Children’s Books from India – An Illustrator’s View

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. greybox_gall_image_Krishnaswamy

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. outoftheway

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.

  1. 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. dancingonwalls

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!

  1. 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.adollopofghee

  1. 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 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

Children’s Books from India – A Publisher’s View

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.

Name_0002_Sayoni-BasuSayoni 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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!

  1. 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.
  1. Can you recommend three Indian books that any child in any part of the world should read?

muskaanTalking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar

Moin_and_The_Mon_506bf2123edacMoin and the Monster by Anushka Ravishankar

Queen_of_IceQueen 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 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.

Children’s Books from India – A Parent’s View

I met  Dr. TanuShree Singh on Facebook when she mentioned my Bookaroo visit in Delhi. Then I found out she’s one of the biggest fan of books, especially children’s books tanuand a super-mom. Tanu lives in Faridabad, India and teaches psychology and writes a wonderful blog at

When I started talking about Indian books on world stage, Tanu was an obvious expert I wanted to talk to. She has a front-seat view of children’s books in India and recommends a host of books to many friends via her Facebook Group The Reading Raccoons.

So I asked Tanu about Indian books and their place in today’s world publishing – in terms of the content.

1.     Compared to when you were a child, do you think there are more interesting Indian books on offer? What do you like about today’s bookshops and what do you not like?

Oh, absolutely! When I was a child, my access to books was limited to the library at mum’s college and a rare visit to a bookstore in Delhi. The library visit meant that I read P G Wodehouse, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the likes. The bookstore lead us mostly to Hardy Boys, Famous five, and Nancy Drew. Picture books were unheard of. The very first ones were the translated Russian books. And Indian books were unheard of barring Feluda. So we weren’t spoilt for choices like the children of today. You have books for all age/reading levels now. 

I love visiting bookstores despite everything being cheaper online. The thing I love is the wider representation that children’s books are getting as compared to the past. There are even stores dedicated solely to children’s books!

The thing that saddens me, however, is the way Indian authors languish in a corner at most stores. Very few of them display them prominently or stock them. 

2.     Do you buy books from US and the UK for your kids? If so, what do you think are the big differences between a western book and Indian? Do we have books that engage as much as Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter?

We buy books from world over! The big difference is getting smaller by the day. Till even a few years back there was a certain amount of seriousness in whatever little children’s books that were being written here. Thankfully, there is a tremendous shift now. There is no conscious attempt to ‘preserve our culture’ via children’s books. And the experimentation in terms of genre is narrowing down the difference further. from historical fiction to horror to issues like homosexuality – everything is being tackled in children’s books here. So yes, we have books that engage.

To compare with big franchises like Harry Potter would be unfair!

3.     On an average do you think Indian books have more of a moralistic attitude to children’s reading?

Not anymore. They did – yes. But with the newer age writers and publishers, that doesn’t seem to be true anymore. The books that we have read recently have broken away from that attitude. There are some wonderful books like flat-trackFlat Track Bullies, and Talking of Muskaan, which can not be called moralistic though they do address issues of the times. 

4.    Do you think Indian kids want to read for pleasure? Do all parents allow their kids to read for pleasure?

Yes they do. A big YES. And no not all parents allow their kids to read for pleasure. Quite a few parents look for life-lessons in books.Kids do not – Indian or elsewhere. And then there is the worry over appropriateness of content. Ultimately all we end up doing is pushing the child away from books. 

5.    Can you recommend three Indian books that any child in any part of the world should read?

There are many good ones out there, but these three from recent times are bound tobe loved everywhere: 

muskaanTalkingof Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar

stoob The Adventures of Stoob – Testing Times by Samit Basu

bigbullyBig Bully and M-me by Arti Sonthalia

Talking of Muskaan touches upon Homosexuality, Stoob is our average exam-hating school child, and Big Bully and M-me centres around a boy who stammers and hence is bullied. These three books transcend cultural boundaries. Stoob could be sitting in any classroom across the continent. Muskaan is every person trying to form a clear sexual identity. And Little Krish from Big Bully and M-Me could be slinking away to the corner of a classroom in any country.

 I feel that these three books distinctly break away from the constraints that make it difficult for a book to reach out to children from other countries. 

Thank you Tanu, that gives a wonderful view into contemporary Indian books and as someone who grew up reading more western books than Indian I’m so happy that is changing fast now.

If you want to join us on a twitter chat about Indian books, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia. Find out more here. 

Twitter Chat about Indian Books

Books set in India, protagonists of Indian origin, books published in India for the children there, books that are niche and multi-cultural and the power of universal stories – a lot of things to talk about.

I have been published in Singapore, US, UK and India. I was published in India after I had moved to the UK – primarily for two reasons. I wasn’t having much luck placing my Indian stories in the UK or US publishing market and I wanted to be published in my home-country.

After almost two years in the slush pile, my first book was published in India in 2006 – the year I moved to the UK. Then after 6 years of trying and getting rejected in more than 3 continents, I finally placed 4 books in India in the same year – which have been coming out since 2013 to 2016.

When I wrote and sold the stories to Indian publishers, I thought these stories were niche – they won’t be even considered by western publishers. And then I went into schools with my books and the reception was amazing. P1020965Kids from all backgrounds loved it and had great fun with all of the books I thought were Indian by nature.

image descriptionNow there is excitement in the air about the possibility that two of my Indian books might have been sold to Europe and other parts of Asia at Bologna. (More on that when it turns into reality).

So they are universal and they were not niche at all. But I am not sure I could still place them in the UK by submitting to a mainstream publisher. I once received a rejection letter that said the story is great. But they are a more mainstream publisher and I should try a multi-cultural publisher. I was taken aback. That was 6 years ago. I am not sure that has changed much now – although Walker gave me an opportunity to write Indian stories for their Racing Reads.


With the LBF happening this week and some recent discussions on diversity and the report that was published yesterday by SpreadtheWord – I ask myself – has anything changed in the last six years.

It is not all bad news I think – as I said I have a book out with Walker in 2010 and another one contracted and written to be published soon. There are brilliant writers from Asian backgrounds who are doing great work here – Sarwat Chadda, Sita Brahmachari, Jamila Gavin, Bali Ray and so many more. Indian writers for adults regularly appear in award shortlists.

I was talking about this to friends on Facebook who had just come out of a diversity seminar at the LBF – we need more editors, agents and publishers who are from ethnic backgrounds who would champion the cause. We need the industry to actively seek out books in translation and books from other countries that could bring a new perspective to the children here in the UK.

So this is what I suggested on Twitter that garnered immediate support from many UK authors. Let’s have a twitter chat. Tell me what you think – as a writer from Indian background – are you able to write the book you want? As an Indian publisher do you get western publishers to look at your bookshelf seriously? As a parent, teacher and a reader what do you think you want to read about – just how arranged marriage works? or how we are influenced by the colonial raj? What do you think about contemporary Indian books? Where can you find them? If you can find books from other cultures in your bookshop would you pick them up? Would you recommend your children and students read them? Would an average reader do the same?

The list is very long – there are so many things to talk about. 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.

Reading for Pleasure in Indian Families – Part 1

Reading to me is like drinking water. You have to do it every day, you have to do it in substantial quantities and it is a kind of miracle cure for so many things. I read for pleasure as a kid. I read story books, I read English readers with stories and biographies in them. I read comic books like Amar Chitra Katha and magazines like Tinkle and Archie and even grownup magazines like Readers Digest.


It never occurred to me that reading for pleasure would be a no-no especially among families similar to mine. I wanted to write a single blog post about reading for pleasure. But as I have been talking to mums in India, I realize there is more to talk about and write about.

So in this first post on the topic, I am going to talk about infrastructure of books – both private and public.

When I was growing up, India didn’t have a thriving children’s literature market. There was Ruskin Bond who I loved and I read R K Narayan akazirangand of course the Kaziranga Trail by Arup Kumar Dutta. I loved it so much that I tracked it down again, bought a copy and read it again and loved it as much as I did back then.

As a grownup when I go back to India and meet children in schools or storytelling clubs and equally here in Britian when I go into schools that have a percentage of population with Asian backgrounds, I find that the parents have this monopoly on what their kids read. And they want kids to read non-fiction, school books, general knowledge. Reading for pleasure is second to reading to score marks in exams.

This could be for many reasons. In India, there is no aravirajbsolutely no concept of government run libraries in your own neighbourhoods that anyone could walk in and that caters to all age-groups. In Chennai, when I was growing up, there was Raviraj Lending Library, a private enterprise for readers like me and my mum used to take me 10 km on a bus to the library so I could borrow a month’s worth of comics and books.

When I was in Chennai this time, I visited the Connemara Library, a government library. It was like a fortress. Granted it is like the British Library equivalent with rare collections. But it had the worst rules to make a library a living and breathing place. It was almost like a museum of books where no one was allowed to enjoy it.

Connemara-Public-Library-ChennaiI was asked to leave all my bags and carry only important things into the library. It didn’t have friendly staff and it didn’t have an open door. It was shut and boarded up and was a place where researchers would burrow and make notes and leave. It wasn’t a place that would make today’s child tomorrow’s reader.

But the newspapers say the government is doing a lot about public libraries and are also bringing digital services to the people in small towns and villages.

The other sad aspect of my visit this time to India was the number of bookshops could be counted in one hand. Chennai is ¼ the size of London with ½ of London’s population. So more people live in a smaller area. But the number of libraries and bookshops would be far less in comparison. Landmark was one of the few we all visited growing up and being young adults and it too shut its doors in 2014.

If there aren’t that many bookshops, how would children buy books and read them? If there aren’t libraries where they could walk in and pick up a book and read – how would they learn to enjoy reading? There are storytelling clubs and private libraries coming up – then cost becomes a deciding factor denying poor people the chance to change their lives and enjoy the pleasures of reading.

When I was a kid, school libraries were part of my life. But I was one of the few who studied in a private school. Libraries in government school would have been lacking then and they sure are lacking now. Every year, my Mum collects donations for a local government-run school for under-privileged kids and I always insist they buy books.

2015_slideBook fairs are a very Indian thing – due to the scale I think. There are more people and hence everything is larger than life. A huge place filled with tents filled with books. You go there and you will realize that most people check the price of the books in proportion to its size. In fact one of my friends posted a notice on Facebook that said they are selling books by weight in a second-hand bookstore.

funwithriddlesThat kind of reminds me of a time when I was writing in Singapore – and I was asked to do a book of riddles (I pitched it to be fair). And I was told I couldn’t do a book of 10 or 20 riddles. But a book of riddles with 128 pages. That totalled up to 600 riddles – all original.

One of the reasons picture-books don’t used to sell well in Singapore, is that people don’t want to spend $10 on 32 pages (out of which 4 are the covers.) Of course Singapore has the best national library system and those who couldn’t afford to buy could borrow. That is not the case in India.

In a country where many villages don’t have electricity or primary schools, it is fair enough that reading is of secondary concern. But as a girl who grew up in a lower middle-class family with one breadwinner supporting a joint-family of 8, reading broadened my horizons. I wanted to see the world that I was reading about. I picked up vocabulary, grammar and more by reading and reading and reading. I should point out that I just didn’t read English books. I read Tamil and Hindi books. I read literature in my language too. As long as I was reading I was happy.

Having bookshops and free libraries, having librarians who are widely read, having parents who love reading themselves, teachers who can quote from books and give examples to real-life situations from books make up the fabric of a culture that would enjoy reading.


In many ways, mind you, this is my personal opinion – movies are to Indians that books are to others. Like cricket vs football. People save up money to watch movies. Every small village will have talkies. Everyone can quote dialogue from movies. I’m not saying that is wrong. But I know these movies had screenplays and those who wrote some of these wonderful screenplays are very well-read. But if movies can be made cost-effective for all walks of life, why can’t we do the same with books?

Living in Britain now, I am part of the history where local governments are shutting down libraries to save money. And there is an outcry. I grieve when that happens because libraries have been built and stocked. Librarians have been trained. Don’t let that go. There are so many countries where building a single library is an Everest climb. Protect what you have, Britain. You need well-read citizens tomorrow to run this country.

Cinemagoers watch a Bollywood film inside a tent cinema in PusegaonComing back to India where there are more cinemas being built than libraries – whose job is to build libraries and cultivate reading? Isn’t literacy a worthy goal? Isn’t reading and writing more enjoyable when the reward is that you can read stories, and write them yourself?

Is it the government? Is it the politicians? Is it the schools? Or is the parents?