An Early Taste for Books
Why the upcoming children’s litfests in town are a good place to be this jolly season.
Once upon a time, there was a young girl who ate books for breakfast, lunch, evening snack and dinner. But the books she read featured predominantly white people and were set in the United States of America or England. The characters in these books ran across wide meadows, picnicked in the woods and ate scones at tea time. There was no sign of mathri or dosa and chutney, of evenings at the beach, or the gargoyles jutting out of CST building. There was no trace of the sights, sounds and tastes that were a part of her world.
When she tried to write, this young girl wrote about John and Jane in a small town in England sitting in a clearing in the woods, eating tuna sandwiches and solving a mystery about a pretty sick dog.
That girl was me.
I grew up in the 90s on a diet of Malory Towers, Secret Seven, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High and Harry Potter. While this diet was rich, I wouldn’t say it was balanced. It gave me my love for reading, but it did not give me any insight or connection to where I belonged, it did not reflect my life back to me.
Since then, the world has changed, and there are many children’s books being written by Indian authors and published by small and big publishers in India. The stories emerging from this literary world are rooted in our historical and cultural landscape. In 2022 alone, there was the ‘Songs of Freedom’ series featuring The Chowpatty Cooking Club by Lubaina Bandukwala, The Train to Tanjore by Devika Rangachari, A Conspiracy in Calcutta by Lesley D. Biswas and That Year at Manikoil by Aditi Krishnakumar. Apart from this set of fiction that unfolds against the backdrop of the freedom struggle and explores the lives of children during that time, across the country, there was the non-fiction series, ‘The Dreamers’ by Lavanya Karthik. These captured—through text and illustration—the turning points in the lives of Indians such as Salim Ali, Satyajit Ray, Janaki Amal and Teejan Bai.
Despite this bounty, the one thing I have noticed in my work as a teacher of creative writing is that students still tend to name their protagonists John, Alice, Oliver or Jane, and set their tales in worlds as far away as possible. In one of my classes, a student made a list of all the names that would be good for a protagonist, and not one on that list of 20 was an Indian name. Naturally, the story was not set in India.
As young writers, who are also voracious readers, we all tend to imitate and try to set stories in worlds that seem familiar to us. My students lead me to the conclusion that their own world and cultural milieu is not a familiar setting. While they live in it, they don’t read enough about it for it to feel like a viable literary landscape. They are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to imagine great adventures unfolding in their own gully.
If we look at school syllabuses, the literature chosen tends to be from the West and it has been the case since I was in school. Popular culture is (still) dominated by the likes of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. In this environment, where can young readers make friends with stories that reflect their own lived experience and meet the minds who create them?
For once I have a ready answer—at children’s literature festivals! Over the last few years, many such fests including Bookaroo, Peek-A-Book, Kukdukoo, Neev Literature Festival, Junior Kalam (coming up in the last week of January), the Chandigarh Children’s Literature Festival and the children’s literature section at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (both coming up in February) have made it their mission to bring literature that is predominantly Indian to children. While a few of the festivals like Junior Kalam and Kala Ghoda are rooted in their respective cities (Kolkata and Mumbai), others like Bookaroo and Kukdukoo are like melas or carnivals that travel to different cities such as Baroda, Jaipur and Bhopal during festival season.
The festivals usually programme workshops and sessions by authors across agegroups, making it a really fun and immersive experience. The author sessions usually feature a reading or an introduction to a book or a genre of writing, followed by some activity. This kind of format creates a sense of curiosity about the craft of writing, and about the books as well. It also ensures a day away from those iPads and cartoons!
In my time at festivals, I have noticed that most kids make a beeline for the bookstore after such sessions. They are excited to have their books signed by a flesh-and-blood writer. It is one of the most special experiences for a reader to meet a writer who has created a world filled with characters you love. It is not surprising for readers to fall in love with an author and clamour to read all of their books. Festivals allow for these intimate meetings to take place, and special bonds to be formed between writers and readers.
These moments leave an indelible mark on young readers. At the recently concluded Peek-A-Book Children’s Literature Festival at Jasudben M.L. School in Mumbai, author Jerry Pinto said, “Reading books is like walking in a garden and planting seeds, these seeds are ideas, and when I want to write something, I just walk around in my garden and see what is there.” If I may add to that, attending these festivals and interacting with authors is like khaad (manure) for the ideas to grow into strong trees.
Since it is the season for wishes and literary festivals, here’s a wish of my own. I wish that all the children’s literature festivals flourish, and children from all over the country get many more opportunities to meet writers. And that I meet a gang featuring Mitali, Rhea, Advait and Rohan who sit around a table enjoying sev puri, as they try to crack the mystery of the missing chappals in a story as Indian as me.