Children's Book Publishing: Sharing Ideas and Experiences

Deeya Nayar, Radhika Menon and Sandhya Rao of Tulika Publishers
The Book Review, November 1998

"Unknown words don’t stop the child. But a boring story will.” So said Isaac Bashevis Singer, and hit spot-on the epicenter of the debate on children’s literature. What sort of books should be written for children? Are they reading enough? and the right books? Are the books themselves ‘alright’ (read politically correct)? How much should they cost? So much, just so much, has been analysed and discussed on the subject. So obsessive have these questions become that quite often the wood is missed for the trees. 

          As publishers, these issues can’t be ignored. As small-time publishers with a commitment to produce “quality books for children”, they are indeed relevant. What is important however is to keep a balance. 

          Attitudes are of course born of personal experiences. We belong to a generation fed for a while — at a most impressionable phase — on an almost exclusive diet of Enid Blyton, what else? More familiar with Kirrin Island, English boarding school life, birch trees and outdoor heather beds. Life around us probably didn’t make for good stories and never really mattered — or so it would seem. Good books happened elsewhere, usually in England. It took a good bit of adult hindsight and an actual taste of things to figure out otherwise. Which obviously inclined us to root for samosas and gulab jamuns when we got the chance. Translated into publishing language this means culturally relevant books, books within an Indian idiom.So that our children at least can grow up with a wholesome sense of identity with things Indian. Not in any overt I-Indian, my-India kind of way, but naturally. To be aware of their surroundings, their people, their country as it is today, not only their heritage. For to grow up strong in one’s own culture surely gives one the confidence to accept others open-mindedly, neither too aggressive nor defensive. Enid Blyton is a wonderful writer, and books from other countries are important. They open out whole new worlds for us. But they have to co-exist with our own books. Supplement them, not override them like in the past. 

          Ours has in a sense been a generation reacting. An understandable post-colonial phenomenon and one which we seem to share with other colonized countries, such as those in Africa. A good thing too, for it has spawned a vast amount of ethnic literature for adults and children. “People need to find themselves in the books that they read,” says Brigid Smith in The Prose and the Passion: Children and Their Reading. Regional language books have had this advantage, which is why our parents who grew up stronger in the vernacular than most of us have not faced this problem. 

          What has changed now is that English too has become as Indian a language as any other. And writing in English doesn’t anymore mean having Jill and Sam as characters in an English countryside. Nor does it mean translating regional stories in correct, simple English — with a bland pan-Indian flavour that captures nothing of the local flavour which gives it its life. For there is no ‘one type’ of Indian, no definition. There are indeed many Indians, and Indians all, that make up India.

          But all this is post analysis of what started off as pure gut-feeling at Tulika. One of the first experiments was Ekki Dokki — one of those timeless grandma’s tales in Marathi, retold most unselfconsciously in English. No heavy maxims in mind. Characters were wackily picturised as combinations of triangles. Marathi words were used where necessary, for they seemed natural. And no stuffy glossaries to put children off, or explanatory notes at the bottom of the page. We created the Wordbird, which streaked across the page explaining unfamiliar words or ideas. So we could build up an interesting new vocabulary in a most imaginative way. There is a whole new generation who speak ‘Indian’, with English as the springboard, dipping into a rich melting pot of languages all the time . . . and everyone understands.

          Like Singer said, strange words don’t matter. The story did. Parents told us how their children wouldn’t sleep without listening to Ekkesvali and Dhonkesvali’s adventure, and that was all the proof we needed. Our nose had led us on the right track! With so Indian an ambience — the story, the colours, the pictures — the appreciation from foreign publishers as well was quite encouraging. A good book obviously crosses all boundaries. But while they felt the illustrations were wonderful, they weren’t Indian enough, they said . . . meaning, not quite like our miniature paintings, with long-skirted long-haired damsels in veils? Another strange objection, that too from an organisation specialising in multi-culturalism, was the baldness of the two sisters. For Ekki (as per the story) had just one hair, Dokki had one more. Their contention that it might be upsetting for children who have had chemotherapy for cancer, and therefore insensitive, quite knocked us over! Our explanations — that the story was such, that Indian children didn’t react so, and that shaving the head was quite common in India — left them unconvinced. And enlightened us that even how we react to shaved or bald heads is so cultural!

          Yes, one has to be sensitive to hurting references to ‘bald’, ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’, especially when they apply to already unlikeable characters. That is our responsibility, particularly as children’s publishers. Yet political correctness is clearly an issue that has to be balanced, culturally and in a lot of other ways. We have to have our own guidelines; there can be no rigid rules. Hazel Rochman comments in her book, Against Borders, on what she calls the ‘PC debate’ “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in this whole multicultural debate it’s not to trust absolutes. I say something and then immediately qualify it with “And yet . . .” And it’s usually because I find a book that upsets all my neat categories. That’s what good books do: they unsettle us, make us ask questions about what we thought was certain. They don’t just reaffirm everything we already know.”           

          Succinctly put, and probably rings uncomfortable bells for most publishers. We, at least, often tie ourselves in knots trying to sort out the most seemingly innocuous issues. Particularly, perhaps with illustrations. Princess Surya, the Sun’s daughter in the folktale Eyes on the Peacock’s Tail (Under the Banyan series) a sweet, coy thing, waits garland in hand, swayamvara-style, to marry her proud peacock — and has us all up in arms! We want a ‘normal’ girl for princess, with some of her father’s fire in her. All princesses surely are not, cannot, and should not be shown to be shrinking violets. Some stereotypes have to be challenged, we were certain of that. And the artist had to rework her into the mind-of-her-own thing she is now. Then there were the ‘fairies’ in Magic Vessels (a Tamilnadu folktale, also from Under the Banyan). They were first converted into ‘tree-spirits’ (after a lot of brainstorming for the right word) for fairies had too many connotations of fair and delicate little waifs with wings — too female, also too foreign. We felt they should be darker for one thing, and unisex. That was the easy bit! What followed was heated discussions on how they should be dressed, or un-dressed. To dress them would give them a sex — we couldn’t very well have them in unisex shorts and t-shirts. There were shocked responses at our suggestion that the ‘more female’ of the spirits should be as barebodied as the others! But we stuck to our instinct, and a compromise arrived at which worked out fine, going by the feedback we’ve had. It can be done! 

          Illustrations are so important in children’s books. The problem is that good pictures cost money. Picture books, meant to facilitate reading, especially lose their point if not reproduced attractively. Good paper, printing processes, low print-runs (as with most small publishers) all add to the cost of a book. Besides it would be unfair to undervalue the work of illustrators, writers and translators. Bad enough that quality publishers constantly fight the market in prices, it is doubly disheartening when otherwise ‘enlightened’ people tell us to “keep the price between ten and fifteen rupees”. How can quality books be sold cheap? Are handcrafted things not more expensive than mass-produced ones? It is quite unfortunate that even those in the comfortable-income group, who would buy ice-creams for their children at the drop of a hat, complain about the price of a book that would last them so much longer than those ice-creams . . . not to compare the value. Nor to undermine the pleasure of eating an ice cream! 

          One certainly wishes that books could be made less expensive all round. That children’s books apart, even A Suitable Boy or God of Small Things could be bought at two hundred rupees. But given all inputs that boils down to wishful thinking. Each book has a price which should not be undervalued. Where possible, we have indeed reduced prices. For instance when Sorry, Best Friend was sponsored by Frontline magazine, Chennai, it reflected immediately in the cost of the book which dipped from Rs 72 to Rs 30 — on hindsight a bit underpriced, for we now face problems with the reprint. 

          We have been advised by the most well-meaning people to print our language books on cheaper paper. Why? Are children who choose to read in a regional language not entitled to the same quality? If we don't make our language books as attractive and well-produced as the English ones we will be defeating the very purpose of publishing in languages. The explanation that they might otherwise be inaccessible to a lot of people is only a limited side of the picture. Strangely, costs of imported books don’t seem to bother most people — a black and white teacher’s resource book is priced at Rs 200 while a four-colour profusely illustrated Hindi book with the same specifications at Rs 135 is considered exorbitant. Is it because they are the only ones deemed to be of value? 

          The mental block with language books continues with a lot of bookshops. Don’t give us vernacular books,” they say quite openly. This, when we are trying to encourage children into reading more in languages, with books as attractive as those in English. These same shops are also happy to display foreign brand-name books in their special stands, but claim to have no space for ours. But luckily, the future is not completely grey. There has been a noticeable change for the positive in the last couple of years, and there are the sympathetic ones who are very supportive. 

          The tide seems to be turning, too, with the media. Where children’s books were usually dismissed in two sentences for reviews — that is when they were reviewed at all, not dumped! — there is a growing consciousness of them as at least worth a little more detail, at least sometimes. Children’s publishing in India is yet to come of age, and the bottom line is that we need all the support we can get. But we are inching there, and on our own terms. What we still need is a strong marketing strategy overall, which catches the attention of and reaches books to the maximum number of people, within India and overseas. With this in mind Tulika launched its very own website on internet (which, incidentally, did us proud by winning an award for design!), so our books were accessible anywhere in the world. It is particularly important for there to be a flow of books from east to west. Only then can stereotypes of the so-called oriental be perceived as only that — not the reality. 

          And Land Was Born, for example, is an intriguing little-known tribal tale of creation from Central India, for which the illustrator painstakingly researched paintings Bhilalas do on mud-walls of their homes. What emerged was a wonderful blend of her talent and imagination, rooted in tradition. Yet while the book was much praised by publishers abroad, it was considered “too culturally removed” for western children (in fact we have often been surprised at the resistance to such books in India as well). The pictures were wonderful, they said — read ‘exotic’, as they should be, coming from the land of elephants and snake-charmers — but the story too “foreign”. As foreign to those children as gnomes, fairies and witches are to ours. But ours have absorbed these ideas and been the richer for it. 

          The truth is that these distinctions and debates are adult creations. Children are children the world over — curious, accepting, and very discerning in their own way. While we ponder and pontificate over the hows, whys and whats of reading, they read, making their own judgements. And as long as we ensure that they want to read, and enjoy what they read we believe we are on the right track.