At a time when publishers in India are churning volume after volume on every possible topic and genre for adults, there is no serious attention being paid to literature for children. Only a handful of English language publishers focus on books for children, and the situation in the vernacular space is even worse. 

Then there is the ongoing crisis that involves the primary source for children’s books, school libraries. Parag, an initiative of Tata Trusts that promotes access to literature among children, recently conducted a survey of Indian schools, and found that 74% schools from the surveyed sample did not even have functional libraries. 

Guardian 20 spoke to the renowned author of children’s books, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and illustrator Proiti Roy, to understand the importance of books in a child’s life, and to talk about the measures authors and publishers must take to revive the dying art of children’s literature in India. 

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, author.

“It goes without saying that a child should be introduced early enough to books, to create a taste in reading, so that they learn to enjoy a book, before they are exposed to the moving pictures, talking characters and music, which is most welcome later but only after the reading habit has begun,” said Nabaneeta Dev Sen. 

On the topic of writing with an specific audience in mind, Sen said, “I write without thinking of the market, I only think about the mind of the child who is reading my book. I try to inculcate some basic values in the children through my stories, such as peace, intelligence, wisdom, love, forgiveness, caring, and so on, which are used as powers that win the wars in my stories.” 

Sen spoke at length about the characters she creates. She said, “In my books, the protagonist is always a girl, all my stories are about little girls. In all my detective stories and adventure stories, the central character is a girl of twelve. In my fairy tales, princesses and queens save their country (and the kings) by means of intelligence and goodness. They do not fight with weapons. I also have a series of stories about a blind girl, Tinni, who fully enjoys the world around her through her other senses. Thus I expect children who have eyes, can share the feelings of those who cannot see. And treat them as equals. These are some of the ways in which I hope to influence the children and their parents.”

My pick from the collection is “Shocking Pink”. Stark and uninhibited, the narrative is on a roll, an outpouring that shocks even as it charms.

According to Sen, children’s literature has remained a neglected domain in India for years now, with the one exception of Bengali literature. It starts from Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, in the 19th century, who wrote Varna Parichaya, the first Bengali wordbook for children, and published some short verses and short stories to teach morals to the children, which have become part of colloquial Bengali. Rabindranath Tagore, too, had seriously written both prose and poetry, and even plays for children. Sarat Chandra Bose had written short stories for children. Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Choudhury, and his father Sukumar Ray, were two pillars of children’s literature in Bengali. Satyajit himself wrote for children and editedSandesh, a famous children’s magazine. 

There is a case to be made that the vernacular space is more vibrant when it comes to children’s books, and there’s wider readership of such books outside the big cities. Sen herself is trying to get more readers in rural India. “Most of India lives in villages, where people are deprived of gadgets. If they can read at all, the rural children do read books. They read in their mother tongues, they do not go to English-medium schools. We hope to reach out to them. We need not write merely keeping the urban children in our view. There is a demand for children’s books in other languages too. Five of my children’s books were translated into Hindi by a private publisher in Indore,” said Sen.

lllustrator Proiti Roy spoke to us on the importance of using pictures alongside children’s stories. “The simple joy of enjoying and learning from pictures in books is often more effective than any other medium. Reading books will always remain the most important way to educate a child and illustrations do play a big part to hold their attention and encourage them to spend time with books,” said Roy.

Proiti Roy, illustrator.

Roy added, “Whether they can read or not, books should be introduced to children and illustrations can play a role in establishing that contact. As they grow up, the habit to read will grow with them and they will seek knowledge on their own—provided they get the right guidance from adults around them. It is the stories and poems that inspire me to illustrate and I try my best to support the author’s work and help children communicate with the book. I can only hope that my illustrations will draw their attention to the book and they’ll pick it up from the shelf.”

Tata Trusts’ Parag Initiative, which conducted that survey mentioned above, is also doing its bit to promote children’s literature in India. Swaha Sahoo, head of Parag Initiative, said, “Our language of focus this year has been Bengali, since Bengali literature has a rich history of good quality literature. With some remarkable contemporary work in recent years, Tata Trusts, through its Parag Initiative is promoting reading for pleasure among children. We believe that reading changes lives and the Tata Trust is keen on honouring the change-makers who are the authors and illustrators producing sensitive, inclusive and contemporary books for children in Indian languages.”