Children in India traditionally grew up listening to stories. Although most of the tales were generic, each experience turned out to be unique. Tellers of tales embroidered the details of character and circumstance in their own particular way, adapting the story to the audience. As the child entered a fictional world, her imagination filled out what she heard, and she was left with an experience uniquely her own.
Today we live in a world where grandmother's tales have all but disappeared. Even more seriously, the value of fiction and imagination in a child's life is itself eroding. Our world has become so competitive that we prize information above all else, and devalue anything that does not appear to lead to a linear and predictable result. So the nurturing of imagination - which is an active, participatory and creative quality - is no longer considered important. If there is any free time at all for children, it is usually filled with the passive, consumption-led fun called entertainment.
For all that, children's books are probably the closest link we have in today's literate society to the older form of storytelling. Sadly, however, children's literature in India is a rather unevolved genre. With very few exceptions, children's books often carry the worst pressures of our time - they tend to be largely geared to acquiring information. This kind of didacticism is not limited to communicating facts, but stretches to preaching morals as well. The need to impart a moral in every children's story could partly be a legacy of the oral grandmother's tales. But without the complex dialogic interventions of the earlier form, and combined with the need for 'usefulness', the didacticism we are left with is flat and, even to an adult, unimaginably tedious. Unsurprisingly, most children consider reading a boring activity. A more child-friendly 'fun' approach has come up in recent times, but there is too little of original thought here-it tends to be dominated by books which are in one way or another derivative of Western children's literature, and sadly, not. the best of it either.
So it is more useful to discuss children's literature in India in the form of a manifesto rather than anything resembling a history. Although there are a number of good children's books in the market, especially in some Indian languages such as Bengali, children's literature in English as a convincing genre is still in the process of evolving. Clearly, the challenge for publishers in India is to continue to find forms which are attractive, relevant and contemporary. In a society that values only that which helps children 'get ahead in life', what we need urgently is a healthy dose of subversion. We need to provide children with a variety of books that have ostensibly no immediately useful purpose-other than the pleasure in reading. We need a whole body of literature that is absurd, exciting, or pure fun. This is what attracts children to reading, and making readers of children should be the primary aim of all good publishing. Such books also accomplish something else: they communicate to children that fun and excitement can happen here as well as anywhere else. If at the same time, such a book succeeds in dealing with complex themes, characters or situations, then it becomes the stuff of great literature.
The first step in getting children interested in books is to provide them with reading material they enjoy. But obviously, that is not all that children's literature can offer. Problematic or difficult themes do have a place here, and among their best qualities is the fact that they question one of the great stereotypes of children's literature: that the world is the best of all possible places. This is something we will look at in more detail later. But for now, let's consider ways in which painful topics - like the plight of working children or the degradation of the environment - can be approached without heavy handed didacticism.
If there is one clue to a sensitive approach, it lies in understanding that there need be no direct pedagogical link between reading and action. Books need not be 'useful' in an immediate sense, or change children overnight. They don't necessarily work that way. There are some things that children read that remain with them, . and either grow slowly into a perspective, or acquire a reality at a later point in life. Obviously, children need to . experience life in order to understand it. But from about the time they are nine, their minds are able to absorb laterally and widely, so complex texts and images which deal with difficult issues . encourage this movement, even if a child does not understand everything in the first reading. In a sense, to become aware of the inherent complexities of the world we live in is just as important for her growth. The real world is interesting and raises a host of questions - and good books can help children to be observant and comprehend the contradictions of the world we live in. It is true that children need not be protected from the harsher realities of life, but they are natural optimists, and this makes it all the harder. How can the myth of a just world be questioned without making the child reader directly responsible for a situation she has not created, and in which she is powerless? One way is to make sure that the material does not offer pat solutions so much as provoke questions and point to choices. The second important insight is to keep in mind that children are capable of absorbing emotion as well as information. So fiction - which has the power to lead us into the lives of people vastly different from us - becomes an effective way to explore complex themes in a nuanced manner. The more varied the characters and their circumstances, the more points of view they represent. A young reader is able to forge an emotional and imaginative connection with a fictional character, and this creates empathy, which is perhaps the most crucial step towards a humanistic way of viewing the world.
So genuinely changing the point of view from which a story is told becomes a highly political act. But this voice must be an authentic one, not just loosely imagined. One test of authenticity is to see who the protagonists of the story are, and who they claim to speak for. For instance, is a middle class, urban, boy child speaking on behalf of all Indian children? Only a genuinely different point of view has the capacity to show us the world from another perspective, and question the one we take for granted. The value of the insights this offers the child is enormous. Making available this multiplicity of voices should be the agenda of committed children's publishing. In a country like India, this richness is not difficult to find, and there are a multitude of worlds waiting to be explored.
Again, the variety of material India offers needs to be taken up without the impulse to iron it out to an acceptable homogene i ty, or some imag ined universality. All good literature is based in a particular context. But universality is achieved not by smoothing this over, so much as transcending it. Good literature achieves this transcendence by allowing readers from other contexts to identify and empathise with alien characters and situations. So an Indian setting has to be more than merely a backdrop which adds local colour to well-worn and unexamined genres. There is little to be gained from taking the stock English schoolboy story and changing the names to Indian ones. Put another way, being true to context is to actually change the point of view, and 74 with it, the perspective. So to come from a particular context necessarily implies being unselfconscious - yet questioning - about it.
The reason why there are so few books of this kind is not difficult to understand. One of the greatest obstacles to creating books that actually allow for different viewings of the world comes from the dictates of the marketplace. Most publishers are unwilling to risk putting out anything that is new and daring, and the children's book world remains a largely conservative one, content with duplicating and multiplying winning formulas.
Interestingly, one of the arguments used by publishers and writers for maintaining the status quo is that they are only providing what children 'naturally' like. So books with animals dressed in human clothing or teen heartache stories come to stand in for acceptable literature for particular age groups. But do we really know enough about children's tastes?
It is actually adults who control the writing, illustration, publishing and finally the buying and consumption of children's books. What children like or dislike therefore largely becomes a question of what they are exposed to. Everyone - from publishing professionals to parents and educators - has decided opinions on what is suitable for children. This is partly formed by notions of what sells, what is permissible for children and how to preserve a child-like innocence in the reader. At the same time, adults themselves are influenced by the media and contemporary views on child rearing. So despite the debate on children's tastes, it is not the actual responses of children that finally determine how and which books are made. Books and styles that are successful in the market tend to be repeated endlessly, narrowing the variety of experiences open to the child reader. The Disney style of illustration is a case in point. Over time, it has come to represent children's taste in visuals, and few people take the risk of offering alternatives to it.
Admittedly, there is no way of knowing whether a new or radical form is suitable, or will succeed in a children's book. The only way to find out is by trying. The chances of any style working well are higher if it has the ability to engage and communicate to young readers.
It is also a common misconception that children's tastes are a uniform block, and that all children will like or dislike the same things. Like adults, children also have a variety of personalities - some are serious, some like humour, some are capable of abstract thought, some are sensual. Children's books ought to represent this variety, and account for a difference in tastes, rather than curtail it or aim to find a simple common denominator. Only by offering these alternatives can the definition of what is 'natural' or 'normal' be brought under question.
Alternatives can be found by looking around and examining the wealth of creative material and talent that exists around us, which may or may not have been used in books so far. One of the greatest resources we have in India is the richness of our narrative and visual traditions-from the vibrancy of folk and tribal art, to the energy of sign painters. Using tribal art in a children's book probably works against established notions of what is acceptable for children. But in fact children themselves seem to come to such art with far less preconceptions, enjoying the forms and colours without worrying too much about their source.
There are really no limits to what can be turned into successful children's literature. Unusual talent can be found in children's own writing, in looking at the lives of ordinary people we encounter, in art on the street, in the stories that take place all around us. All this is the raw material that we have available to us.
There are no set rules that apply to creating children's literature, as with all good literature. A few general guidelines are helpful: a strong concept, age appropriate vocabulary and an insistence on communication can make even radical experiments succeed with children. It is important that writing that does not talk down to children, is not clichéd, arch or coy. Publishers and writers of children's books need to be very conscious of their own prejudices and stereotypes, particularly when . it comes to gender sensitivity or the endorsing of violence.
On the practical front, creating books without a formula is a challenge, and they need to be accepted by at least a section of the reading public for the venture to be a success. Publishing in India often simply means a fight for survival in a tough industry, and the book in today's market is a product like any other.
Committed publishing, on the other hand, needs to look beyond the market. It has to make room for innovation, question existing norms and succeed in informing and changing tastes. Ultimately, the decision to communicate forms that open up perspectives rather than enslave the reader is one that every children's book writer and publisher must take for themselves.
Gita Wolf started Tara Publishing in 1994, and is now the director. She was an academic by training before she moved into publishing. Her special area of interest is in communication, both visual and literary, and she is particularly interested in children's picture books. Over the years, Gita was joined by other writers and publishing professionals who were drawn by Tara's vision. Tara now functions as a creative collective which creates its own books, as well as work with a range of adventurous writers and artists around the world.