Children’s Books in Indian Languages – Old Ideas, New Initiatives

The picture that emerges is that there is a huge demand for books in different Indian languages and the real problem is how readers can access them. That’s where libraries step in – November 2011


Children’s Books in Indian Languages – Old Ideas, New Initiatives

Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers

for the Early Literacy Initiative – November 2011

Facts and figures about children’s publishing in regional languages are riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, we read reports about falling figures in regional language publishing because of a lack of demand for books. A recent newspaper report says the sales ratio is 30:70 for Hindi and English books respectively. The reason cited is that parents want their children to read in English rather than in Hindi as English is seen as the language of empowerment. Reports of more and more parents opting to send their children to private English medium schools corroborate this picture. The conclusion, therefore, is that there are fewer readers of books in regional languages compared to English.

On the other hand, the Hindi translation of the ubiquitous Harry Potter series tells a different story. Harry Potter Aur Paaras Patthar sold 40,000 copies – phenomenal numbers for an Indian fiction title even in English! The latest in the series, Harry Potter Aur Mayapanchi Ka Samooh, is reported to have sold 5000 copies in the first three weeks of its release. But this, you might say, is because Hindi is so widely spread and the figures themselves are not just a little transformed by the Harry Potter magic.

Maybe the Granthayan example in Maharashtra gives us a more realistic picture, in this case of Marathi books, with its market restricted to Maharashtra. Granthayan is a publishing and distribution company which is changing book selling in the state. With a fleet of ten mobile bookstores, the vans fitted with GPS and satellite-linked point-of-sale software, Granthayan sold 75,000 books across the state over 50 days. More than 70 per cent of them were in Marathi.

There are similar stories from elsewhere. In Kerala, for instance, figures show that Malayalam book sales are growing by 30 per cent every year. Kerala has always had a grassroots publishing and distribution network and a strong library movement. But now, mainstream publishing houses too are tapping the rural market, going to the people with books they want to read in their own language.

If the argument is that Kerala cannot be taken as an appropriate example because of the state’s high literacy rate, let us look at neighbouring Tamil Nadu. A publishing house like New Horizon Media which was set up in 2004 is today the largest Tamil publisher in terms of the number of titles they publish and the volume of sales. New Horizon Media’s growth speaks volumes for not just the healthy state of regional language book market but also of the readership whose avid interest ranges from Salman Rushdie’s fiction to Ramachandra Guha’s non-fiction.

What these trends are indicative of is a growing readership in regional languages corresponding to the growth in literacy levels year by year. These figures are for general books, a small percentage of which is children’s books.

But the children’s book market too shows the same trends. Tulika’s own experience of publishing children’s books in eight Indian languages apart from English, reflects this quite dramatically. It is the Indian language books that account for the bulk of the sales with approximately 75 per cent of the overall print run being in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi and Bangla, and only about 25 per cent in English. These figures for a small publishing house without distribution infrastructure in the regional language market clearly demonstrate the need and demand for good children’s books in Indian languages.

The National Youth Readership Survey covering readers from 13 years to 36 across the country and published by NBT and NCAER throws light on this phenomenon. Its most startling finding is that 47 per cent of youth readers are urban while 53 per cent are rural. Yet, English media reports will have us believe that English language publishing is thriving while regional language publishing is dying. The reports are based on figures from the large chain bookstores in the country, which in any case are out of touch with much of Indian publishing in English or in regional languages, choosing as they do to showcase big brand publishing and western imports. 

The survey also shows that Hindi is the most preferred language for leisure time reading followed by Marathi, Bangla and only then English! The report concludes that despite English being seen as the language of empowerment and upward mobility, the mother tongue continues to be the preferred language of young readers. It points out that 87 per cent of Hindi readers are native speakers while 94 per cent of Marathi readers are Marathi speaking. While English is the third choice in urban areas, it doesn’t figure in the top ten choices in rural areas!

More than 90 per cent of youth readers said they sourced their books from public libraries, community libraries and school libraries. About 83 per cent said that reading hour in school played a very important part in getting them interested in reading and that teachers were a big influence.

The picture that emerges is that there is a huge demand for books in different Indian languages and the real problem is how readers can access them. This readership depends on libraries in schools, colleges and in the neighbourhood rather than on book stores or book fairs for books.

The initiatives outlined in the recently drafted National Book Policy 2011 seem to respond to this need for books and libraries. To quote:

The Library Movement will be harnessed to the cause of Book Promotion. Each library will act as a nodal agency for propagating the cause of books and their widest possible access.

It goes on to say that libraries should be set up in pre-school, primary and elementary schools across the country and that all public libraries should have a children’s section and a section for the differently-abled.

However, these are not new initiatives. In the past few years, state and central governments have allocated significant amounts to buy books for school libraries under numerous schemes. Unfortunately the processes involved in selecting, ordering and paying defeat the objective. The large-scale corruption involved acts as a deterrent to most professional publishers who have the best books to offer in the various languages and categories. They keep away from book submissions if and when they come to know of them, because of their helplessness in dealing with the hostile government machinery. This leaves the field open to unscrupulous local publishers who form a nexus with officials in the concerned departments, ranging from top level officials to junior clerical staff all wanting to line their pockets.

The methods adopted for hijacking the huge funds range from getting the same books ordered year after year by changing just the title and copyright page, to raising invoices and collecting money with not a single book being bought or sold! Unfortunately even sincere efforts—and there have been many initiated by committed government officials —to select books on merit run into difficulties as soon as a scheme is announced and unscrupulous commercial operators take over.

Some of us who have had the experience of dealing with government buying and faced these difficulties ourselves have decided to come together in an organized manner to tackle these problems collectively. The group is called Pag-e (Publishers Action Group—Ensuring quality books for children). The members of the core group publish in several languages and have a deep commitment to quality books for children and professional ethics. A&A Book Trust, Gurgaon; Arvind Kumar Publishers, Gurgaon; Anwesha, Guwahati; Centre for Learning Resources, Pune; Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi; Eklavya, Bhopal; Katha, New Delhi; Pratham Books, Bangalore; Room to Read, India, New Delhi and Tulika Publishers, Chennai form the core group of Pag-e.

One of the first tasks Pag-e has set itself is to inform policy-makers, educational departments, media and others about the good books for children available in various Indian languages from not just the member publishers but other publishers too. Pag-e has not missed an opportunity in the short period since it was formed, to bring to the notice of senior officials the lack of transparency in selection processes in some schemes for which there has been a call for submission of books. We have actively sought meetings with various departments involved in library and school buying. Having collective stands to display books at book fairs is also on the agenda and the first such initiative will be seen at the children’s book fair in Delhi during National Book Week (November 14-20) organized by NBT. Pag-e will be working with NBT to promote the book fair and invite media and government departments to visit.

We hope that such initiatives will create awareness of both the good books being published in different languages as well as the hurdles in reaching these books to children in government schools who have no access to books of any kind. By raising a collective voice against all that is wrong in the system, Pag-e hopes to institute the best practices of selecting and buying books for children in different languages.

Such an initiative will also, we hope, encourage the publishing of good, imaginative books for children in different languages and in different genres. A lot more books are needed to meet the requirements of a growing readership—from pre-primary to young adult. The figures are dismal—India publishes 3 books for every 100 children while in UK it is 6 books for every child! 

The challenge is also to rethink the conventional, often didactic content that typifies books in regional languages. Books have to offer content that appeals to children growing up in a world of television, films and mobile phones where words and visuals come together in enticing and exciting ways. Books for children have to reflect the diversity of language, images, people and places, real and imagined, in the world they inhabit, and not be frozen in preconceived notions of morals and lessons.