Children’s literature in Indian Languages

Is children’s publishing in India seeing an increasing demand in the regional languages? – July 2019 

Children’s literature in Indian Languages

Interview with Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers

by Ruth Dsouza Prabhu for the article ‘Children’s literature in India undergoes revolution as publishers experiment with regional languages, genres’ in First Post, July 2019

RDP: What are the benefits of having books for children in regional languages? 

Besides the benefits for children, does society in general benefit in any way?

RM: There is a lot of research to show how children who learn in their own languages in the early years have stronger language skills, whether it is oral, reading or writing skills. The advantages are not only social and cultural but also cognitive and intellectual. It naturally follows that these individual strengths will collectively empower society.

RDP: Children's literature in regional languages – the efforts have been there but are 

there truly any takers, particularly in a nation keen on English medium schooling? What is the motivation to buy or read these books?

RM: We forget that the majority of children don’t have a choice. They learn in the regional language – which is not necessarily their first language – and they are drawn to books in the language they learn in school. English is still far off despite efforts in some states to introduce English in the primary classes itself. With little exposure and knowledge, the teachers struggle to teach and children are even more distanced even intimidated by the language.

Having said that, I think children’s picture books in an even remotely familiar language can be far less threatening to a child. They make a language accessible through simple text and pictures that offer a lot of visual clues that help them understand the story.

RDP: Where is the demand for regional language books – is it in the urban middle 

class, the villages, or even NRIs looking for a way to connect their children to their Indian roots?

RM: The biggest demand is from NGOs working with government schools, community libraries, activity centres, etc. The state governments, too, procure a large number of books in the regional languages. Though the system is almost impossible for independent publishers like us to deal with, the demand is definitely there – much more than for books in English. The urban middle class market and the NRI market are very small but they are there and Tulika has a strong customer base there.

RDP: Children's literature in English has evolved a bit – from being preachy, moral-
based, rooted deeply in ancient culture and heritage. Has the same happened with regional language children's literature? Is that really a factor that drives demand for them? What drives the demand for these books?

Tulika is a multilingual publisher and we translate books, mainly from English into eight other Indian languages simultaneously – Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Bangla, Gujarati and Marathi. They are books with contemporary themes and retellings and are very popular, going by the feedback we get. The same books that are very popular in English among privileged, English speaking children are favourites among the less privileged children too. So clearly children respond to good quality books with well told stories and good illustrations.

RDP: Children's literature in India is still an evolving genre, with the focus being 
primarily on English pop literature and international bestsellers in the genre. Where do regional children's books stand in this? What is needed to bring the focus on them? What can the media, publishers, book buyers, bookstores do?

RM: We are talking of very different markets here. Regional book markets are big and there it is the specific language books that dominate. And if we look at numbers of each title sold it will be greater in the regional languages. But in the English bookstores in cities it is English that sells more. These bookstores don’t even keep Indian language books. But things have changed and there is more awareness for the need for books in other languages. Some bookstores have started keeping them in small quantities. It is a beginning!

Media can do a lot to increase awareness and raise the profile of regional language books but we struggle to get any kind of space in the media even for English books. But social media has helped and there are some sites that are actively promoting Indian language books. For example, there is Eli Puli and Tamil With Love (both from Singapore) that are actively promoting Tamil books, and Tulika’s Tamil books are rated very highly on them.

RDP: Has going online been able to be push sales for regional books?

 RM: Yes, definitely.

RDP: What are the kind of stories being shared in regional languages today? English books by Indian authors and smaller publishing houses often suffer from bad language from a grammatical viewpoint, regressive ideas, sexism, racism... Do regional language children's books suffer the same? How is it being remedied?

RM: That is an unfair sweeping statement! You may find the problems you talk about in some mass market books produced by publishers who don’t know and don’t care to know. In fact, some of these are perhaps the ‘big’ ones who make much more money selling books than the smaller publishing houses. Children’s writers are very aware of difficult issues and are sensitive in their writing by and large. This is true in regional language publishing houses too. There are publishing houses that are aware and publish good books and there are the bad ones with an eye to making big bucks. So the difference is between good and bad publishers whether in English or regional languages.

RDP: Can a comparison be drawn right now between mainstream Indian languages vs non-mainstream lesser in terms of popularity? 

 RM: Not sure what you mean by this. If you mean Hindi vs the rest, yes, Hindi sells far more. But in each state a different language is dominant and it sells more. The books in dialects, spoken by smaller groups sell far less. Some languages don’t have children’s books in these less dominant languages of a region. In fact, Tulika has published the first children’s book in Miju Mishmi, spoken in Arunachal Pradesh, with support from Azim Premji Foundation. We have also published two books in Mundari, a tribal language spoken in Jharkand, with the support of Tata Trusts.

RDP: What do you think is the future of children's literature in the regional languages?

RM: I can only speak from Tulika’s experience. The future of regional language children’s books is certainly looking brighter. Regional book content is in demand on digital medial platforms whether for ebooks, audiobooks or animation. This will probably have a reciprocal impact on books – the more the popularity of regional language content online the more the demand for books as we see it.