Children’s Fiction In India: Authentic Voices

Tulika Editor Niveditha Subramaniam discusses the heightened interest in children’s fiction in India, and the drive to make it more reflective of our diversity. 

By Niveditha Subramaniam

In 1996, a time when independent children’s publishing in India was nascent, Tulika Publishers was founded by Radhika Menon, along with Sandhya Rao. What began as a small team of three today comprises of 15 members. This piece looks at the changing face of children’s books in India and the challenges that lie ahead from an independent publisher’s perspective.

Children’s Publishing in India: The Big Picture

More than ever before, we need good stories and original ideas. Tulika’s focus is on picture books and we publish in English and 8 other Indian languages: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Bangla. Finding new ways of representing the familiar to the reader and exposing children  to a range of social milieus, ideas, forms of art, ways of seeing and living, the experience of different childhoods ­and to make great stories accessible to children everywhere: this has been the greatest challenge.

Drawing from an abundant and vast heritage of storytelling forms from different regions and balancing this with fresh, contemporary approach is another.

Significantly, books inform notions that will trail into adulthood, a fact that parent bloggers and  reviewers have begun to recognize. There is much greater feedback for the publishing community and ipso facto, a greater responsibility.

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For the longest time, children’s literature was synonymous with Indian mythology; oversimplified narratives of power, intrigue and violence, carrying grossly insensitive depictions of people. Race, class, caste and gender were non-issues in these ‘bedtime tales’ that were fed to children. The strangely dichotomous mindset that found western video games ‘violent ‘ had no hesitation in stocking their children’s book shelves with content far more hazardous – replete with every possible cultural stereotype and caricature possible.

Moral stories don’t enjoy the readership they used to, but how do we draw the line between sensitive storytelling and politically correct bedtime tales? Do we want to live in a world where the big bad rakshasas are all good?

A friend once told me about a parent who shuddered when she used the word tsunami while telling a child a story. But children are intelligent, can grapple with complexities in eye-opening ways and  deserve the right to know the real thing instead of sanitized versions. Tulika editor and writer Sandhya Rao’s My Friend the Sea is a narrative that is set in the aftermath of the 2002 tsunami using a child’s voice. Its resonance with a worldwide readership has proven that books connect children to the real world in more ways than one.

The strangely dichotomous mindset that found western video games ‘violent ‘ had no hesitation in stocking their children’s book shelves with content far more hazardous

Children in Children’s Books

The portrayal of children in children’s books are the bridges towards building an understanding of key issues; whether it is war, ethnic conflict, gender and caste-based discrimination, racial tension and class issues that cut across different cultures and regions or issues of identity, home, family and belonging.  Child protagonists do this effortlessly; they voice questions, concerns, dilemmas without contrivance.

Moyna, the spirited Shabar girl in the gender-sensitive The Why-Why Girl, can’t go to school because she has to tend her goats, collect firewood and fetch water, but is bursting with questions about her immediate environment and the world around her. In Sabri’s Colours, a young Bhil-Barela girl who has only drawn on the floor outside her hut with chalk, encounters a world of colour for the first-time in school when she discovers paint bottles and long colour pencils and just as Sabri is beginning to look at everything around her in a whole new light, she finds that she has been shut out.

In Andamans Boy, unhappy young Arif runs away from his home in Mumbai, catches a train to Chennai and then heads to the Andamans. Here, he meets the much-misunderstood Jarawa tribe, where he finds freedom and a sense of belonging that he has never experienced before. Kali and the Rat Snake delicately explores a young Irula boy’s longing for friendship. The children in these books have reached out to young and old readers, encouraging them to develop a questioning mindset towards driving concerns.

Many Voices, Many Languages

The diverse childhoods that are explored in these stories touch children and older readers alike. To keep this diversity alive we need to be open to stories told in different voices. This is at the heart of Tulika’s publishing philosophy: many voices, many languages. We have stories we have adapted into English and other languages, working the other way around. In the offing is Olouguti Tolouguti: Indian Rhymes to Read and Recite, which features over 18 Indian languages. The book has each rhyme in the original language side by side with an English and Hindi transliteration, and also a recitable translation in English, adapted creatively keeping the rhyme and rhythm of the original.

The need to produce such a collection stemmed from a conviction that Mother Goose should have long been replaced with Olouguti Tolouguti. In a post post-colonial era, to remain uncritical of and oblivious to vestiges of imperialism that remain in our institutions, particularly education, is no longer an option.

Looking Ahead

Ever so often, you come across readers who pick up a book and say, “Oh, nice, it’s so Indian” or “But, it’s not Indian.” Each time one hears such a statement (and coming from an Indian!) one can’t help but feel disconcerted and puzzled. Great storytellers draw from their roots, but great stories are for everyone, anywhere in the world. Managing Editor Radhika Menon’s Line and Circle, which explores form and shape, has pictures inspired by folk toys, and has been translated into national and international languages. Acclaimed film-maker and animator Nina Sabnani’s Home inspired by a traditional wooden shrine from Rajasthan called the Kaavad, has engaged parents, educators and storytellers.

Books that erase every trace of contemporary experience, show people and places caught in an idyllic time are dangerous for obvious reasons; it draws more keenly from nostalgia than lived experience.

Books that erase every trace of contemporary experience, show people and places caught in an idyllic time are dangerous for obvious reasons; it draws more keenly from nostalgia than lived experience. More, it reinforces age-old stereotypes and the idea of a monolithic India that doesn’t exist. Can we make books for children that are distinctive, inclusive and authentic without being trapped by cultural clichés? Can we tell imaginative stories that reflect the experiences of the marginalized and make them available in the mainstream? Can we preserve our multiplicity of language and culture in an inventive, vibrant manner in a globalized market? Can we make reading literacy an exciting and meaningful experience for young readers in different parts of India, incorporating their realities and empowering them?

We can and publishers are producing thought-provoking and inspiring books. Readers have begun to embrace this diversity, but writers, artists and publishers could do with a lot more support.


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