#INDIAKIDLIT – Why why? And other questions for Indian children’s books

by Shalini Srinivasan

Unlike a lot of my own readers, my reading journey was – and continues to be – fairly uneven. I read Are You My Mother? at the recommended age (4ish, if you’re wondering) and met Enid Blyton and then Moby Dick (much abridged and with false editorializing from my father) and proceeded to read across age groups ever since.

I. When?

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, English children’s books that were not by English people or Enid Blyton (surely an honorary Indian by naturalization) or Amar Chitra Katha were a rare bird, as indeed were most adult books. The books I did have, I kept close and reread on an urgent weekly schedule. Even rarer and more exotic were children’s books from India. I put this down to a combination of availability issues and parental and school-librarian tastes and budgets.

Among the books we owned (possibly because it was my mother’s favourite to read out) was Shankar Pillai’s Life with Grandfather (1965).

Life with Grandfather by Shankar (1965)

If it is not illegal to talk about children’s books without talking about the artists who illustrate them, it should be. In Shankar’s case, this is easy, since he is both artist and writer. The grumpy veshti-wearing grandfather and the cheerfully heinous crocodile-kidnapping grandson made it an excellent book to revisit as often as I wanted. Years later, when I was studying comics, I would have the belated and earth-shattering realization that Shankar the cartoonist was in fact this Shankar, and would scrutinize every cartoon for family resemblances to Raja and his grandparents.

Life With Grandather was – like many other Indian children’s books at the time – a book by CBT, the Children’s Book Trust, which Shankar was instrumental in founding in the late 1950s. CBT books were and are cheerful, slim, paperbacks – all the better to be affordable in pre-liberalization India, as they are today. They had books in lots of different languages.

Roughly contemporary with the CBT was its govermnenty cousin, the National Book Trust AKA the NBT. As the name suggests, the NBT meant its books for a rather wider readership than the CBT, and their children’s books were often even harder to find in the wild.

II. What?

In the case of the CBT and the NBT, and a lot of smaller, regional publishers, there existed a whole category of books in the folklore-myth area, traditional tales retold in modern languages for the modern child. A lot of the books I read fell into this category and had titles along the lines of Folktales From___ .

Some of these folktales were also – thanks to enterprising publishers like Raduga – from the Soviet Union, with beautifully designed hard covers.

My copy of Gennadi Blinov’s Granny Hamro’s Fairy Tales is lost to many moves, but I can still recite much of the tale of Ot the Horse from memory.

Granny Hamro’s Fairy Tales by Gennadi Blinov, illustrated by Vladimir Levinson, translated by Anatoly Bilenko (1985)

Publisher-less, coverless, and dripping pages with every move, was the second-or-third hand copy of Sister Nivedita’s Cradle Tales of Hinduism. Google assures me it looks like this —

Cradle Tales of Hinduism by Sister Nivedita (1907)

—but in my head it has a slightly warped swirly grey-and-red cardboard cover that it shares with all our other manyeth-hand books from Easwari Lending Library. It was – though I didn’t know it then – the sort of kids’ book that remains popular today, distilling down bits of Indian mythology for the child reader.

III. Why?

Beastly Tales: From Here to There – by Vikram Seth (1992) / Haroun and the Sea of Stories – by Salman Rushdie (1990)

Relatively easy to get hold of were children’s books by writers who normally wrote for adults. I met these books when I was busy being literary in college, and they remain comforting favourites – Vikram Seth’s breezy Beastly Tales and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, notable for being both affecting and note-perfect in its punning. (In these parts we do not speak of the sequel.)

Also in this category are the Mahashweta Devi’s Our Non-Veg Cow and The Why Why Girl, picture books I had to grow up to learn to read.

Pictures in books were always welcome to me; so were maps, comics, family trees, and the other accoutrements of the fanciful. Picture books, though. Picture books need you to slow down and pay attention, look at each word and every image (and there are so few! True horror for a fast reader!) and linger over the woven text-and-image. It took me a lot more growing up before I could do that.

In the 90s, while I was happily awash into adult books I possibly didn’t understand, something really interesting was happening in Indian children’s books. These were new publishing houses, small, independent, driven. Katha, Tara, Tulika, Karadi Tales. It took me a while to get to these books, political and spiky-tempered and deliciously silly in art and word.

Some time in the 2000s, I encountered Anushka Ravishankar’s nonsense book (I mean this is a literary and entirely complimentary sense) Tiger On a Tree, with endearingly whimsical illustrations by Pulak Biswas.

Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar, illustrated by Pulak Biswas (1997)

I read a lot of picture books after that.

IV. Why Why?

Our Incredible Cow by Mahasweta Devi, illustrated by Ruchi Shah (2015)

Mahasweta Devi’s picture book Our Incredible Cow is adapted from a story called “Our Non-Veg Cow” and I am happy to report that the layered collage effect in Ruchi Shah’s illustrations render Nyadosh the ravenous cow entirely funny and poignant. Devi’s other children’s story that was turned into a picture book is The Why Why Girl, with lush and dream-like illustrations by Kanyika Kini.

Mahasweta Devi was a writer and a social activist “who was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1997 for her ‘compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honourable place in India’s national life’.” You can read her poetic, political vision of India, past and future, in this powerful speech, which she gave in 2006 at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi, illustrated by Kanyika Kini (2003)

More children’s publishers burgeoned through the 2010s, each with distinct book-voices, an embarrassment of twenty-first century riches. There are Pickle Yolks’ books, both sharp and gentle, there are Duckbill’s, vivid and weird and always always funny; Young Zubaan, fiercely idealistic; there is the sheer delightful range of Pratham’s online Storyweaver books, each translated into a dozen languages for a dozen different readers. There are books about agriculture and feminism, on art and the friends we can’t make because of we’re too prejudiced to, trees and numbers and strange animals, all told in prose that talked the way your friends talked and the most delicious and idiosyncratic art

V. Who?

This would have been a different essay if I had begun with a different question: who writes these books that are published in English, in Delhi and Chennai and Bangalore? It would also have been a much shorter essay. The answer is, for a very long time, mostly people like me – people who grew up with privileges of caste and class, of the English language and access to urban spaces. Unlike writers, illustrators from indigenous and folk traditions have found a space, as in this lush looking (and feeling!) book:

Publishers like Navayana (also part of the early 2000s exuberance) have a strong anti-caste stance, and this is reflected in their choice of writers, artists and subject.

Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land by Kancha Ilaiah, illustrated by Durgabai Vyam

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Across age lines, children’s books have got more open, fiercer and more political in their depictions of our world. I am unsure if there are more of them, if they are easier to find, or if I am just older and better at picking books I like. These books talk about war and privation, they discuss gender and romance, sexuality and even, slowly, caste; they deal with child abuse and the depression, illness and disability and death and the enormity of climate change. They are written with anger and beauty and wild fantasy. They happen in cities clogged with garbage and pasts as morally suspect as the present, and yet they are entirely hopeful.

Why why would you not read children’s books?

Rogues gallery – some of our Most Wanted books:

Behind the Lie by Asha Nehemiah, illustrated by Aindri Chakraborty (2018)
Snip by Canato Jimo (2018) / Timmi in Tangles by Shals Mahajan (2013)
A Cloud Called Bhura by Bijal Vachharajani (2019) / The Grasshopper’s Run by Siddhartha Sarma (2011) / No Guns at My Son’s Funeral by Paro Anand (2005)
Who Stole Bhaiya’s Smile? by Sanjana Kapur, illustrated Sunaina Coelho (2020) / Vibhuti Cat by Shikhandin, illustrated by Shubham Lakhera (2020)
When She Went Away by Andaleeb Wajid (2015) / Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar (2014) / Puu by C.G. Salamander, illustrated by Samidha Gunjal (2018)

Shalini Srinivasan

Shalini writes comics, picture books, and novels. Her books include Vanamala and the Cephalopod, Gangamma’s Gharial, and several for Pratham Books’ Storyweaver online reading platform, e.g., The Case of the Missing Water and Shoecat Thoocat. Shalini teaches English and writing at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and consequently spends a lot of time speechifying at captive students.

Vanamala and the Cephalopod – by Shalini Srinivasan (2014) / Gangamma’s Gharial – by Shalini Srinivasan (2016)
The Case of the Missing Water – by Shalini Srinivasan, illustrated by Upamanyu Bhattacharyya (2018) / Shoecat Thoocat – by Shalini Srinivasan, illustrated by Aindri C. (2018)

September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult

2022 GLLI blog editors for #WorldKidLitMonth
  • Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.

  • Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School.  She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.

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