ushered in a new era of Indianwriting in English,as a legacyto maybe Ruskin Bond.Bond,one of the best influences from India who wrote The Blue Umbrella and the iconic Rusty series, taught children that dragons and fairies can exist ifyouwant them to,byweaving magic in his stories. The new wave managed to create a literary space where authors found ways of exploring what they wanted to tell children without being too overbearing. Western influences like JKRowling’sHarry Potter series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series created tremendous uproar internationally and paved the wayfor Indian authors like Arundhati Venkatesh, Natasha Sharma and Anushka Ravishankar. In fact,Ravishankar, a much-loved author of children’s books, has spoken publicly about how there’s a need for Indian authors to be recognised with more reviews and accolades to help bring their names into the mainstream. With the wave of new writers came a slew of independent publishers and imprints for children’s books,like RedTurtle,Duckbill,etc, offering not only books, but digital material as well,which has become a norm today. Compelling and distinctive, with offbeat ideas, contemporary themes and full of humour, these books by contemporaryauthors have mythological heroes,literary zombies, space-travelling pumpkins, singing monsters and time-telling superdogs.
Obedient, docile characters that preached are a thing of the past. Now, the protagonists of children’s books are ‘real’characters,who deal with action,adventure and dilemmas on a daily basis. And it’s refreshing to see Indian publishers move on from didactic tales to racy, edgy and slice-of-life dramas to keep readers engaged. An additional feather in publishers’ hats has been their promotion and encouragement of female protagonists, like Feodora in The Wolf Wilder and Daja Kisubo in Circle ofMagic.These characters activelyparticipate in adventures.And this trend has heavily influenced young adult fiction writing as well. Books by Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins have set a great example by depicting confident, smart, young girls out in the world. With the entry of large multinationals like Scholastic,Dorling Kindersley,Disney and a host of American comic publications in the Indian market,older and established publishing houses like Penguin Random House,HarperCollins,Frank Brothers,Ratna Sagar, Orient Longman, Macmillan and Navneet had to concentrate on their children’s books section more than ever before. They had to not only incorporate newer techniques of storytelling to keep children engaged, they also had to compete with social media and the Internet, easy detractors that could pull away readers and also affect the demand of books in the market.
Superheroes: Repackaged & rebranded
Often enough, classics are adapted and repackaged to suit current trends and cater to a newer audience,especiallywhen it comes to children’s literature.Each writer and illustrator who works on these adaptations draws inspiration from the original text and enriches it with his/her style and imagination. The biggest inspirations are superheroes whose stories have been passed down to every generation that came after their creation. DC Comics,for one,has been around since the 1930s and is known for recreating its main character, Superman, quite often. The writers at DC Comics have come out with several variations of his character—Black Superman, Blue Superman, Electric Superman— each with a different costume. Along with Batman,Wonder Woman and Flash, DC paints a picture of heroes who save people from danger,while taking refuge in their respective hidden aliases. But when publisher Martin Goodman put writer Stan Lee in charge of coming up with new characters for Marvel Comics in the Fifties, Lee changed some qualities intrinsic to the idea of superheroes.His characters didn’t need the garb of dual identities.When he made Iron Man, Thor and Deadpool, he also gave them bad tempers, vanity and disfigured bodies. This revived interest in classics and made them more relatable.Even Spiderman, who was introduced as an ordinary boy who gets bitten by an arachnid and acquires supernatural qualities,was recently turned into a character who invents gadgets to shoot webs—a far cry from an unsuspecting spider bite. Another observable change is in the dimension of the sense of fantasy,improbability and fun to maintain a connection with readers. Even Amar Chitra Katha, which has been the frontrunner in children’s literature when it comes to depiction of Indian superheroes from mythology or history, has adapted to the change.The publication house is now looking at filling gaps in its traditional comics. It is working, for instance, towards a title on Sardar Patel and will be launching Valmiki’s Ramayana in a six-volume box set in the coming months.
End of moral tales
Another,often championed,characteristic of Indian literature is the case of moral storytelling employed to teach manners,morals and a code of conduct to abide by through characters who don’t steal or lie.These characters are often praised by parents and cited as examples by teachers in schools.A seemingly simplistic setting, a male protagonist and a moral dilemma are the keyingredients of such stories,which weave theirway into a moral lesson at the end,where bad things don’t happen to good people. Even though these are the most popular kind of stories endorsed for children,more and more children are now growing detached from the idea of such characters and storylines,which have come to be replaced bya set of more engaging role models.These new heroes and heroines don’t preach. Instead, theylead byexample bygoing on adventures, slaying demons and learning a trick or two along the way. The Ruskin Bond-loving generation has given birth to books like TheMagic of the Lost Temple by SudhaMurthy,MayilWill Not Be Quiet!, a gender-sensitive book by Soumya Rajendran, and Best Friends are Forever by Richa Jha. The characters in these books deal with everydayproblems that adults encounter, finding innovative ways to solve them.They don’t impart the idea of an idealistic child winning at the end.Instead,the message they give out is about thinking differently, learning on your feet and having fun while doing so.
Adrenaline & goosebumps
Another popular genre that is lighting up nowadays is horror.Gone are the days when RL Stine’s Goosebumps scared children enough to make them check under beds or leave their night lights on while sleeping. Children nowtend to go for thrilling storylines and edgy characters like the ones in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children byRanson Riggs and Evil inDisguise byDeborah McClatchey.Achildren’s books author, McClatchey loves to write horror stories about teens with suspensful twists. She has as many as a dozen books to her credit and is quite a hit among girls. Another genre that is on fire is fantasy,which has taken off especially after the huge success of the Harry Potter series. In fact, a lot books on similar themes have benefitted from the demand of fantasy and adventure.As per Scholastic’s recent Kids & Family Reading Report, books that are replete with humour, have nail-biting adventures and feature action pieces in a non-violent way are hugely popular. Clearly,books need to be more engaging ifauthors,publishersandparentswanttheir children to keep reading.A great way to ensure the participation of children is to let them pick theirown books. Authors’ Herculean task Keeping trends in mind, it’s imperative to understandwhat challengeswriters face in catering to today’s generation.
With small attention spans and a multitude of distractions, it’s difficult to come up with a book that can compete with contemporary threats to reading. To combat these,publishing houses are now coming up with newer techniques to publish books. For instance,Tara Publishing has a book called The Hungry Lion, which has been screen-printed on handmade paper, illustrated in folk style and has been printed in German, Dutch and other languages. Another book called Hen Sparrow Turns Purple by Gita Wolf has been illustrated by Pulak Biswas and is designed like a scroll. Tulika Publishers’ Ekki Dokki, its best-selling title, is illustrated in an intriguing, contemporary folk style by Ranjan De. And Land Was Born, a tribal story, has been brilliantly illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy, adapting original folk wall paintings.After all,adults may put up with a few pages of dull or boring writing,but a child will not. He/she will drop the book and run off to his/her Xbox, iPad, etc. So one has to try and ensure that each line on each page engages the child. For author Nayanika Mahtani, that look of rapt attention when a child has connected with her story makes it worth her while. Quoting her favourite author CS Lewis,she says,“Writing a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say.”
A copywriter by day, an author by night and a full-time mother of two, NayanikaMahtaniventuredintowriting with her book, Ambushed, in 2016. Within a year,she has come up with another childrenfs title, The Gory Story of Genghis Khan: Aka Donft Mess with the Mongols, which explores whether Genghis Khan really was the evil villain that he is often made out to be. She feels that each child has his/her own likes and dislikes, much like her daughters, aged 12 and 14 years, respectively. One daughter, she says, is into crime writing, while the other prefers experimental writing with no prescribed plot.That being said, a general inclination towards action and adventure is common in most pre-highschool children,she says. Talking about her own work, Mahtani says,gGenres overlap…forinstance, fantasy,history,mystery or animal/nature-based stories could be packedwith action and adventure like myfirst book, which was set in tiger territory.My second book, too, is a fun relook at one of historyfs most feared characters.h While writing for children,she says one should write what one would like to read.gI find myself flitting between an interesting space.the child I myself was and the children I have or know,h she says. Here, Mahtani shares a few basic dos and donfts while writing for children: DOS œ Celebrate your unique take on the world œ Heed that little voice that wakes you up in the middle of the night to write that line before it goes away œ Break the rules DONfTS œ Donft underestimate your readers, especially if they happen to be children œ Donft take yourself too seriously; have fun!
The Geronimo Stilton series has gained immense popularity among young readers since its inception in 2000.Conceptualised byItalian author Elizabetta Dami,the books are based on Geronimo Stilton, a journalist and editor of The Rodent’s Gazette. Originally written in Italian, the books have now been translated in over 30 languages. The principle idea behind it was to have a character speak to the reader in the first person. Scholastic, the publisher, felt that if a character from the book came across as its author, it would resonate well with the young audience. The popularity of the books can also be attributed to the use of‘graphisms’,a format that uses multicoloured and diversefontstoconveytheliteralmeaning oftheword.Thisistohelpchildrenassociate with the meanings of the words easily and to encourage even reluctant readerstopickupabookandread.Asone of the most popular publishers for children’s books,Scholastic has found childrenmakingtheirownchoiceswhileselecting books, favouring fiction and non-fiction equally.Their head of marketing and product, India, Shantanu Duttagupta,saystheirmantraissimple: “Trynot to playit too safe.”
A 50-YEAR-OLD initiative, Amar Chitra Katha comics have been the mainstay of historical and mythological knowledge for most Indian children. The English was simple, the visuals had characters with sharp features; buxom,fairwomen,and tall, angular-faced men.The children loved them, and even adults didn’t mind reading the comics. While their basic offerings have not changed over the years, focusing on historical and mythological figures, digitalisation and things like a series forveryyoung children are their attempts to be contemporary. Despite accusations of being stereotypical, the series continues to flourish, with digitalisation giving the comics a more global reach. “Our mythology titles sell very strongly.We believe that we are at the forefront of telling Indian stories because our readers relate to the integrity, passion and art of that storytelling form,”saysAnuraag Agarwal, CEO, Amar Chitra Katha.