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Excerpts from an interview with Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers by Sanjitha Rao Chaini for Businessworld, March 2016
Sanjitha Rao Chaini: How did the idea of starting Tulika Books come to you?
Radhika Menon: As a teacher at the J Krishnamurthi school in Chennai and later Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi, I was very interested in finding ways of engaging children imaginatively while teaching. And children’s books, too, are really about that – engaging the child in a creative world of words and pictures. This and my interest in publishing itself led me to start Tulika. Once I had gained some experience in pre-press and production I was ready to start publishing children’s books – which is what I did.
SRC: The Indian book market is the sixth-largest in the world, according to a Nielsen study. However, children's books by Indian authors are still to take off in a big way in India. Your views.
RM: There is probably not the same buzz as in the West about children’s books if that is the yardstick used to judge the impact of children’s books by Indian authors. Rupa Pai’s The Gita for Children sold 20,000 in a few months of publishing and will probably sell five times that in a year. Ruskin Bond, Devdutt Pattanaik, Payal Kapadia (Horrid High series) probably sell as much or more. The bigger publishers do sell 30-40,000 of top-selling titles. As for picture books, especially in regional languages, my estimate is that they could sell as many as 2-3 lakh in a year if there were government orders. But these don’t even figure when discussing market trends!
SRC: What is your view on non-fiction story books for kids? For example, how is Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who asked Why selling as opposed to a fiction title?
RM: Non-fiction for children is considered educational and even boring compared to fiction. This is because we see them as ‘information’ books – which, by the way are top selling books in the Indian market. The more packed with facts and figures the better they sell.
Tulika’s has been a very different approach. Books like Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why and My Gandhi Story – to name a couple of picture books for the 6 to 8 age group – are narrative non-fiction which have all the elements of a story. The author finds a peg, connects facts and constructs a narrative with a strong voice and emotional tone, without making anything up. Books for older children like The House That Sonabai Built, Stitching Stories, Cave Art etc too are narrative non-fiction for an older age group. The reader gets much more from such books than mere facts and descriptions.
Even in information focused books like Excavating History – India Through Archaeology and others planned in the series, we have to first arrive at a structure for the book – both for visuals and texts. These books have several strands of information along with illustrations, photographs, information graphics, etc which have to be woven together in a fine balance to give the complete picture on a particular topic.
What comes to my mind here is a non-fiction writer, whose name I didn’t remember quoting Dr Seuss from Cat in the Hat to describe very aptly the process of putting a non-fiction book together.
“Look at me!
Look at me now!” said the cat.
“With a cup and a cake
On the top of my hat!
I can hold up TWO books!
I can hold up the fish!
And a little toy ship!
And some milk on a dish!”
SRC: Pratham has launched an online story telling portal Storyweaver.org. Do you have plans of launching a portal with your stories in it?
RM: No we don’t. Pratham’s is a very different publishing approach and generating stories the way they do doesn’t work for us. But it is a fantastic resource and a great portfolio of writers, illustrators and translators on a hugely popular site.
SRC: What are the guidelines in choosing a manuscript at Tulika? Your advice to those venturing into children's book publishing...
RM: In a nutshell, original ideas are what we look for in any kind of book that we do. But there are other criteria like stories that offer strong visual possibilities, settings or characters that are not the usual in children’s books, offbeat themes and so on. Good writing does override sometimes because that is not something we come across much unfortunately – especially in picture books.
SRC: Your list of must-read books for children – 5 Tulika books and 5 non-Tulika books.
RM: This is a very difficult question. There are so many reasons why a children’s book is a must read. In the Tulika list I have had to leave out many must reads! As for other publisher’s books I have not read many especially the recent ones. So it is hardly a fair selection!