Children’s Books from India – A Picture-Book Publisher’s View

14cm_Shobha_Viswan_2201570gShobha 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.

Here she is enjoying the story along with the audience…

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.

Shobha is passionate about contemporary books for children, that are not just traditional tales and also stories for the pleasure of reading – not just textbooks, assessment books and books with morals – which does confuse many parents in India. Read one of her candid interviews with the national daily in India.

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?

rumourThe Rumour | Written by Anushka Ravishankar and Illustrated by Kanyika Kini

image descriptionFalgu_2 Cover

Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip / Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market | Written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Kanika Nair

monkeyMonkeys 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!!!! 

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?

What does Christmas mean to me?

Growing up as a Hindu in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, I shouldn’t have been exposed to Christmas as much – especially in the 80s.

But I had a friend who was Christian (a few friends who are still good friends). I used to visit his place often –practically lived there – and I learnt about Good Friday, Easter, Palm Sunday, Christmas Eve, Midnight mass and nativity scenes (which is called Christmas Crib in India) . cribI went to midnight mass as a teenager much to the grief of my religious orthodox Hindu parents. I liked the bustle of organized religion. They all sang songs together – they knew these songs – and Hinduism except in a small way is not organized.

India is organized chaos and so is Hinduism in many ways. We all go to temples whenever we like, there are some specific exceptions. And we all prayed to a myriad of gods and goddesses, we had many festivals throughout the year, many anniversaries of special full-moons and new-moons to celebrate, it was difficult to be organized so often in a week. It is more of the personal relationship with their own God. My Dad was quite religious and ritualistic and he did all his prayers at home.

I knew about Santa Claus and the reindeer – but not in a big way – not like the Indian kids of today. We didn’t have too much fanfare during Christmas. Every street would have one or two Christian residents, and they would have a star hanging outside their house lit up with lights. Some had trees and some didn’t. We have those Christmas trees in abundance in the coast. People sang carols and came to the various Christian homes. They knew where the parishioners lived and they went from one home to another singing songs. I would sit by the window and watch.

I don’t think Enid Blyton wrote a lot of Christmas stories. Did she? I can’t recall reading any that explained Santa Claus or using him as a character. Maybe it was Father Christmas in the UK and Raymond Briggs’s books didn’t come to India.

And then when I moved to Singapore, I saw the decorations in the shopping district. singaporechristmastreeThe enormous Christmas Tree in their biggest mall and it was fun to watch. Chinese New Year was bigger than Christmas and hence although Singapore celebrated Christmas, it was only second to CNY which was also a 3-day holiday. I did attend midnight-mass once there, my first Christmas there. (Don’t ask me why). christmas1999When I worked there, I had Japanese clients – and they didn’t do Christmas holiday – so we too had to take turns to work. That’s when I discovered that not all countries gave it the same importance and then I realized the effect of being a British colony vs not being one.

I also had the most traumatic experience of being in Singapore during the Tsunami 10 years ago and waking up my parents to ask about it – and they were like we felt tremors, we went back to sleep and then found out it had wiped out the coast in our city and miles beyond. We had reservations at another coast in Malaysia and we had to triple check everything before we went on that holiday – everything was great except we weren’t allowed on the beach and we snuck in anyway.778671703_4bdd996c8d_z

When I moved to the UK, Christmas was not really a great time because everything shuts down. From where I come, holidays don’t keep shops closed. Even the big ones like Diwali – because we consider the festivals to be auspicious – the shops remain open on auspicious days. Only Christian shops used to be closed in Chennai on Christmas and that was a handful of grocery stores run by a specific community of people who were Christians.

I didn’t fully understand “Nothing is open” until my first Christmas when no shops, no supermarkets, no buses, no trains. I use public transport for everything and I was stranded.

But there is a silver lining – it was my time of quiet – two days of quiet when I could write – no one would bother me on those days whatever happens. The Christmas weeks were quiet at work. Many took time off and I usually covered Christmas. So that meant quieter at work, less workload and more time to get to know the people who did come to work.

Slowly that too has changed – my Christmas graph from childhood to today seems to fluctuate. Now I’m part of my sister’s family celebrating Christmas.

I know Christmas is filled with the stress of buying gifts, cooking food, going somewhere on time with the trains being as they are and all that. I also know where there is family, there would be squabble. We wouldn’t fight with strangers – just family. That’s what love is all about.

And the other best thing for me for Christmas is that Facebook is filled with good wishes, happy videos and the TV news is filled with heart-warming stories of people who are generous and find a way to include others in their celebration.

We have a tree this time, giftspresents (which I always overdo and buy lots), board games, Christmas movies and the works. And I have a nephew (and soon to be two) who loves to read books with me and loves the Big Tree in his house with baubles, surely I’m going to be celebrating as many Christmases I could with them. A great time for mulled wine (which I love), cooking food for a big group, singing songs (out of tune) and enjoying the company of people you love.

I think I get it. It’s not very different from Diwali, except for the absence of presents and tree, and with firecrackers – it is about families and friends coming together, good food and making merry with the people you love and care about. The trimmings are different across the religions and countries and communities, the food on the table is different – but the love and cheer – that crosses all boundaries.

I always think (I think a lot during this time of the year), take away the rituals and the external practices, underneath we want the same things, we enjoy the same things, we love for the same reasons and laugh for the same reasons.

falgucloseupFrom Falgu and yours truly, Merry Christmas folks! Hope you all have a wonderful time.

The South Indian Festival of Lights

My mum and Dad are so pleased that I am in India on the day of the festival of lights after a long time. In some southern parts of India, the festival of lights – Karthigai Deepam is celebrated from yesterday until Monday. It is confusing to anyone who doesn’t speak Tamil or Telugu – because it is hardly celebrated across the rest of India.

The streets are filled with lamp sellers – we use clay-lamps mostly and then tall bronze ones and lots of small bronze ones too. Some people would have silver ones just at the altar.  We light using oil and cotton wick.


Then of course the main sweet for this festival is a ball of sugared-puffed-rice called Pori Urundai – it is so sweet that it bruises your tongue.


On Diwali, which translates to a row of lamps, most of India celebrates with lamps except the South. The south waits a few weeks and celebrates the festival of lights in the lunar month of Karthiga on a full-moon day.

We began preparing the lamps and lighted them inside the house and outside.

While India is a singular entity for the outside world – India is hardly homogenous. We are multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious just within India. We have every religion that the world practices and every religious sect within Hinduism and we always took for granted that the world was different and we had to live with that. We never had a situation where everyone looked the same, spoke the same that being different was difficult.

So we have three different reasons why we celebrate Diwali and how we celebrate it is very different too. So while the North celebrates Diwali with lamps to mark the occasion of Rama returning from Lanka on a new moon night, the south doesn’t light a row of lamps for Diwali. We wait until Karthigai Deepam and then light our lamps. We do save up the firecrackers from Diwali and burst them on this day. And even Karthigai Deepam has three different reasons for celebration depending on what your religious inclinations are.

In this difference lies some similarities too – when Diwali is celebrated in the north, one of the days is ear-marked for sisters praying for their brothers. Similarly when we celebrate Karthigai Deepam a few weeks later in the south, we too have a day earmarked for brothers. We pray for our brothers and visit them and eat together. As a kid, I remember all families from my Mum’s side would congregate at my Grandpa’s house – they were two brothers and three sisters and we would pray for each other’s siblings – I didn’t have a brother – so we prayed for our cousins and secretly for our classmates too.

The other common factor of course is great food, festival specials and temples that pray for the entire nation – with the coming of cable TV, the temples broadcast these prayers to a wider audience and my mum and dad were glued to the TV set this morning to watch the prayers in a city far away.

In a modern busy life where we all are running about – perhaps it is not a bad idea to have a day earmarked for siblings – so you could get together, think of each other if you can’t be together and enjoy good food regardless.IMG_0569