Awards go a Long Way in Recognising Good Children’s Literature

Summers are hot, humid and long in the sleepy town of Cuttack, in coastal Orissa. Even the birds fall silent. People take long siestas and little work happens. With nothing to do, 40 days of school vacation can seem like a lifetime to anyone. But I was fortunate to have stumbled upon the magical world of literature and stories and time was never enough to read all the books I could get my hands on. Of course it was a Western world where the children were different, the setting was foreign, and there were meadows and open air breakfast, walks on the beach and pets playing. It was not until 2010, when I went to the UK that I saw the pictures painted through my imagination materialize. What I did not read about, was other children like me, in other towns and cities of India, their lives and experiences. Culture, language and diversity was limited to boring Geography periods at school.
Today my 2-year-old daughter Lara has a big advantage – along with outstanding books from the West, she has access to the best Indian authors, illustrators and books. Her love of cats began with Where’s that Cat by Tulika. She hums Prayag Shukla’s Oont Chala Bhai Oont Chala, published by Pratham Books. When we read The Seed, a Tulika Publication, the first thing she asks is “Mama, what is she wearing?”, because the young protagonist in the story is wearing a pattu pavadai. Lara, living in Delhi, has never seen young girls wear one. She enjoys listening to the nonsense verse of Anushka Ravishankar in Tiger on a Tree and enjoys the late Pulak Biswas’s bold orange and black illustrations. Her current favourite is Chiknik Chun, a humourous picture book written by Sushil Shukl and illustrated by Atanu Roy (published by Eklavya).
Anushka’s work has been recognized in several international forums but in India, we don’t have a body or group that has systematically looked at children’s authors, illustrators or children’s books. The late Pulak Biswas is one such example. His colourful and folksy illustrations for Hen Sparrow Turns Purple by Tara Publishers won the Grand Prix at the Biennale of Illustrations, Bratislava. Tiger on a Tree, also won the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava, and in 2005 was listed in the American Library Association’s List of Notable Books. But in India, his work was not formally recognized or awarded. Illustrator Jagdish Joshi, whom we lost last month, has given us many memorable books and was known for his soft brush strokes and realistic art style. In 1998, he was a nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, in recognition of a ‘lasting contribution to children’s literature’. Yet, Joshi did not get recognition in India.
Indian children’s literature also has a handful of authors who have chosen to write stories that talk to young readers about who they are, and help them navigate a multicultural and multilingual environment. Today we have several examples of stories that reflect the Indian reality in content, visuals and production. They have given us stories that are not didactic but layered and sensitive, fight gender and caste stereotypes, inclusive and bring humour and fun into books. Without giving specific names, I would like to highlight the many themes around which we have children’s books today – sustainable development, caring for your environment, Indian artists, local art and craft, excluded communities such as children in rural areas and urban slums, protagonists who are differently abled, young adults who are grappling with questions of sexual identity, and inclusion of different geographies across India among others.
The celebration is not just in the fact that we are writing about these issues, but the way we are weaving our stories and illustrations. Care is being taken to not preach or teach but in subtle ways encourage young readers to enjoy a book and then reflect. But examples are few, especially when we look at the number of children we need to cater to. There is an acute need to encourage authors and illustrators to work with children’s books, write more stories, create more illustrations and push for outstanding books. More so in Indian languages, where the shortage of quality children’s books stands out like a sore thumb.
The Parag initiative of Tata Trusts in partnership with LiteratureLive! The Mumbai Litfest this month launched and are inviting nominations for the Big Little Book Award that will recognize and award significant contribution to children’s literature by an author and an illustrator. The language for authors will rotate every year, beginning with Marathi for 2016. The idea is to encourage writing in Indian languages. For illustrators, the award is not language specific since the strength of a picture is to tell a story irrespective of the language. The need to institute an award to recognize significant contribution emerged from almost a decade of working in the children’s literature sector, engaging with authors, illustrators and publishers and working with likeminded people to support the publication of quality children’s books.
The award is an organic growth of the Parag portfolio, which began in 2007 with systematic support to not-for-profit publishers to print affordable, original and contextual stories for children in Indian languages including English. Despite a handful of publishers working towards quality content, 45% of content for children is in English while 25% is in Hindi. Marathi takes up 6% and Kannada 4%. The other 20% is divided among the rest of the Indian languages. Yet majority of our children attend government schools and struggle to read and write in the regional languages. In Hindi, 80% of the content is reproduced and comprises Panchatantra, Jataka tales and moral and didactic stories. Under such circumstances it becomes critical to recognize and award good stories and individuals who are consistently working to publish them.
An award can play many roles. It recognizes the author/illustrator/publisher. It brings the winner’s body of work to the forefront and generates interest and awareness around it. If the award process is transparent and jury independent and competent, it can impact the sale of the book/s. For instance, the Newberry and Caldecott Medals, instituted by the American Library Association, have significant impact on the sale of books by a winning author/illustrator. The awards also help keep the books in print, insuring cumulative sales over a longer period. The Big Little Book Award is only in its first year but Parag aims to promote the work of winners and make them accessible to children through several means including author/illustrator meets, library and reading sessions across schools and libraries and discussions. In the long run, the Big Little Book Award should successfully create a platform for young readers, parents, schools, publishers and other stakeholders to meet and read the work of winners. The goal here is to ensure every child experiences the joys of reading and reading good children’s books.

Swaha Sahoo

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