I met Devika at a talk arranged by Duckbill Books in New Delhi on the eve of Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, November 2014. I was inspired her passion for letting children be – let them read what they want, if they don’t want to discuss it with parents, that’s fine, she said.
Then I met her two days later again at the Duckbill breakfast and we’ve been in touch via social media. When I started discussing books from India, Devika was my first choice for an opinion on reading by children and writing for children in India.
Dr. Devika Rangachari has won several awards for her children’s writing. Her book, Growing Up (Children’s Book Trust, 2000) was on the Honour List of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) in 2002.
Here is our discussion on writing for children.
1. What books did you read growing up? What do you think are the big differences between the books of then to now?
I read anything and everything that I could lay my hands on when I was growing up. Among my favourites were Enid Blyton and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer; later, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and A.J. Cronin. I remember reading several Russian folktale collections as well. Indian books hardly featured in my scheme of things.
I think a significant difference between the books of then and now relates to themes.
Contemporary young adult books, for instance, focus on topics that might earlier have been considered unsuitable reading matter for children/ adolescents and would, at best, have been treated with coyness. The globalisation of literature has also played a large part in this change.
2. As a writer, how do you choose a subject or a theme for your books? Do you have a specific reader in mind? Is that reader Indian? Do you think about an international audience when you write the book?
As I am a historian, I enjoy writing historical fiction based on my research on women in early medieval India who remain invisible in the mainstream historical narrative. Through my books, I hope to counter any incipient gender bias at an early stage and make my readers aware of extraordinary women in history who do not otherwise feature in their textbooks. I don’t really have a specific reader of a particular nationality in mind, although my characters are always Indian.
If I have written it well, the book can be enjoyed by anyone anywhere.
3. Do you go into schools and the community to meet your readers? What do they tell you about today’s books and what they are reading?
Some of my publishers send me on regular school visits so that I can interact with my target audience. What is always apparent to me is that children do read despite all the naysayers and prophets of doom—and despite all the competing distractions available to them.
In addition, their reading is seamless in that they don’t particularly focus on culture-specific books but are eager to read books that emanate from anywhere in the world. International publishing phenomena are equally popular here.
Of course, there is a huge discrepancy between the reading skills and choices of children who attend private, English-medium schools and have easy access to books, and their vernacular-speaking counterparts who constitute the majority.
4. Do you wish your book would be published in the UK and US and be considered for prizes like the Carnegie?
Yes, it would be great if my books were to be published in the US and UK, and compete for the Carnegie and other prestigious writing awards. At present, there is a dearth of awards in India instituted to identify and commend the best in children’s writing.
5. What support would you like from the bookshops in India?
It would help enormously if they could display/ promote children’s books by Indian authors in a prominent manner instead of shoving them away into inaccessible, dingy corners that is largely the norm. So while one could literally stumble over stacks of Rick Riordan, for instance, one would be hard put to even locate one’s book in the average bookstore!
6. And lastly can you tell us three books from India that every child in every country should read?
The Grasshopper’s Run by
Swami and Friends by R K Narayan
and of course Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari
If you have a view and you want to discuss, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia