All good things must start with a story. And the National Storytelling Week must of course start with a brilliant one.
This story I’m going to tell you, has stayed with me from when I was six or seven. I was a very fussy eater and one of the vegetables I didn’t like to eat was the purple brinjals (or the white ones for that matter).
Many of the stories in my Prince Veera series are reimagined versions of such stories about Emperor Akbar and Birbal, King Krishnadeva Raya and his trusted friend Tenali Rama.
Listen to the story and enjoy! If you like it, do pass it along. Because a hand-me-down story is the best kind there is!
Shobha Viswanath is my publisher at Karadi Tales in India. She is also my senior editor and a writer herself. Shobha is also Farmer Falgu’s big fan.
As a writer it is a great thing if your publisher loves your character as much as you do. She is the main reason why Farmer Falgu has packed his bags and prepared his bullock cart and is now off to Japan and France to meet the children there.
I met Shobha 2-3 years ago when I visited Chennai before Farmer Falgu when came out. Then I met her again when we were preparing for the launch of Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip. She is everything you’d want your editor and publisher to be – funny, encouraging, determined and absolutely positive. I’m proud and ever so grateful that Farmer Falgu and I found a great home at Karadi Tales, which is an independent publisher in India, making forays into the world market.
Karadi Tales is primarily a picture-book and audio-book publisher – I love their songs and readings – my nephew has a stack of them and we listen to some so often that we know the words by-heart. Having said that, KT has just published a Middle-grade book too.
As the final instalment of the discussion on children’s book for this week’s twitter chat, I asked Shobha the same questions I asked Sayoni Basu. And this is what she said.
1) What are the major challenges for an Indian children’s book publisher on the world stage and within India?
– India lacks crossover books – books that can travel. Most of the books that are published by Indian publishers are too contextual to India. If the books have to travel, they have to have a universal appeal.
For example, Farmer Falgu may be a farmer from India but the central crux of each story in the series reveals his resourcefulness which in turn is universal.
The language too is quite important. Colloquial words and phrases may limit potential readership.
– Indian publishers lag behind the international publishers in terms of sourcing high-quality and diverse illustrators who have a repertoire of varied styles.
– Distribution in the foreign markets has been a challenge. Several things are required of a publisher, including a strong backlist of books.
2) When you go to Bologna, what are your impressions of the market compared to Indian books?
The books that are produced abroad are higher in quality – production and illustrations.
Do we have more variety?
– No. India does not have that kind of variety.
Are Indian books lacking in any aspect?
– Indian books lack in several aspects. The Indian market is heterogeneous – books are produced to cater to people from all walks of life. In terms of quality, unfortunately, it leaves us neither here nor there.
Until about 15 years ago, folktales and mythology based stories were regurgitated, but things are turning around now.
3) What is your experience in selling rights to world markets? Does the west want to buy very traditional content? Do they want to fit inside the multicultural box or are they willing to look at contemporary stuff too?
If a book is well produced, well illustrated and the story is well told then there are takers for the book in the market. They do not want to buy only traditional content. They are willing to look at contemporary stuff as well.
4) Do you get support from international and Indian bodies to help with the costs of attending world book fairs? Is your presence imperative?
Yes, we do. Bologna supports publishers and helps them attend the fair, as does Frankfurt through their fellowships and invitational programmes. However, this support is not meant to be continuous – it is only meant to give the publisher a platform. In India, Capexil provides the publisher with the necessary support.
If the goal of a publisher is to make the book travel then their presence is imperative. Agents may not know the books as thoroughly as the publisher does.
5) Should India carve its own space in the book market and not worry about whether US and UK buy rights? What other markets are more welcoming to Indian books?
Of course, we should carve our own space in the market and not worry about the UK or the US – as long as we do not compromise on the quality of the story, illustrations or production standards.
6) Can you recommend three Indian books that any child in any part of the world should read?
The Rumour | Written by Anushka Ravishankar and Illustrated by Kanyika Kini
Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip / Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market | Written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Kanika Nair
Monkeys on a Fast – Audiobook | Written by Kaushik Viswanath, Illustrated by Shilpa Ranade and Narrated by Sanjay Dutt
Thank you Shobha – for recommending my book and also giving candid answers to my questions. It is clear that we have a long way to go to bring Indian books to world stage but it is not hard as we think it is.
We are chatting about Indian books and their place in the world stage at 6 pm GMT today, 24th April 2015, with hashtag #storiesfromindia – Don’t miss it!!!!
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 Siddhartha Sarma
Swami and Friends by R K Narayan
and of course Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari
If youhave a view and you want to discuss, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia
I met Uma a long time ago when I was just starting out. She is also from Chennai, my home-city and I was privileged that she illustrated my chapter book A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom, Walker Books.
Uma Krishnaswamy (And yes, she has been asked many times – she is NOT the author Uma Krishnaswami with an I at the end of her name, who lives in the US and is also from Chennai), has been illustrating since the 1980s and currently teaches Visual Studies and History of Art.
1. What is your view of India’s children’s book art in comparison to the rest of the world?
Children’s literature in India, in the now-understood format, is relatively young if compared to other traditions like the West. We must keep that in mind when we judge or more importantly make comparisons. India’s and the world’s oldest children’s collection of stories, the Panchatantra, has been illustrated by the greatest of miniature artists to sculptors in Indonesia. Long before the present book format came into being. So art is very intrinsic to our literature at the folk and classical levels.
In the past, we’ve had brilliant illustrators of children’s books like Shankar Pillai, Pulak Biswas, Mickey Patel who largely drove the CBT, NBT books. The ease with which they mixed the new format and techniques with images that actually matched the flavour of the soil, laid a solid foundation for the industry.
They introduced the Indian language idiom, which today has been taken far by innumerable talented artists. This has ensured that Indian books, especially those that emphasise Indian-ness, read folk art traditions, make a mark on the world market.
But having said that, I will add, that a certain edginess, pushing at the boundaries, and visual daring is lacking.
Perhaps our late entry into the field, quite a wide disparity among the targeted audience and definitely much lower exposure to world of images (visual literacy), are some reasons.
As an illustrator what are your challenges when you are working with international publishers – like do you have to compromise style or do they want you to work on only Indian books and don’t give you western mainstream books to work on?
Personally speaking there hasn’t been any compromise on style. But I’ve never been asked to work on a western mainstream book.
For all their attempts at inclusion and multiculturalism they are unable to cross their self-drawn barrier.
It may work if one lived abroad and periodically approached the publishers. But I was told several years ago, quite categorically, that western children wouldn’t quite be able to identify with the visual language that I chose to speak in. Of course conveniently forgetting that ‘other cultures’ have had their stories illustrated in a distinctly western style, and had books sold or distributed in those regions. The question of confusion or unfamiliarity obviously doesn’t apply to the other cultures!
Do you think Indian artwork can challenge the status quo in the western world?
It most certainly can and should. India’s amazing and unique diversity in all spheres, including the visual traditions, and its endless ability to absorb new influences and recreate, can breach any borders. Not just India, any visual language from any region should be given that space.
A powerful image requires no translation.
4. Do you see a difference between European and North American views of Indian books?
Regional histories, influences, considerations and environments will subtly, if not overtly influence the character of a story.
As an illustrator what support do you think Indian governments and other bodies should do for Indian children’s books?
National Book Trust, a Govt of India body, has been publishing quality books for children for many decades. Featuring some of the best authors and illustrators these subsidised books are translated into several languages. Very affordable, they should reach a large pool of readers. Together with the state governments, who should have their own publications, they should play an effective role.
But with the concept of school and public libraries being given such low priority, even in the private sector, I’m afraid the reading is confined to textbooks !
If this one concept is given sufficient push we will see good results, and governments can certainly ensure that in schools.
But the onus cannot be put completely on the governments, there has to be public participation.
Parents / family / society should nurture reading.
Given that we probably have one of the largest collections of folk and classical stories in the world, it is a contradiction that we give so little importance to it!
Thank you Uma, it was great to understand the illustrator’s view and your thoughtful comments about Indian illustration were quite thought-provoking.
You can read Uma’s interview to Saffron Tree here.
If youhave a view and you want to discuss, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia
A long time ago I emailed Sayoni Basu when she was at Scholastic Books, sending her my manuscripts and she was fabulous in responding to them. When she left the big publishing houses to setup a publishing house along with Anushka Ravishankar, I was in awe and of course delighted. I met Sayoni last year in person when I was at Bookaroo and she & Anushka kindly invited me over to her house to join hosts of other Duckbill writers for breakfast.
Sayoni has worked in publishing for over thirteen years, including at Oxford University Press and Penguin India. She was in charge of the children’s list at Puffin India, before she joined Scholastic India as publishing director, a position she held for several years. Most recently, she worked at ACK Media as the group publisher. Duckbill is a publishing house, run by Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar. They have been publishing books for children and young adults, since October 2012.
As part of the series of interviews ahead of our twitter chat on Indian books, I asked Sayoni some questions about books for children in India and its place in the international scene. Here is what she said.
What are the major challenges for an Indian children’s book publisher on the world stage and within India?
Within India: We find distribution and getting adequate display space in bookshops a major challenge.
On the world stage: well, that depends on the particular publisher. Indian picture book publishers like Tara and Karadi are doing fantastically on the world stage, but that is due to not only fantastic books but also dedicated work over the years.
For us, it is still early days on the world stage, though we were very happy to be shortlisted for the LBF International Excellence Awards.
2. When you go to Bologna, what are your impressions of the market compared to Indian books? Do we have more variety? Are Indian books lacking in any aspect ?
Considering that the English children’s book publishing industry in India (apart from the NBT and CBT and textbook publishers) is really at most twenty years old (Tara, Katha, Karadi, Tulika were all set up about twenty years ago), we have a fair amount of variety. However, there is always room for more. I think quality improvement in any industry happens over a period of time with many players each doing their best–so yes, I do think there is room for improvement, but I also feel that the improvement is happening quite swiftly now.
What is your experience in selling rights to world markets? Does the west want to buy very traditional content? Do they want you to fit inside the multicultural box or are they willing to look at the contemporary stuff too?
Recently, there has been more willingness to look at contemporary stuff–but this is from a few publishers with very specific interests.
By and large, India is associated with (a) cheap books of fairytales and ABCs and (b) traditional tales.
Do you get support from international and Indian bodies to help with the costs of attending world book fairs? Is your presence at these fairs important?
Presence at the fairs makes a huge difference as one can see what different publishers around the world are publishing, both from a point of view of learning and also in terms of looking at what publishers publish in order to pitch books to them.
I have received support only from international bodies–the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Italian Trade Commission–so far!
Should India carve its own space in the book market and not worry about whether US and UK buy rights? What other markets are more welcoming to Indian books?
When we publish a book at Duckbill, we are thinking solely of the Indian market.
Our aim has always been to create books that Indian children would find compelling, to enhance their enjoyment of the written word and their understanding of the world they live in. After we sign on books, yes, then we think of the rights potential and we know that there are some books which have potential to travel!
I think Indian publishers by and large focus primarily on the home market, which really is how it should be.
We do not have sufficient experience in rights selling to say that some markets are better than others. UK and US are perhaps more difficult markets to sell into. We would love to sell our books there, but also to Asia.
I think we need to read more books from other parts of Asia, and our books need to travel more there.
Can you recommend three Indian books that any child in any part of the world should read?
Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar
Moin and the Monster by Anushka Ravishankar
Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari
Thank you Sayoni. Let’s hope the contemporary books that take on difficult topics (not just for India, but for the world) and stories from India get their fair recognition on the world stage and of course in Indian bookstores too.
If youhave a view and you want to discuss, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia.