Friday, August 04, 2006

Read India Books: A Treasure Trove of Children's Literature in Indian Languages (and English)

When you read a well-written children's book, nothing seems easier than to write and publish one. What could be difficult? All you need is a good idea and simple words that a child can understand. Voila! You have a children's book. Right?

Wrong.

Just as a well-written book makes it seem so simple, a badly produced one is a lesson in how easy it is for a children's book to come out all wrong. Children's books are, or should be, all about capturing the child's imagination and making the child want to read. The language should be simple and straightforward (not at all easy to achieve, I tell ya), the illustrations rich and eye-catching, the layout easy to navigate, the pages child-friendly, and the length just right.

While there are numerous publishing houses that cater to the children's market, most of these books are written by non-Indian authors, primarily for a non-Indian market. Yes, Indian children can and do read these books. Most of us are familiar with and love Dr. Seuss (my review of two of his Horton books here), Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, etc.

But what about books that are set in India? Books that draw from our rich cultural heritage? Books based on the Panchatantra? Books based on our history? Most importantly, what about books in Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, our languages?

When my brother and I were growing up, we were fed a steady diet of Chandamamas and Amar Chitra Kathas. We read and our mother read to us many stories from Indian mythology and history. Both these books, however, were for the older children. The Chandamamas told stories in long text with few pictures while the Amar Chitra Kathas told the stories through dialogues and pictures in comic book format.

Moreover, the stories, especially those from our religion and mythology are not told in child-friendly terms. Here, I'm thinking of the story of Krishna and the events leading up to it, including the slaying of seven of his siblings by Kamsa, hardly appropriate for a child just learning to read or even slightly older children. When I first read the story to N from a "children's book" (he was slightly over three then) I had to skip the pages where the language was particularly gory.

My search for Indian books for N was proving to be hopeless. That is, until I found Read India Books, quite by accident. I found Indian stories with Indian characters set in Indian households, towns and cities. The language was excellent, not childish but definitely child friendly. Here's an example from a story called A Royal Procession:
It was early in the morning when Parvati and her brother Laxman entered the monastery through the tall gates. Their father was a potter and they had come to deliver earthen pots, plates, bowls and glasses.

Putting down her basket, Parvati looked around the courtyard, which was surrounded by a row of small rooms, and asked, "Is this where the Buddhist monks stay?"

"Yes," said Laxman. "They live in those rooms and pray to Lord Buddha in that temple. This place is called a vihara."
The Royal Procession is from a series called "Once Upon an India" written by Subhadra Sen Gupta and illustrated by Tapas Guha. The set contains four books, one each from the Maurya period, the Pallava period, the Mughal period and the Freedom Movement.

(N's thoughts on The Royal Procession, a story about two children who got to see King Ashoka in person: the story was good because it really happened (which he tells me he figured out from the last section of the book, "Fun Facts of History"), because he got to see the king on the elephant, because the art was good, and because the children were very lucky to have met the king.)

Read India Books is an arm of the Pratham organization. According to their website,
Pratham Books is a not-for-profit trust that seeks to publish high-quality books for children at a affordable cost in multiple Indian languages. Pratham Books is trying to create a shift in the paradigm for publishing children’s books in India. The low cost model proves that children’s literature can be attractive and affordable and therefore more accessible.

Read India Books is an imprint of Pratham Books and is the first of several publishing brands that we hope to create. Over the next one year Pratham Books will publish an additional 100 children’s book titles under the Read India brand.
The books are categorized by age groups and are available in a few Indian languages in addition to English. For example, the Tell Me Now! Series, Khikkhil Tota (Hindi, Marathi and Kannada), a series called Primers are all recommended for 3-6 year olds. Books such as Hum Sab Prani, Paheliyaan, Out and About with Ajja (available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Gujarati), Wild and Wacky Animal Tales (available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Gujarati) are recommended for 6-9 year olds and The Quirquincho and The Fox, The Magic Powder, Ganga ki Lehrein (English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada), a set of short stories in Hindi, Marathi and Kannada are all aimed at 10-14 year olds.

The books are printed on glossy, high-quality paper and book lengths range from about 15 pages to about 30 pages each. The color and the quality of the illustrations are excellent, as is the print. The type face is large and spaced so children can follow the words easily. The books are priced from Rs. 5 each (the Tell Me Now! Series) to about Rs. 25 each, and can be ordered online from Read India Books' website.

If you've been looking for high quality children's books in Indian languages with Indian stories told well but have been disappointed so far, I say your search has ended.

Crossposted on Project Child.

25 comments:

Sunil said...

excellent. I want to read them now, to find out what I missed.

witnwisdumb said...

I don't mean to be partisan, but in my opinion, most of the Indian books I have read so far, lack something that is important to children - the element of humour. Sure, a couple of comic books elicit a chuckle now and then, but on the whole, they're really not as funny as Dr. Seuss, Dahl (as far as his children's books are concerned) or Asterix.

Sumitra said...

I hope Pratham is really doing good work and not feeding the young minds with subtle Marxist ideology.
I used to naively believe in all these charities for children until I found out out that many of them have a political anti national ideology....
It is true that books for 3-6 year olds are lacking in India but Chandamama and Amar chitra katha are fine for older children. There exists an enormous business opportunity - writing pre-school books in local languages. It will improve literacy as well.

mumbaigirl said...

Have you heard the Karadi Tales and Rhymes? I haven't and thought you might have.

Sujatha said...

Sunil, go for it! :)

Witnwisdumb (what a name!), yes, I know what you mean. There are so many layers of meaning in Asterix, I still chuckle when I read them now, after having read them about a 100 times. :) Humor is so difficult to achieve though. I'm hoping that as children's literature (especially for the very young) matures, authors will feel brave enough to explore humor as well.

Sumitra, that is an interesting thought. As far as I can tell, there's isn't any idealogy in these books other than to reach young kids and tell them stories.

MG, yes I know about Karadi tales, but unfortunately, that is the one I was talking about in my post - the storty of Krishna is from a Karadi tales book. I like the other two Karadi tales book we have - the story of Hanuman and the story of three fishes. They are both child friendly and the stories, especially the Hanuman story, are told well.

harry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
surya said...

hey.... ur blog took me bac to my childhood days .... gud one :)

Pavithra said...

Hi Sujatha. Came to your blog via the desipundit, and must say, I found the article quite insightful.

Re Children's Books, have you tried Katha Books. They publish quality books for children, written by Indian authors and illustrators.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha-

Please excuse my long comment!

I am a newbie on your blog. You have a lovely one! Nicely written article. I can totally relate to your experiences with Amar chitra katha, and in general the children's book scene in India. I grew up mostly on comic style stories of hindu mythology and lots of tinkle, champak during my 4 to 10 yrs. And then it suddenly became -enid blyton, famous five, secret seven, nancy drew during the tween years - 10 to 12 - What a random transition to the western style - half of the content so alien and confusing!
And then come 13-16 - the teenage time - it was Archie's comics mostly(what a random jump from the world of enid blyton. i.e from England to the trashy teen comics from the US!), but we did of course focus on nonfiction too - mostly scientific and geography based encyclopedia, GK books etc.

I feel there's so much that can be done in the world of children's books, and when I think of my own journey and experiences, I don't feel I got the right balance of books growing up - both fiction and nonfiction! It's high time we started offering our kids fiction books from 4 to 16 that focus on a variety of themes!

Now that I have my own 4 year old, I feel absolutely confident and proud to say that the indian children's book market has indeed matured - in fact, I should say it's just starting to blossom just now - thanks to alternative publishing houses, and a real grass roots movement that's starting to emerge. We have a long way to go though - nevertheless, I am very excited about the different kinds of children's books emerging in India - a lot with humor too - tulika's picks particularly.

I live in the US, and I am determined to find quality Indian books for my daughter both from India and from here that focus on the immigrant experiences - there are some lovely authors here that are emerging - both first generation and second generation Indian immigrants. Children's literature is one my passions now, and I am attempting to create this blog focusing on the world of Indian children's literature. Please go through if you it's worthwhile your time. Also, on a personal note - I see that you were in Washington D.C. before you moved to India. We are planning to move to D.C. suburbs from this conservative, right wing midwestern(southern actually) city!
I am thrilled!! I will frequent your blog to read about everything that you write. I will try and keep my future comments short - ! :-)

thanks!

prabha

Anonymous said...

I visited a very interesting site, they have a vast collection of books which have been categories and are presented to viewers in an easy-to-search format. You should check it out.

http://www.khichdee.com/category-catid-11-paraid-0.htm

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I agree that Pratham is an outstanding source of books for Indian kids in India and abroad. They have a wonderful selection of books at a cheap price. I also visit another wonderful source of books for my kids in the US.

You can find it at www.balghar.com.

They too have a wonderful selection of books for kids in hindi as well as multiple other Indian languages. Thanks for posting about Pratham, I will have to go and buy their selection as well now.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Anon, thank you for your comment and for the pointer to balghar. Will definitely check it out.

Enfoured said...

Hi Sujatha.

This is interesting because here in London we have volunteered on and off for Pratham work, and the guy who leads the Pratham UK effort is a friend/neighbour. He once gifted a set of Read India books to my daughter and I thought they were nice but didnt follow up. After reading this post I checked the website and must thank you as I now have a source of interesting Hindi books for my daughter who is learning Hindi. Have placed an order and am waiting for the books to arrive.

Thanks again (how many times will I say this to you?!)

Enfoured said...

By the way,

Karadi Rhymes (both I and II) are excellent stuff. Very addictive!

Sujatha said...

E, thanks for your comment and you're welcome. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha,
Thanks for your write up on Pratham books. I am always on the lookout for good Hindi and Marathi children's books for my 1 year old son.
He has torn many of the books we purchased in India since the paper in not high quality, while his US-published books are surving nicely.
What do you think of the quality of the paper used in Pratham books?
Thanks!

Sujatha said...

Anon, for a one year old board books are the best. As I mentioned in the post, in the books I saw, Pratham uses glossy paper, it may still not hold up to a toddler's treatment though.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sujata,

Thanks for the reply. Yup wish I could get board books in Marathi but haven't found any.

I own dozens of books by Tulika (again not Board books) but I guess they must have glossy pages since they aren't tearing.

I really like Tulika's bilingual books. I've purchased the Hindi and Marathi ones. I'll give Pratham a try now!

Best, Marashtrian Mom

Anonymous said...

Try a new online Hindi Stories resource at:

www.hindikatha.com

Sampurna said...

Thankyou Sujatha for all the nice things you have said about our books.
I am part of the Pratham Books team and work out of Delhi and we are all working towards our vision of 'a book in every child's hand'.
Some of the comments posted on the site were very interesting indeed!
In case you or anyone interested in our books is visiting India and would like to buy our books, do drop in at our offices in Delhi or Bangalore.The addresses are available on our website. We would love to meet you.
Sampurna Murti

Gautam said...

Hey!

Just to let you know that Pratham Books is now blogging too..

http://blog.prathambooks.org/

Ammu said...

While there is a lot of good children's literature coming from India in English and regional languges, I would rate Pratham's publications as very very disappoiting. They are focusing on quantity rather than quality. It is a concern and serious one.

Gautam said...

Hi Ammu. I'm sorry you've had a bad experience with our books but we'd love to have some feedback on why you felt we prioritized quantity over quality. We do want to improve.

sushilover said...

Just thought I'd share this with all those who are looking for good websites with stories for kids. Remember the favorite magazine Chandamama? Well, it is still around and to add to their existing line up, they have a great website where you can access their old and new stories. There are activities for kids and wonderful stories to share. In fact, their site has recently introduced a new Alerts widget that informs the user every time new content is published on their site. Check out www.chandamama.com. Kids will love it.

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