Anita Roy of Young Zubaan tells us that despite the unique challenges inherent in children’s publishing in India, the road ahead seems quite promising.
Interview by Arundhati Venkatesh
She is the author of the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide: India, along with Manini Chatterjee, and co-editor of 101 Indian Children’s Books We Love with Samina Mishra. She is also a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines including Outlook, The Hindu, Biblio and The Indian Express.
Welcome to Women’s Web, Anita.
You grew up in the U.K. and moved to India. When did you decide you wanted to work with children’s publishing in India? How did you get there?
Anita Roy: As a child, I’d always come to India for family holidays – usually in Calcutta where my father’s family is based (my mum’s English) – and I’d always wondered what it would be like to live and work here rather than gad about on holiday. One year, while staying in Delhi I happened to get to know a number of people at Oxford University Press including the then head of academic publishing, Rukun Advani. Rukun offered me a job as academic commissioning editor in philosophy (which was what I was doing at that time, at Manchester University Press), and I jumped at the chance, thinking that it would be a great experience for a year or two. I loved it, and stayed on for three years – and would have stayed with them longer – but was offered a chance to help set up the India office of Dorling Kindersley. I worked with DK for five years – crazy, fun, eventful years! – and eventually wound up as Editorial Director. This gave me a taste for children’s books, and working with illustrations and pictures.
In 2002, when I had my kid, I decided to take a break from full-time work for a while, and my long-standing friend and colleague Urvashi Butalia had just set up Zubaan and asked if I would like to join her small team on a part time basis. I was delighted! I’d always thought it would be fantastic to help grow the Indian children’s book market – there were (still are) so few high-quality books that are culturally rooted in this part of the world, and so many eager young readers out there: it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So we set up Young Zubaan to publish exciting, innovative, non-sexist, inclusive, well-produced books for (mainly) Indian/South Asian kids.
The long and the short of it – or, well, just the long of it – is that I’ve now been in India for not just a year or two, but almost 19! And I’m still not sure how that happened!
What excites you about your work? And what are the challenges of being in children’s publishing?
Anita Roy: The most exciting thing is finding new talent – authors and illustrators – and helping them to hone their craft. It’s what’s always excited me about being an editor: finding something that has potential, and helping to polish that up until it shines through! And I guess, there’s nothing quite like the buzz of seeing a new book arrive fresh from the printers and holding it in your hands for the first time.
The biggest challenge for us is in trying to find ways of reaching the books out into the market. We can no longer rely on the casual bookstore browser to pick up books for their kids, so we’re constantly looking for new avenues to get our books out there and into the readers’ hands. E-books, online forums, apps, selling directly through schools, participating in festivals, doing book readings, finding ways of getting to our readers: that’s where the future lies!
Young Zubaan has a gendered focus. How do you challenge stereotypes in the representations of male and female characters, and what are some of the less obvious biases that can seep through? Can you tell our readers about some of the books you have published that inform and inspire young readers?
Anita Roy: When I first set up Young Zubaan, people would look at me doubtfully and say “Hmmm, feminist books for children, aha.” I’d have to explain that, for us, feminism is not about shoving ideology down someone’s throat: it’s more that we’re surrounded by sexist stereotypes – particularly in kids’ books, where the girls are all goodies and the boys are naughty and tough – and we believe that children deserve better! Gender stereotypes set in very early in life: but people – boys and girls – are so much more varied, complex and interesting than that! And good literature, whether it’s a picture book for a baby or a young adult novel for a teenager, should reflect the variety and difference around us.
We’re particularly proud of a series of fantasy novels by Payal Dhar (A Shadow In Eternity), where the protagonist is a wonderfully feisty and resourceful young girl called Maya. We’re also happy to tackle books on ‘difficult’ issues – Ranjit Lal’s book Smitten, for example deals with sexual abuse within the family, and he does it with a great deal of sensitivity and skill.
Also, it’s not just about challenging gender stereotypes: it’s also about looking at all the other stereotypes that sneak in. Those to do with class, or race, or caste or even body-type. We’re looking for stories (and images) that don’t just go for tokenism, but really, genuinely celebrate diversity and difference.
More women are joining the workplace and achieving so much. It would be nice to have new and different professions for female characters, and show that women are as interested in being in, and of, the wider world as their male counterparts. We did very well with a non-fiction book for kids that I edited a few years back, called Flying High which was a series of interviews with about twenty different women about their professions. It included a vet, an airline pilot, a reporter… all sorts of things. Building on that success we did a similar book called A Girl’s Guide To A Life In Science, which we hope inspires young girls to think of a career in science, where women are still woefully underrepresented.
You recently launched ‘101 Indian Children’s Books We Love’, a guide to some of the best Indian children’s books in English. You also organised the Jumpstart Festival where publishers met budding writers and illustrators. What does the Indian children’s literature scene look like?
Anita Roy: 101 has been a long-cherished dream: to produce a genuinely reader-friendly guide to the variety of children’s books and publishers out there. It’s much more than just a catalogue, and we hope will be the one-stop-shop for anyone – teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers – looking to find their way around children’s books from India.
Jumpstart this year was the best ever – I think. It was inspiring to hear, for example, Emily Gravett from the UK talk about how, from a struggling, young drop-out living in a lorry, she has become one of the world’s best-selling picture book writers and artists, by never giving up on her love for illustrations, and for telling quirky stories in the most wonderfully imaginative way. It was equally great to have translators talking about the specific challenges of translating Indian children’s literature into other languages, and about the rich and incredibly diverse traditions that we have in every part of the country, and in so many different cultures within India.
Each year, I come away from Jumpstart amazed at how much great work is being done out there, and what talent we have just waiting for the opportunity to emerge. It’s a tough time for publishers generally – with bookstores closing down, with the constant distractions of TV and internet, and with children so pressurized by their school curricula that there is hardly time for enjoying the pleasures of reading a really good book. But having said that, children’s publishing is one of the sectors where we’re seeing really strong growth. New imprints such as Red Turtle, Duckbill and others are springing up; there’s lots of potential for publishers in other languages to produce contemporary books for kids; and above all, we in India have a huge, diverse and under-serviced population under the age of 15. Unlike in the West, where the population has plateaued and many countries are struggling with an ageing demographic, India is still an area of ‘book hunger’ and that’s the challenge – and the excitement – of working here.
It’s been an exciting ten years for Zubaan, and we’re looking forward to the next ten!
*Photo credit: Anita Roy.