My first foray into the world of literature was when I was three. My dad got me a magazine called ‘Magic Pot’ and simply said ‘You’ll like this. Read.’ I admit, I initially read only for the free stickers that came with the book, but as I grew older, most of my time was spent swimming through pages of monthly magazines and storybooks that my cousins passed on to me.
After years of reading Enid Blyton, Rick Riordan, and J.K.Rowling, I noticed the lack of diversity on my bookshelves. Most of my favorite writers were American or English men and women, who wrote about characters with blue eyes and blond hair. Though the stories successfully gripped me, I naturally couldn’t relate much to the characters. That was when my parents decided to buy me books by Sudha Murthy. Then it started, and I tried to read as many Indian and Asian authors as I could.
Just like me, a lot of my friends are avid readers. We started reading when we were all children, and the habit stuck to us. However, literature doesn’t start where we started; some of the first children’s books that were written date back to as early as the seventeenth century. In India, the most famous children’s books have always been the Panchatantra series, written by Vishnu Sharma. According to a lot of scholars, the Panchatantras were passed from generation to generation as forms of oral literature, starting 300 CE.
India, being a country with more than 83 documented languages and so many more undocumented ones, has inherently fallen short of the number of people it tries to reach with story books. Until about a couple decades back, the post-colonial assumption of English being a superior language lurked everywhere. My grandparents barely ever read storybooks in languages other than English and sometimes their native. When my parents were children, the publishing houses started translating books into more languages, increasing its audience.
Today, my generation sees books in several vernaculars, proof of how much the writing and publishing industry has progressed through the ages. Child authors have started coming up as well, and have influenced their readers by tackling sensitive issues in their books. Concepts that were previously considered ‘taboo’ are now being decoded by children with brilliant expertise.
One of my very good friends, Swayamsiddha Mishra, is a teen writer who wrote a book a year back. In her debut, ‘The Laws of the Wind’, she touched upon topics like teenage depression, the LGBTQIA+ Community and generation gaps between parents and children. In the novel, she raised awareness in hundreds of readers and did it in a beautiful way.
Similarly, Rick Riordan’s famous ‘Percy Jackson’ series introduces gay relationships and diversity to young people, helping our society walk towards a more inclusive world.
For this article, I also had the opportunity to have a chat with two award-winning children’s authors, Ramendra Kumar and Nalini Sorensen. Between both of them, they have written almost 45 children’s books, each of which have been creatively composed and crafted.
Ramendra Sir started reading because his father would bring back books from business trips. He is a communicator by profession and writer by passion. After completing his education in Hyderabad, he moved to Rourkela where he secured a job at the Rourkela Steel Plant. He initially started writing poetry and non-fiction, but switched platforms to children’s fiction soon after. His books have been translated into over 25 languages, and have reached various countries . Some of his most famous works have been included in the ICSE, CBSE, and State Board study courses, while others have been represented at International Literature Festivals and Storytelling Events.
‘Over the years, something extremely remarkable I have seen is how affordable and presentable story-books have become. We started off in an era where it was almost unthinkable to buy books for pleasure; now, we are in a time when printing houses have made children’s fiction and non-fiction available to a wide mass, and at a relatively low cost. The soft, shiny paper, accompanied by illustrations and line drawings now make children want to read,’ he said, naming ‘National Book Trust’ and ‘Children’s Book Trust’ as some of his favorite publishers.
‘If I could have read any Indian children’s book when I was younger, it would have been Flyaway Boy by Jane De Suza. It’s extremely relevant to Asian education systems and the pressure that builds up and harms students.’ He adds.
Nalini Ma’am started writing books for the same reason she reads them. She says books give her windows and mirrors; windows to look into a world entirely different from the one she lives in, and mirrors to help her visualize herself as the protagonist in the very book she is reading or writing.
She has written ten books, each one versatile – while one of her books is a modern twist to a classic fairytale, three of her other books are written from the perspective of a dog. Ranging from career options, to the importance of family, to how day and night occur- she’s written almost everything. While mostly aimed at a younger audience, her books strike a chord with adults and children alike.
‘What I absolutely adore about today’s literature is the variety,’ she says. ‘There are so many choices available to our young readers today in terms of content, with so many books written by Indian authors, and set right here in India. These books become so relatable to our children. Picture books, for example, have children having the same skin colour as us, and eating the same food we eat. In addition to that, the way we read books has changed as well – we now have eBooks, hardcopies, audiobooks, and more.’
Further, she said ‘No theme is off limits, and I absolutely love it. LGBTQIA+, body image, casteism, physical and mental health, special needs – today there is a choice of books available on any theme or topic. Most importantly, authors aren’t talking down to young readers, and they aren’t writing books with morals or lessons to them.’
To conclude, Anupama Dalmia, Founder & Chief Mentor at Beyond the Box, shares her thoughts on the progression of Literature in India through the ages. ‘Children’s Literature in India has evolved immensely over the years. Today, authors are willing to break boundaries and shatter myths. There is lots more inclusivity, perception, nuance and variety in the books that are published for kids today. I think not just the narrative styles and subjects being touched upon, but also the voice and lens with which a story is told has undergone a drastic change. I think this is an extremely encouraging sign because the content available to children for reading plays a huge role in their overall development.’
Literature is an ocean with no end; it keeps moving, changing, evolving. And yet, it’s ever-present. Books helped me grow in ways nothing else could have helped me. In a world where technology has been progressing at a rapid pace, it is beautiful to see literature still thriving. In some corner of some part of the world, there are children who still look forward to new books and the smell of musty bookstores. No matter how literature changes as generations change, I know it’s not going to go extinct. India, as a country, has created beauty from twenty-six letters of the alphabet and I couldn’t be more grateful.
// This article has been penned by 13-year-old Trisha Rath exclusively as a part of a project at Beyond the Box. The author has brought together experience and research to come up with this insightful and interesting piece. //