The environment in books

Responses by Deeya Nayar, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
to questions from Kanika Sharma, for the article ‘India’s kids are turning a green leaf’ in Mid-Day, Mumbai, April 2014

Kanika: When did Tulika start broaching the 'save the environment' topic in children's fiction and what was the approach when it came to the storytelling, illustration and production? 

Deeya: One of our earliest books, Andamans Boy (1998), had this idea at the heart of it. It’s an adventure story by Zai Whitaker about a boy who goes off on his own to the Andamans and ends up living with the Jarawa – a tribe threatened by the forces of ‘development’ that wants them to change their natural way of living as part of the environment because it seems ‘junglee’ to outsiders. Then we did Suresh and the Sea (also in 1998) – the actual story of fisherboy Suresh and his life by the sea. Andamans Boy was fiction, a novel for 10-plussers, with illustrations, including some of creatures found in that region.

Suresh… was non-fiction, the start of our Where I Live series, with an easy narrative style, interesting snippets of facts, and stunning black and white photos that made Suresh more immediate to readers. Each had a different approach, and we continue to vary the approach depending on what works for the particular book. Always illustrative, always the best production we can do while keeping ultimate price of the book in mind – too classy or complex a production would make it expensive and unaffordable to most children.

K: Also, was it a conscious decision considering that Tulika has the maximum number of books coming on the issue?

D: Yes, it is a conscious decision and we’re favourable to manuscripts that focus on it. There is a need to make such books available to children. It’s a challenge to make them interesting and informative at the same time, so perhaps not many children’s publishers want to get into it. We have them for all ages and in very different formats. The Seed is a hugely popular bilingual picture book that sensitises children to the wonder of plants and trees really early. There’s Birdywood Buzz and Birdywood Games – the first is a hilarious Bollywood spoof, the second a sports tournament, using real characteristics of birds – both picture books for older children. Riddle of the Ridley is an absorbing non-fiction account of how the endangered Olive Ridley turtles come to nest on beaches.

K: Is the focus more on Indian settings or does it pan to global issues?

D: Environment itself is a global issue. Some of our books are general – like Let’s Plant Trees, Let’s Catch the Rain!, The Coral Tree… Some are about environment/conservation in general, but set in India – like Bhopal Gas Tragedy (that focuses at length on one of the biggest environmental disasters ever) and our latest Ira the Little Dolphin.

Water Stories from Around the World is, as the title says, a collection of folk stories from eight different countries, around an issue that affects everyone in the world and is common to all cultures. This book is for older readers and was launched on World Water Day 2010. It was supported by Wipro’s Applying Thought in Schools programme and so it is available as a free e-book on our website.

Out of the Way! Out of the Way! Is a picture book that talks about how environment and development can happen side by side. It was among the USBBY Outstanding International Books 2013.

K: The issue being still brushed to the periphery in the public consciousness, how is the urgency instilled in the narrative for the child reader?

D: Children are naturally empathetic to the issue. So if you tell it to them simply, like a story or a creative non-fiction narrative that’s not thrust boringly on them, and make it visual, they respond. Basically, if we take the trouble to bring it to them attractively, they respond, they understand.

In Ira… the author, well known environmentalist and filmmaker Shekar Dattatri, actually spells it out – if we don’t make Chilika Lake safe for Ira and her family they’ll all die, so we should make sure that propellers of boats are covered with a guard, keep fishing nets away, not pollute the place and so on. Once he’s drawn the children into Ira’s life and antics, they’ll immediately respond to the danger of Irrawaddy dolphins being wiped out. If they go to Chilika they’re going to watch out for all the things that can harm them – for sure!

With Let’s Plant Trees, we included real seeds that children could plant. We got feedback from parents about the incredible impact on their children – how they cared for it, watched it grow. Let’s Catch the Rain has a free app that introduces rainwater harvesting to the young – you collect points for how many drops you catch, kind of thing.

K: Is the book conceived with a certain setting in mind, such as school? And anyhow, how much importance is meted out to books of this nature?   Please tell us about the icon underneath the books on the website that says 'recommended by CBSE'. 

D: The books are conceived with children of the appropriate age group in mind – not specifically for use in the classroom. But our books lend themselves to this and are increasingly finding their way into schools, possibly because teachers are becoming more open to using books other than textbooks. Also, environment education is part of the syllabus now in higher classes, and many schools/teachers see the importance of it. The ‘recommended by CBSE’ tag is just that – in the past two years, CBSE has been bringing out a list of recommended books as supplementary readers for schools, covering all publishers. Over 100 of our titles are in those lists.

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