Mind Shapers

Be it Indira by Devapriya Roy, or mythological retellings such as Sonia Mehta’s Rani Lakshmibai or Devdutt Pattanaik’s Mahabharata for Children,  a host of new books are taking young readers back.
Mind Shapers

From Amar Chitra Katha to Harry Potter, every child has his favourite world. A world where you enter wardrobes to discover Narnia, or fall into the rabbit hole and join the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Even as adults go about with the dull everyday monotony of life, kids go around with a twinkle in the eye waiting for the many adventures of Tom Sawyer or looking skyward in search of Mary Poppins. Amid all the pressures of doing better than the boy/girl-next-door, or being a child prodigy, or aiming for that scholarship, a Hogwarts education or a Vikram-Betal story is just as important.

Thanks to many new writers on the scene and entrepreneurs to support them, the children’s books section is thriving. From mythology, abridged biographies, classics, graphic novels and comics, books in regional languages to mystery books, the shelves are overflowing, literally. “With more and more publishers starting an imprint for children’s books, more authors want to write for children. There is a huge market. The catch is to give kids joyful and engaging stories based on Indian fables with illustrations inspired from the rich Indian folk arts.

This makes the books more relatable to the children while keeping them rooted to our culture and tradition,” says Atika Gupta, brand communications consultant. When the children reading scene opened up in the country many years ago, thanks to affinity with all things Russian, their fairy tales were the first to enter the market. Then thanks to our US-returned uncles and aunties and cousins, came the age of the Archies and Marvel comic books, not to forget Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew or her male counterpart—Hardy Boys. 

“Today, Indian readers are exposed to world content and nothing can stop publishers from picking the work we like. While Indian writing is crossing over, international authors dominate the Indian market. Our book, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, is exported to almost 15 countries worldwide,” says Mukund Sanghi, publisher, Pirates India, which has come out with its children’s imprint, Larks and Fables.

But it is fantasy that rules the roost, believe publishers and readers alike. “I started reading very recently. I’m quite fond of the Harry Potter series. I have just begun reading The Chronicles of Narnia and hope to read The Lord of the Rings soon,” says Mayukh Gupta, a Class VII student from Delhi.
Publishers say that the market picked up pace post the entry of the magical world of Hogwarts. More and more writers realised that children’s fiction was a viable option. “The Harry Potter craze did help in creating a greater interest in the ‘young adults’ genre. It was a fantasy story but set in the real world which encouraged books in this segment to explore similar themes,” says Atika Gupta.

Books today are also boasting of Indian characters. Publishers suggest that through books inspired by India’s iconic trees, birds and animals, its festivals, legends and arts, one should introduce children to the true meaning of India. Many books also feature hands-on activities to engage with children, allowing them to explore their creative side. Mama Suranya Books is a recent independent multilingual publication that uses this idea to connect to children. Says author and publisher Suranya Aiyar, “Reading combines fun and learning for children. It fires their imagination, piques their curiosity and gives them cherished memories. Some characters from the books become friends for life.”

Stephen Alter Author
Famous works:
The Phantom Isle
The Secret Sanctuary
The Cloudfarers
Ability to build an imaginary world reminiscent of Dickensian era childhood

Pragya Mishra, a Class VIII student, says, “I enjoy reading books that revolve around mythological figures and supernatural beings—especially Indian mythology. Tales from the Mahabharata are a favourite and I enjoy reading Devdutt Pattanaik.” For illustrator Vishal Bharadwaj, whose book The Best Baker in the World won the Comic Con India’s Best Children’s Illustrated Book Award recently, illustrating for children is a wonderful challenge. “The art must complement and enhance the text, add an extra dimension to the storytelling. And it must reward re-reading. It is no less difficult than drawing for adults, and takes as much thought and effort,” he says.

Sudha Murty, one of the most loved Indian writers and the chairperson of Infosys Foundation, has many children’s books to her credit. With her simple style of storytelling, Murty charms her way into the hearts of children. Talking of the varied genres children explore, the author says, “Just like adults enjoy varied themes, so do kids—whether it is mystery, action, mythology, fairy tales, or others. Kids are smart and as long as the subject is written in a convincing manner, it would interest the child. This is where the author’s skill comes into play.” 

Raja Sen, author of The Best Baker in the World, believes children have always been enthusiastic about reading, and it is up to the adults in their life to show them how much books matter. He says, “A child likes to devour everything that comes in their way—including books that they might be too young to read. They find favourite characters and writers, and the impressions made in those early years linger and shape them.”But even as publishers, marketing consultants and writers stress that more and more children are reading today, some studies point to the contrary. According to the ‘Kids and Family Reading Report, 2017’ conducted by Scholastic publishing house and research institute YouGov, only 32 percent of children read 24 books annually. 

Publishers agree that there is an overload of information and building up healthy reader awareness is a challenge. But the children’s book segment is seeing growth, they insist. “The market for children’s books has been growing at a very good rate and Penguin Random House has had some wonderful successes recently—both in international and local publishing. In addition to some brilliant fiction, non-fiction, mythology, history and reference, gorgeously illustrated books, Puffin has recently ventured into the learning segment with some great new series,” says Hemali Sodhi, publisher—Children’s, Penguin Random House India.

Her thoughts are echoed by Sanghi: “The children’s books market share is almost 30 percent among the total publishing industry (non-education market), and it is growing rapidly and fastest among all genres.” Adds Tina Narang, publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books that introduced its children’s imprint last year in November: “The market size for children’s books varies across publishing houses. But it’s definitely a segment that is likely to become larger.”

Sudha Murthy
Sudha Murthy

The books in the new imprint include the Zippy series for children who are learning to read, by author-illustrator Anitha Balachandran. The first book in the Flipped Anthology series is a bundling together of funny and scary stories by several well-known children’s writers. The books in the series will include two themes, two covers and two sides to open the book from. In a play on the letter M and how it stands for a lot of what is popular with children—Mysteries, Magic, Monsters—comes the M series. Shashi Warrier’s Magical Tales launched the M series. Rounding off the launch list is a contemporary fantasy adventure, What Maya Saw: A Tale of Shadows, Secrets, Clues by Shabnam Minwalla. Also, forthcoming are books by legendary authors Ruskin Bond and Gulzar.

But publishers are not just sticking to books. They know the world is evolving and today’s children demand much more. HarperCollins Children’s Books’ Fun Learning and Play box series called the FLAP activity series is aimed at age group 4-12 years. The boxes range from early learning sets that teach basic concepts such as the alphabet, numbers, colours and shapes, to those that celebrate the festival season, birthdays, friendship and more. With this, HarperCollins hopes to transcend the traditional format of a ‘book’.

On the same lines, Mama Suranya Books is about to launch a painting and sticker games app called Play Art App, which has digital colouring pages and sticker composition activities using the drawings and characters of the storybooks. “We have added music composed by Ustads to give it a classical touch and used Indian instruments for sound effects. It is an attempt to make a fusion between our books and digital media,” Aiyar adds.

But most children’s writers are not really worried about the proliferation of different media. American author Stephen Alter, who was born and raised in India and recently came out with his book The Cloudfarers, says: “Each child will have his or her own preference.” Talking of genres, Sodhi says, “Readers are more open to new writing and voices and we are exploring themes across a vast range of subjects for all ages.”

Publishers are also positive that they are on an uphill trajectory. And, why not? The country not only has more than 9,000 publishers to serve its nearly 1.3 billion people, but also imports a lot of books. In the ‘Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015: Understanding the India Book Market’, which was conducted in association with Association of Publishers in India (API) and the Federation of Indian Publishers (FPI), the sector was estimated to be worth $6.76 billion. It is set to grow at an average compound annual growth rate of 19.3 per cent until 2020. 

“Currently, the Indian book market is the sixth-largest in the world and the second-largest in terms of English language books. And half of India’s population is below the age of 25. With so many publishers catering to this population, we can definitely be hopeful that the book-reading market, children’s segment in particular, is growing,” opines Atika Gupta.However, the Indian book industry receives no direct investment from the government—‘a serious roadblock for publishers’—the report says. Other challenges include the fragmented nature of publishing and bookselling, a tortuous distribution system; and long credit cycles. Piracy is widespread, with virtually every street in the country home to stalls selling pirated texts.

Despite the hurdles, publishers are gung-ho about the future and out to break newer boundaries. With more children taking to reading even in small towns and Tier-II and Tier-III cities, publishers have realised that there is a huge market to tap. Following the same thought, HarperCollins India has recently come out with Bilingual Fairy Tales—a series of books aimed at helping young readers achieve proficiency in both Hindi and English. These illustrated retellings of popular fairy tales engage children, while building their skills and vocabulary. 

Tanima Saha
Tanima Saha

Says author Dr Sushila Gupta, a scholar in the field of Hindi grammar, “Fairy tales have always been a favourite for both kids and parents. Since these are translated versions of classic stories filled with colourful pictures, children can grasp them more easily.”Personalisation and interactive storytelling today are immersing children in literacy at an early age. Publishers are coming out with books that aim at sending across age-old messages in the simplest of forms.

And this is a trend that is here to stay. HarperCollins’ Gita: The Battle of the Worlds by Sonal Sachdev Patel and Jemma Wayne-Kattan is one such example. “With a segment as varied as this, it is difficult to pin down a single defining trend. But, with exciting new books, publishers will need to not only find creative ways to engage the reader but also new and inventive ways to get books noticed,” says Narang.
“For younger readers the most popularly bought books are the levelled readers that take children from their first attempts at reading to when they can read independently. For middle readers, non-fiction, activity books and skill builders are popularly bought genres alongside fiction. For the young adult segment, international bestsellers comprise the largest chunk,” she adds.

But more often than not, it is the parents who still decide what their children should read—at least in the formative years. “Parents still prefer classics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. What they look for is the artworks and illustrations. Also, there has been a growth in books that tell the tales of divinities in a regular fiction format without any reverence, case in point our Vishnu, Devi, Ganesh series. With writers like Devdutt Pattanaik, Subhadra Sen Gupta and Charu Agarwal Dhandia—mythologies for children are more insightful, entertaining and interesting,” says Tanima Saha, editor, Rupa.

Reading not only helps children evolve but also makes them creative, adding to their overall growth, the publishers add. But, ultimately, reading is a habit that needs to be cultivated. “To write a children’s book isn’t just about a language. It is about having a deep understanding of their world, their imagination,” says Sanghi. Keeping this in mind, Larks and Fables came up with The Big Fat Counting Book and A Apple Pie—counting and alphabet books—and How the Zebra got its Stripes? and The Dreamship Lullaby—a folk tale and a bed-time story book. And, of course, the much-loved The Tales of Peter Rabbit.

If kids see people around them read, they will take to books. If there are no bookshelves at home or if there is no regular library visit, it is futile to hope that the child will enjoy reading. To him, it will be more of a chore. “Children are naturally curious, and will engage with any activity you give them, so whether or not they choose to read depends largely on whether or not the habit is encouraged by families and schools. Children also have tastes just as diverse as adults do, so it’s impossible to say that they prefer one genre over another. It’s all about access.

Which is why it’s important for them to be able to see their lives, languages, names, skin colours and personalities reflected in the books they read,” says Sharanya Manivannan, writer of an award-winning book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, and of a children’s book, The Ammuchi Puchi.And as the great Walt Disney so aptly put it: “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”

Only 50 percent students read class books on working days:

Every 3 of 10 children, falling in the age group of 6-17, read 24 non-syllabus books annually for pleasure

Almost every child is more devoted to reading when the books are chosen by them

About 85 percent of the children preferred being read aloud by their parents

Around 70 percent of the children between the 7-16 age group love to read those books which make them laugh

The reading habits of the parents significantly influence children’s reading habit

Why Kids Hate Reading:

They feel reading is a chore

Your child has difficulty reading

The child thinks reading is boring

He/she hasn’t found the right book yet

Build Up Interest: 

Create a reading area

Encourage reading at home

Set an example

Make connections between reading and real life

Keep reading material in the house

Visit your local library

Discuss what your child is reading

Expose your child to different book genres

Read each night

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The New Indian Express