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FOR THE SAKE OF ALICE AND HER KIND

Bookwise

Repeated attempts have been made by Indian publishers to produce books that entertain as well as instruct the children. Such literature can range from textbooks to supplementary reading material prescribed by the school boards. Oral tradition, based on folktales, thrives in Indian culture — the Ramayana , the Mahabharata and The Adventures of Amir Hamza are leading examples. However, there are not many instances of new children’s writing in this country that one can talk about and one needs to ask oneself why.

First, it is the economic factor. The publishers often have to come up with something that is attractive and well presented. Paper quality, illustrations, colours have to be taken care of. And all this has to be done with production cost in mind as they also have to be made affordable for the middle class. The market for such books is usually uncertain and print runs are small. It also becomes quite difficult to manage the rising production costs. Textbooks might easily find buyers but library grants for supplementary materials are not always available.

Literature meant for children can only be published by semi-commercial organizations like Children’s Book Trust or when firms are offered massive subsidies. But such publishers or subsidies are not easy to come by. Such a time is yet to come in this country when a book is translated and published in ten other Indian languages with the same illustrations. This way the costs can be shared in a single large print run. This is how art books are produced at economical prices all over the world. It could be done here too if publishers collaborated with one another.

However there is a bigger challenge involved. The economic hurdle can still be overcome, but the task of finding authors who can write in a simple manner for children and weave fact and fantasy together is not easy. This is because, most of the children’s books are written by those who have a unique imagination and such authors are rare.

Alice in Wonderland was written by an Oxford don, while the two Bengali children’s classics, Abol Tabol and Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La — skilfully translated as Rhymes without Reason and A Topsy-Turvy Tale — were written and illustrated by the brilliant Sukumar Ray. There are several other examples, like the Folktales from India, written by A.K. Ramanujan. More such pieces can be found in The Indian Antiquary, journals of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and so on .

It is difficult for the contemporary publishers to find writers and artists who have the professional competence to undertake such a task. Moreover, they would also have to be willing to work for a paltry sum of money. The Indian publishers cannot afford to pay these writers very well. This is one of the main problems of Indian publishing. Only a few authors will be willing to accept such terms.

Only a handful of authors are available who want to write for children. Those who want to are already too burdened with work. One way to fill this void is by the redesigning existing books in a more attractive format to boost sales. Some progress has been made in this regard and one hopes that in the coming years more authors would want to take up writing for children, just as a labour of love.