This is an edited version of a panel discussion on children’s and young adult fiction with Rohini Nilekani, Paro Anand, Marie Munkara, and Lakshmi Devnath, at the Bangalore Literature Festival, 2014.
I have always thought of myself as a writer, no matter what else I have done in my life. When my children were young, I wrote a medical thriller. Funnily enough, it was only after they grew up that I wrote a children’s book. But you can’t anticipate when that creative instinct will hit you. The urge for a story to be born precedes any thought of what audience you might be writing for. As a publisher of children’s literature though, I also know that we need to create and publish many more children’s books in India. We need thousands, if not lakhs, of writers putting out fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. Unfortunately, that space has not developed yet, so we need to encourage more writers, illustrators, readers, and platforms for distribution. For the past 10 years, I have been focused on building this space up so that more children might be able to experience the joy of reading.
There are certainly challenges when writing for young children or teenagers. As Lakshmi Devnath points out, the voice of the characters needs to be authentic rather than an ill-conceived attempt to ‘sound young,’ because children will recognise and reject that. Since the children I write for are usually in the 3-5 age group, another challenge is the level of language. The writing needs to be simple and easily digestible. This is compounded by the fact that at Pratham Books, these stories are usually read by children who may have never had a book before. They are often first generation learners who have not had any access to books.
While I’m aware of the flow of the narrative, I’m also conscious that the language must be simple and the context should be relevant to the children reading these stories. Additionally, and perhaps most crucially, the book must be compelling to the reader. As an author, you have to entertain the child, to make them want to turn the page or pick up another book when they are done. It’s not easy, but when you get it right it’s very rewarding. Many people underestimate how challenging it is, but I think it’s probably easier to write a 250 page novel than a 100-word story for a small child.
Along with the storyline, with children’s books the other key element is the illustrations. I have been very lucky to have worked with illustrators I have a rapport with at Pratham Books. As a writer, you need to work closely with an illustrator and sometimes even change the text to fit the style or vision of the illustrations. When I first write a story, I spend time trying to find an illustrator with the right style for it. The graphic side of the book is as important for young readers, so it’s important to make sure the story and the illustrations work well together.
Many writers have a strong opinion on the issue of categorising books for children and young adults since it limits the audience for stories that might be appealing across age groups. As a publisher, we are guilty of doing this — we have four levels for children of different age groups and reading skills. We do this to allow adults to make the right choice for children, to pick out a book that will not be beyond their comprehension or overwhelm them. Perhaps when it comes to teens or tweens, those distinctions are less helpful than constrictive, but with young children there is a case to be made for having these distinctive levels that function as guide rails outlining the way forward.
Children’s literature is a tricky genre because while adults can go into a bookshop and choose the kind of book they would like to read, children aren’t necessarily deciding for themselves what kind of story would most appeal to them. But as the world is opening up and becoming more digital, children are going to have devices in their hands, if they don’t already do. So at Pratham Books, we are looking at going digital in a big way, which will allow children more agency in deciding what they would like to read. And because we want to see an influx of new books and new stories for children, we have created a platform called “Remix and Retell.” Since most of our books are out in the Creative Commons, this platform allows people to tell their own version of those stories. Some of our books have 50 different versions written by 50 authors, based on the same story. So it’s a way to collaborate and allow stories to evolve in interesting ways. As a writer, my motive comes from interacting with children. They need to be creatively engaged and inspired and that is what books truly offer.