What is Quality? Promoting Excellence in Children's Books

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers

As committed publishers, quality and excellence in children’s books is something we all strive to achieve. More precisely, quality in both form and content. The challenge that faces publishers, especially in the international context, is the differing perceptions of quality. What are those standards? Who sets the standards? How fair and how realistic are they? Given the disparities among regions in the world, can we possibly pass an absolute judgement in terms of quality?

          Multiculturalism is the buzzword in international children’s publishing today. Publishers, editors, writers, illustrators, teachers seem to speak in one voice about reading books from everywhere, about sharing stories that help us understand ourselves better and therefore understand those who appear different. What we assume from this is that there is a continuous exchange of books between countries – between east and west, north and south. Books that maintain high standards of quality, both in production and content.

          Multicultural books, we also assume, would be about stories from a particular culture, written in a language and style that is familiar to that culture, illustrated in a style inspired by the traditions and colours of art in the region – even when the interpretation is contemporary and produced so that the book is visually attractive and durable in the hands of the young readers. In other words, a book where the story rings true and is well-rendered, which is printed in full colour where required, on the best available paper, and bound so that it lasts.

          But this is also where the ‘problem’ arises with regard to quality. Quite often, if the books are about stories that don’t reflect the popular notions about a particular culture, if use of the English language is different (though in reality more authentic to the region), if the pictures don’t conform to what is seen by others as representative of the place, if the colours are different from what the international market is used to seeing in children’s books, then the books usually fail the quality test in the international marketplace.

         The regional aspect is equally important in terms of production. Publishers in less affluent countries are only too aware of the high standards of production so accessible to western publishers, and of the care and meticulousness of their production. They are conscious, too, of having to match that quality with the production resources that are available to them in their own countries. A lot of the resources are available, but they are restricted by limitations or, more accurately, regional variations – such as in quality of paper (not as white, or as glossy), sizes of the books which depend on paper and press, thickness of the board and so on. Added to that is the constraint of having to keep a special eye on the price of the book, given the buying power of the local market. The challenge publishers face – and attempt to overcome – in these circumstances is to be realistic about costs without compromising quality.

          Very often, however, that quality is not quite the one demanded in the international market. Which brings us back to the question – who sets the standards, and can there be any one fair set of standards to judge excellence? Multiculturalism demands an openness in perception . . . in all matters. Young readers will be able to engage in its true spirit only when there is an acceptance and appreciation of books that are different not merely in story and setting but in looks, feel and tone. Unless the publishing world allows for those differences, multiculturalism in children’s books will remain mere tokenism. We have to have the faith that books enjoyed and rated highly somewhere are good books everywhere. That is the true test of quality that the ‘international’ publishing world needs to understand, accept and work towards.