A kid with a book is an onlooker’s delight. However, it is not just that. A kid with a book is an affirmation of an alternate future, a future that is hard to predict. A future that may never materialise. A luminous, promising future.
So when a publisher of children’s books asserts that young readers have more quality literature than there ever was, you know that this future is just around the corner, and that, it’s here to stay.
Sayoni Basu, Co-Founder of Duckbill and Consulting Editor at Penguin Random House, in conversation with Shruti Kohli, Managing Editor, Kunzum, talks about the changing landscape of children’s publishing in India, its growing global appeal, and acquainting children with complex issues, like war and gender, through good storytelling.
Shruti: How has the children’s bookshelf evolved over the years?
Sayoni: Children’s publishing in India has changed quite dramatically over the last decade. With many new publishers, new authors and most importantly, a willingness to explore new ideas, children’s books have become diverse (though there is always room for more) and exciting. However, two other observations: Firstly, to call it a bookshelf is only metaphorical as a lot of digital products also supply good ‘books’ such as Storyweaver. Secondly, in terms of purchasing, a lot of parents still prefer non-Indian books as there is insufficient awareness of the quality and diversity of Indian children’s books.
Children’s publishing in India has changed quite dramatically over the last decade. With many new publishers, new authors and most importantly, a willingness to explore new ideas, children’s books have become diverse (though there is always room for more) and exciting.
Shruti: Duckbill/PRH has recently added subjects like war, queer etc. to its children’s and YA collections. How are the readers receiving these titles
Sayoni: Recently is not quite accurate as the first book in the Not Our War (NOW) series, Wanting Mor, was published in 2013, and the first book with a queer protagonist that Duckbill published Talking of Muskaan, was in 2014. These books find a few thoughtful readers, primarily through indie bookshops where shopkeepers handsell these to customers who are likely to be interested, or to people who have discovered them through social media. The problem is that if the subjects are not mainstream, mainstream media tends not to cover them–though I am happy to report that this is changing somewhat. But the books have sold steadily over the years, so there is clearly a readership which likes more challenging subjects.
Shruti: Indian English (children’s and YA fiction) writing has picked up well since recently. How far is it from making a mark globally?
Sayoni: Indian picture books have long been making a mark internationally–publishers like Tara and Karadi, and authors like Anushka Ravishankar have a significant presence in multiple countries and languages. When it comes to books for middle-grade and YA readers, it tends to be more niche as there is not the same comfort level (for publishers!) in publishing non-Anglosphere books. But there are exceptions–historical novelist Devika Rangachari has been published in the UK for example–and perhaps it will grow.
Shruti: Your flagship series – hOle book series – set new standards in the children’s category. How did the idea to publish such a series come about? How do you select stories for this series?
Sayoni: The idea was quite simple–there was a dearth of early chapter books in the market, so that was a very obvious space to start. We select stories by their entertainment value, the relevance of the story to the target age group, and the relevance of the themes to the lives of contemporary children. And of course, by the quality of storytelling.
Indian picture books have long been making a mark internationally–publishers like Tara and Karadi, and authors like Anushka Ravishankar have a significant presence in multiple countries and languages.
Shruti: There are numerous authors under this series. How do you select authors?
Sayoni: The series began with our asking some authors who had written or we felt had the potential to write for this age group to start off the series. Some were manuscripts which were submitted to us were adapted to the requirements of the series. And over the years, as people became more aware of the series, we began to get manuscripts specifically for the series. Or we think of subjects which might be interesting to this age group, and talk to authors. So the manuscripts come about in varied ways.
Shruti: Yet another disruptive series launched under the Duckbill-PRH umbrella is the Not Our Wars (NOW) series. Tell us about how it all started.
Sayoni: The series started in 2013 with Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan, set in Afghanistan, and White Zone by Carolyn Keene, set in Iraq (we subsequently lost rights to this book). We really wanted to publish stories set in India, but we had not found any suitable manuscript. We felt the importance of this series as children are the greatest victims of war, and we often try to protect our own children from its realities. But it is important to understand and develop empathy for how much suffering it causes so that we can try to eliminate war from our lives.
The third book we published was When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina, set in South Africa. And then finally, we got one set in India, Hannah Lalhlanpuii’s debut novel When Blackbirds Fly.
Shruti: The most recent book in the NOW series is set in India’s very own conflict zone – Mizoram – while the rest are based abroad – Afghanistan and South Africa. Can we expect a book from Kashmir in this series?
Sayoni: The problem is that these novels are really complex, so it is not something that one can really commission. The desire to write has to come from within the author. So, like all publishers, I sit and hope and wait for someone to want to write it.
Shruti: Which book/series was your personal favourite growing up?
Sayoni: I grew up a long long time ago, so there was little choice in English children’s books. I think my favourites were Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. And of course PG Wodehouse. I read a lot of Bengali fiction, where my favourite authors were Lila Mazumdar, Satyajit Ray and Sunil Gangopadhyay.
Shruti: What does your 2022 reading list look like?
Sayoni: I don’t really plan my reading–as in, I plan but I usually end up not reading most of it since I pick up things that catch my interest at that point of time. Right now I am reading Notes from Tartary by Peter Fleming, which is an old travelogue and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which is honestly quite hard going so I keep abandoning it but interesting enough that I pick it up again. Last night I finished reading A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is magic, mystery and romance, and quite wonderful. And in the background, I am quietly reading my way through the collected works of Manu Pillai.
Shruti: What did your 2021 reading list look like? (these would be 10-15 titles you read through 2021. You may add a line or two of your own review with each title)
Sayoni: I don’t remember what I read last month, so I really have no memory of 2021. But 2020-21 have been deeply disturbing, so I read a lot of mysteries and historical romances, which are my comfort reads rather than engage with anything that needed more mind space. If you are a fan of historical romances, I strongly recommend Evie Dunmore, who writes against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement in Victorian England, and is so quite fascinating.