Monday, October 17, 2005

The serial reader

There seems to be new energy in children’s book publishing in India, writes Manjira Majumdar who has a few suggestions for creating a dedicated readership

THIS article seeks to focus on an aspect of publishing, a part of an ongoing process, that is contributing towards a certain new vibrancy in Indian book publishing to-day. We are talking of children’s books in English and illustrations, which are symbiotic of each other. If textbooks are becoming more literature-based, to encourage the child to read more, children’s fiction publishing is inching towards hitherto unmapped territories in terms of ideas and themes. Many seminars, workshops and discussions are being held to deliberate on this, but walking the talk are a handful of publishers and some hawk-eyed editors, scouting around for good work. No one is talking big bucks here and the kind of hype unleashed by a JK Rowling, rather trying to make a case for creating a dedicated readership for children’s books published in India. We ought to remember that for every Rowling there are at least 10 children’s authors in the UK, or the USA, enjoying a steady readership and quite a fan following. In India too, it is not that children’s publishing is an overnight phenomenon, as publishers, both big and small, seem to think. It has always been there, and the market is not growing or shrinking because of other distractions. The time has perhaps come, to assess certain drawbacks and potential growth areas. Sunil K Poolani, publisher and managing editor, Frog Books, Mumbai, a small and independent publishing ho-use, says, “There has always been an interest in and demand for children’s books of all kinds, catering to different age-groups. The market for children’s books, unlike self-help books, has always been the same, and never grew or shrunk.” Corroborates Sayoni Basu, editor, Puffin Books India, “As a publisher, one is never satisfied with the demand, but yes it is good.” A casual trip to the bookshop would introduce one to new books by old and new authors; a closer look reveal quality content and smart packaging. What is lacking, perhaps, is a series of titles by a single author, which invariably encourages great-er author recognition. That’s how readers get hooked on to a brand, and young readers are no different from elders getting hooked on to serials, or even a John Grisham. It’s evident in the way generations of readers are still reading the endless series by Enid Blyton, Billy and Bessie Bunter, the Goosebump series and more recently, Jacqueline Wilson’s teenage fiction. The series concept has always been a high point in Bengali publishing. The ex-amples being sleuth stories by Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Satyajit Ray. The exploits of Byomkesh Bakshi, Tenida, Feluda and Professor Shon-ku have always had readers asking for more. These stories were initially serialised in magazines. An English language magazine like Children’s World does this to an extent but has not been able to create a series that can sustain reader interest. Translated books are doing pretty well according to Sayoni Basu. “One huge recent success story is APJ Abdul Kalam’s Mission India, which sold 10,000 copies in less than a month. Other non-fiction, such as quizbooks and biographies, or a book like Sudha Mur-thy’s How I Taught My Grandmother to Read also do well. Translations of Abol Tabol and Goopy Gyne have sold exceedingly well while Ruskin Bond and RK Nara-yan generally sell well,” she says. The last two authors mentioned come closest to having loyal readers. “The Rusty series by Ruskin Bond does quite well,” informs Surabhi Pansari of Crossword Book-store in Kolkata. And who has not heard of Malgudi Days? “Another children’s author who is doing well is Rohini Choudhury,” she adds. Bond’s latest book, Roads to Mussourie, published by Rupa, is also notching up good sales in the city bookstores. “When we talk of children’s books moving well,” explains M Motwani of Oxford Bookstore, ”we have to look at the total picture. Children’s books include the Tintin and Asterix comic books, the Amar Chitra Katha series and, of course, the Enid Blytons and the Harry Potter series.”Potter, in a way, redefined children’s publishing. In India, we are yet to see a single hit book the stature of Daddy Long Legs or even Little Women. All the same, certain English titles have given us reasons to get excited about. One such is Young Uncle Comes to Town, a funny book written by US-based writer Vandana Singh, whose story, strangely, is rooted in a small town in north India. Published by Young Zubaan, it is well-illustrated and nicely-mounted — something Indian publishers are not always very particular about.Greater attention is being paid to the total look of a children’s book, be it folk stories retold or original stories. The traditionally evocative ones are giving way to interesting original stories, set in the urban milieu. Pustak Mahal has spinned off a new section — Unicorn Books, to exclusively focus on children’s writing. Two of its books, Witches of Waitiki and The Lady in White, authored by Jehangir Kerawalla who was educated in Kolkata, read rather well. Ashok Gupta, director, Pustak Mahal, says, “Uni-corn Books is committed to bringing out a series of genres in children’s writing — ghost stories, sci-fi, adventure, thriller, etc. We cannot predict what will click more. Some books tend to do well years after their publication.” There are more publishers like him who are viewing the children’s market, tapping authors, while sources at Rupa say it is flooded with manuscripts. But how would people know about the children’s books being published in India, unless there are more write-ups in the media (as is being done in the case of adult’s fiction published in English), says Sayoni. Sunil feels that well-produced books, both in terms of design and illustration, could help children choose their own favourites. “India has a huge and varied repertoire of fabulous myths and legends, they have to be promoted. Alongside, it is necessary to give a world view of contemporary life,” he sums up. To this one may add, rather than offering a one-time high advance for a single book to an author, commissioning a series, despite the risks involved, may help sustain writing for children.Perhaps, we are getting there. Slow and steady.
Manjira Majumdar is an author and works in publishing / The Statesman

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