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Children’s literature market busts many myths, to get an ovation at the upcoming New Delhi World Book Fair

Archana Khare Ghose, TNN | Jan 31, 2014, 08.39PM IST

The upcoming New Delhi World Book Fair – scheduled to be held at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi from February 15 to 23 – has children’s literature as its theme.

Five-year-old Ayush boasts of a library of his own. It is peopled by authors, largely foreign, and characters, equally foreign. But, what's important is that he not only takes pride in his own personal library - as opposed to his parents' - but also loves to open a book on his lap on a quiet afternoon when he sees his mother do the same.

But is Ayush a rare Indian child who does not sprawl himself in front of the television and picks up a book to read instead? Popular opinion would say, 'yes', because it is generally believed that children are no longer reading as they used to a few generations ago. But if one were to ask the book world insiders, and go by sketchy industry figures, children's publishing is exploding with possibilities, just as is the case with publishing in general in the country. As far as children's literature is concerned, "the field is growing at a nervous speed each day," says Tultul Biswas of Eklavya, the well-known Bhopal-based NGO working for social change through meaningful education with a robust publication arm.

Biswas adds, "There have been unsubstantiated claims that the children's segment of the Indian publishing industry is growing at a rate of about 20% per year." She informs that in July 2012, the German Book Office brought out a document for the Frankfurt Book Fair which pegged the growth rate of the Indian publishing industry at 15% whereas FICCI estimates put the industry CAGR (Compounded Annual Growth Rate) at 30%. Unfortunately, there is no industry report on the dynamics of children's books market.

No wonder, the upcoming New Delhi World Book Fair - scheduled to be held at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi from February 15 to 23 - has children's literature as its theme. The fair director, M A Sikander, who is also the director of the organising body, the National Book Trust ( NBT) is hoping children will come in large numbers to soak up the edition of the fair dedicated to them. "Children's books have always been a huge attraction in other editions of the fair too but since this one has children's literature as its theme, we will be organising some fascinating activities for children and our young readers. For instance, the Illustrator's Corner will shed light on the very important aspect of a children's book, the illustration. Besides, we will have Ruskin Bond, the most popular Indian author who has written extensively for children, inaugurating the fair."

A big chunk of the total of 1,070 exhibitors at the fair will comprise children's book publishers, reflecting the energy being experienced by the segment in general. The scenario busts the myth that children are not reading anymore, or that children are not reading much due to easy access to alternative - and more dramatic - means of entertainment.


Author Paro Anand, who has written nearly two dozen books for children and young adults, says, "Children are reading a lot more. There is greater sensitisation towards books today, both amongst the parents and schools, than before. I can cite my own example - earlier it used to be difficult to convince people about book reading sessions, while today, I get a minimum of four calls daily to be a part of some such reading session." Concurs another popular children's author Deepa Agarwal, who has published over 50 books: "There is definitely more awareness about books amongst parents and children, and schools are more forthcoming than before. The schools are realising the importance of extra-curricular reading."

A big reason for the overall growth in children's literature can be attributed to the growing middle class, with more disposable income to spend on the younger generation, reasons Hemali Sodhi of Penguin, the largest English language publisher in the subcontinent. Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar, feels that the growth owes a lot to the growth of Indian population, even as she emphasises that the growth of the segment is miniscule compared to the growth of the population.

While Anand and Agarwal believe that the CBSE's decision to recommend an additional reading list has played a role in initiating many newcomers to the world of story books, Eklavya's Biswas feels that there have been no matching efforts in energising the school libraries or orienting teachers towards book selection. She adds, "Besides, there have also been efforts by groups such as Eklavya, NCERT, Zubaan and others in bringing out a best books catalogue, but the educational sector has to move beyond using these lists to order books for their oft-closed libraries."

Despite the misgivings, the perceptible growth wouldn't have been possible had the publishing world - authors as well as publishers - not upgraded their offering to stay in step with the changing tastes of the young readers

"There is definitely a trend of pushing boundaries," says Anand. "Earlier, children's literature was pretty much restricted to either folk tales or retelling of stories that may not be written for children specifically but were considered suitable for them. Now, there is greater sensitisation towards writing specifically for children. Especially in the English language, publishers are not shying away from taboo topics and authors too are writing keeping the new realities in mind, including social networking," she adds. A case in point is Anand's critically acclaimed book, 'No Guns At My Son's Funeral'. The protagonist of the book set in Kashmir is a young boy who dies and his sister, a minor, lives with terrorists. "It was not considered acceptable yet the book was published. We took suggestions from school principals about the title and they seemed apprehensive, but the publisher did go ahead with the title."

All the excitement in the world of children's literature, however, is restricted to the additional reading segment, which is but a negligible part of an average child's daily read. Zaidi says that serious and sustained attention is needed in the segment of text books, which is what every school-going child reads, irrespective of social standing or personal preferences. "Text books are often looked down upon but these are very crucial for children between 5 and 18 years of age when they are at their formative stage and when even those who do not like to read books have to read their text books. Text books should be made interesting enough for a child to pick those up and read. Besides tackling the horrific corruption that goes on in the name of publishing text books, we need an Agmark/ ISI kind of thing for quality control of text books," says Zaidi.

Then, there is the impact of digital world on book publishing and reading habits, which Sikander, however, feels is over-rated. "Given internet penetration in India, it's too early to feel the full bearing of digitalisation in publishing and reading. The phenomenon is highly restricted," he says. Zaidi, on the other hand, feels that the medium shouldn't matter as long as the children are reading. Agarwal, who is also a grandmother, says that though the digitalisation of books has been a phenomenon that came later than her writing, she is not averse to it and finds it extremely useful in preserving her out-of-print books.

That pretty much sums up the debate on children's reading habit and why it would never go out of fashion, even if it undertakes a technological leap every few centuries.

The YA (Young Adult) genre

The Young Adult genre is one of the most exciting spaces of publishing today the world over, including India where it is in a nascent stage. The term Young Adult, popularly known as YA, was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), in 1960s. The YALSA is an arm of the American Library Association and is a network of librarians, library workers and advocates whose mission is to strengthen library services for teens, from 12 to 18 years of age. Right now, the book industry is supposed to be going through its second golden age of the YA genre, according to a past president of YALSA and columnist, Michael Cart.

In India, most of the publishing houses have already set up separate imprints for books for this age group. Some examples are Inked by Penguin, Red Turtle by Rupa and Harper Teen of Harper Collins. Says Hemali Sodhi of Penguin, "This genre is seeing a great spurt in fiction writing and we are bound to see success in future." Author Deepa Agarwal feels that the genre bodes well for itself as, "the readers in this age group always needed books specifically directed at them - something which was more mature than children's fiction though not completely adult either." The most interesting thing about this genre is that the authorship is not restricted to adult writers alone; it is as much by Young Adults as it is for Young Adults.

However, the YA excitement is largely restricted to English language publishing in India, with other Indian languages hardly touched by its distinctness. Says Tultul Biswas of Eklavya, "In some languages like Bangla and Malayalam, there has been a long tradition of books for this age group. In Hindi, though, the contours of this genre are still a bit hazy."

India versus Bharat in children's publishing

The world of children's books in India seems to be divided into distinct compartments - one that is more vocal, active and dynamic and the other that is yet to catch up on the miles already covered by the former. It must not be difficult to guess that we are referring to publishing in English and Indian languages for children respectively. The one is India and the other is Bharat and the two have very different identities.

Most of the enthusiasm related to children's books takes place in English as the language is backed by various power groups of the society. The exceptions are Bangla, Tamil, Marathi and Malayalam, which have strong publishing and reading traditions. Hindi, in comparison, cuts a sorry figure given its stature as the majority language of the country.

Atiya Zaidi of Ratnasagar says that lethargy in Hindi has a lot to do with the mindset. She says, "We brought out an excellent reader series in Hindi but it didn't find favour with the school teachers as they wanted straight-jacket books which would have sentences such as - 'Suresh ek achcha ladka hai. Wo pratah kaal mein apne mata pita ke pair chhoota hai...' They are still stuck in an outdated outlook."

Agrees author Deepa Agarwal: "Hindi writers will have to get over the writing idiom of ending a story with a moral teaching." She adds that Hindi writers will also have to understand that reading can be purely for fun and leisure and need not necessarily flaunt a lofty ideal.

If the Hindi book world doesn't pull its socks now, it stands to lose out on the economic gains of the growing publishing industry. After all, India is the only country in the world where the industry continues to post a positive growth rate. Better late than never.