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Indian children’s literature and spec-fic

The luckiest bibliophiles in the world are the ones who aren’t told what not to read as children, and can make up their own minds depending on what sort of book they actually like reading. A lot of these children grow up to be speculative fiction readers, some because they admire the incredible capacity of good spec-fic to deal with themes both epic and deeply personal, others because they retain their childlike sense of wonder and like spec-fic’s special effects. And the very best children’s literature, from Pullman, Rowling, Pratchett, Colfer, Snicket and Stroud to Milne, Nesbit, Barrie, Dahl, Seuss, Carroll, Tolkien and Ray, has always contained speculative elements; from myths and fairytales to spaceships and werewolves, children’s literature has always stepped outside the real world’s boundaries and set minds free. Various people have had problems with this down the ages, mostly members of crackpot religious organizations and associations of conservative parents. Adult writers of speculative fiction have it easier, the only people who don’t like them are critics. In a post-Potter universe, it’s no surprise that children’s fantasy literature reigns supreme in bookstores all over the world, and the most talked-about authors are usually the next next next JK Rowlings. Children are far less aware of literary hierarchies than their grown-up selves, far less interested in what the books they’re reading portray about them as individuals, and establish literary pecking orders mostly on the basis of ‘I’ve read more than you,’ which can only be a good thing for books and their writers.

Jai Arjun Singh
, critic and blogger, on spec-fic, children and literary respectability:
“Well, I think it goes without saying that children by their very nature are more open-minded and receptive to fantastical elements than adults are. But I think the real reason is more basic and depressing: parents tend to think it’s alright for kids of a certain age to indulge themselves with what is perceived as “meaningless fun” – and then, as they grow older, to read Serious Literature. That perception runs very deep and is probably responsible for the step-sisterly treatment given to fantasy for adults, and the schism between Children’s Literature and Adult Literature.”

Vandana Singh, writer of speculative fiction and children’s books, on the divide:
“The world of the imagination has recently (only in modern times, I think) been infantilized. The Real World is seen to be for grown-ups, and all that fairy-tale stuff for kids. This is truly sad and remarkably stupid as well, because you can see in every culture that the oldest tales have elements of magic or other-worldliness to them. Their value lies not in literal interpretations (in which case myths become nothing but unsuccessful attempts at explaining natural phenomena) but because they speak the language of the unconscious mind — the language of symbol and metaphor. They tell us about ourselves — our fears and dreams. After all, reality is such a complicated beast. If you are to hold it, understand it, you need something larger than reality to do so. Enter Imaginative Literature. “
“Speculative elements in children’s fiction has a long history even in our times — the world, however, needed the Harry Potter phenomenon to wake up to the fact. We insiders were reading Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander and others long before Rowling set pen to paper. For whatever reason Harry and his friends came at the right time to spark a massive public interest in children’s imaginative literature, and this led to a discovery on the part of the public to a literature that they had, for a very long time, ignored. Now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of children’s spec fic, and that is all to the good. “

Ashok Banker
, prolific SFF author, on the children’s SFF wave:
“Actually, there’s nothing ‘new’ or ‘now’ about this phenomenon. The most popular books for children for the past several decades have been SFF stories. From the LoTR books, which were essentially young adult fiction repackaged and marketed for older readers in the USA, to the Narnia series, The Dark is Rising series, and several others, the bestselling works of YA fiction have always included spec fic titles. At the same time, there’s always been a healthy mix of other genres–so, for instance, there are excellent YA books which are wholly realistic and contain zero spec fic elements, my 13-year old daughter’s favourite author is Sarah Dessen, for instance, who writes intense, realistic novels like Dreamland and The Truth About Forever that just happen to feature YA characters but are literature by any yardstick.”

”What has changed recently has been the phenomenon of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. That’s singlehandedly changed the entire publishing world, not just YA fiction. To a great extent, yes, it’s opened up the doors for a whole barrage of similar fantasy series marketed at YA, some of which is quite readable and enjoyable, while a lot of it is predictably over-marketed, over-published editorially ‘created’ crap. This is no different from, for example, the horde of ‘christian mystery’ thrillers that have exploded since the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Cold–achoo!”

”The other major catalyst of the rise of spec fic in YA publishing has been film and TV. As I mentioned earlier, 25 years ago, SF fans were considered to be wierdos and eccentrics who had their head in the clouds (or outer space) and were dismissed as ‘Trekkies’ or beanies. Today, the biggest film franchises almost all have spec fic elements. It’s the biggest single genre in the movie and entertainment biz now, and it encompasses gaming, which is a multi-billion industry far bigger than even the movie biz, movies, TV, books, comics, merchandizing, toys, you name it.”

”This mass explosion has made SFF not only respectable and acceptable even to parents who might earlier have become nervous about their kids reading ‘escapist’ stuff two decades ago, it’s also made the genre tropes intimately familiar to every kid. Back then, the scene in a book or movie wherein the hero explained what a werewolf was, and how it could be killed, was a secret thrill to those of us who spent our days and nights immersed in such arcane lore…Today, every Potterhead knows what a Lycan is and how a silver bullet brings him down splat!”

In India, languages which have rich and well-established literary traditions of their own also have, as is only to be expected, extremely good children’s speculative fiction. In English, too, we have some truly wonderful children’s/Young Adult writers, most of whose books contain speculative elements – Kalpana Swaminathan, Manjula Padmanabham, Anushka Ravishankar and Vandana Singh have all produced work in recent years that’s exciting, entertaining, intelligent and not didactic or patronizing at all.
But the young reader’s open-mindedness can work both ways; while it ensures that children don’t see books as political statements, it also means that children won’t gravitate naturally towards books by Indian authors just because they are Indian – stories are all-important, and, in the wake of Pottermania, hype. The global children’s writing market is probably even more difficult to break into for foreigners than adult literary fiction, and so far Indian children’s literature hasn’t produced a champion that’s given it what IWE usually demands as a token of success, the big UK/US publishing deal that’s the best way of ensuring that an Indian book gets talked about in India. And as far as publicity for Indian children’s writing is concerned, the situation is fairly dismal – most publishers don’t put any significant amount of money in the promotion of their children’s titles, and while in an ideal world good work would find huge audiences simply by being good work, in this world most Indian children hungry to read more aren’t even aware of what’s good in new Indian children’s writing, while national news channels continue to flash updates every time JK Rowling sneezes. This is not to say even for a moment that Indian kids should read Indian writers’ books ahead of the latest big international craze, thus missing out on the wave of seriously good children’s books that have been sweeping across the world in the last decade, but just that it would be so much more pleasant if Indian children knew that there were actually books available that gave them great stories in familiar settings.

Jaya Bhattacharji
, editor, Young Zubaan, on current possibilities for speculative childrens’ writing:
“Pottermania has contributed a great deal to the surge in this form of writing. Given that the Rowling phenomena has been pivotal in encouraging reading, irrespective of the size of the book, I think, a lot of children’s writers, feel that since this is probably the genre that is selling, it is the one to emulate. “
“There certainly is a market in India for this kind of fiction. I am certainly all for any genre that encourages reading and releasing the imagination. But the Indian market has to evolve its own signature/stamp of fantasy fiction. We cannot rely totally on imitating fiction that is necessarily based on a Western/Christian tradition or of even trying to yoke the two systems together. A lot of the fantasy fiction that comes from the West is in the classic form of Good vs Evil; or in the Romance tradition of being on a Quest; or in search of the Holy Grail, whatever it may be; or reliance on Greek mythology. In India, we have a huge amount of influences to rely upon, which don’t necessarily encompass the idea of a quest or the Holy Grail. Sure, we do have a strong sense of Right and Wrong; Good vs Evil, but it is tempered by the cultural melting pot that we live in, where a lot of traditions are being intermingled. So, if fantasy has to emerge in India, it has to develop its own distinctive identity. “
“The book market for children is completely unpredictable, so the current flavour of the decade is fantasy as it has a reading public, hence sales. Given the huge investments required in children’s publishing, most publishers, authors, literary agents will want/ten to be conservative and capitalise on a winning formula rather than take a risk. It is pure economic sense to promote fantasy and hence, its noticeable dominance of the market. “

Payal Dhar, YA SFF author, on Indian children’s writing:
“My biggest complaint with Indian authors writing for children is that they have a particular idea of what children *should* read and not what they *want* to read or even need to read. As a result, we get a very sanitized depiction of the world, glossing over whatever is uncomfortable. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see a Jacqueline Wilson or Judy Blume come out of India.”

”Then again, there is a lot of very good fiction available for children, even if it is not by Indian authors. Having been a weird and withdrawn kid (and now adult!) who spends most waking hours reading, I know that anyone (children as well as grown-ups) who wants a good read just goes and gets a book that sounds interesting. They don’t say, “I will only read something by an Indian author.” On the other hand, what does sometimes matter is, you don’t find anything to identify with – yourself, your surroundings, your society. It isn’t a crippling disadvantage, though, and doesn’t spoil the fun of reading, which is the main thing.”

Jaya Bhattacharji on what she wants to see in children’s spec-fic:
Fantasy for children in India, can be set in any context, time zone etc, but it has to be well written. In the sense, that there should be good, cohesive logic to the universe that is being created. There should be details of the environment and the people and certainly not a cacophony of voices, which really don’t do much for the characters. Each character should have a distinct voice. If different traditions are to be mixed (and frankly, I am all for experimentation in literature), then it has to be done cleverly, treated lightly and presented in an interesting manner. By clever, I mean that the author should not be “showing off” their immense reading and familiarity with these other traditions, but create multi-layers and echoes in the story, that will prompt the young reader to submerge, discover and be totally entranced by the new literary creation. At the end of the day, it has to be a GOOD STORY. Also, a story well told will live for a very long time to come and not necessarily be written and created with “a” single market, fixed in time. In fact, it will then be read for many generations to come. “

The primary mindset barrier Indian speculative children’s writing needs to break is not the same one its adult counterpart. Even today, a lot of successful Indian children’s books tend to be ‘about India’ books, rather bland retellings of history and myth pushed down their throats in large quantities by parents worried about their children losing their connection with their homeland in the flood of wizards, goosebumps, American high schools and Unfortunate Events that take care of their children’s fiction demands. How quality Indian children’s fiction, speculative or otherwise, can be moved out of bookstores and into homes is unfortunately not a problem writers can deal with. But until publishers find a solution, Indian children’s writers will have to keep on writing good books that are no doubt hugely satisfying to write, but don’t allow them to afford more time to write even more hugely satisfying books.

About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.


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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
July 2006


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