Pre-teen authors are the latest sensation in the Indian publishing industry, finds Varuna Verma
TELL ME A STORY: A page from My Book of Me
Stupido once walked into a party dressed like a skeleton, goes the joke. When a friend asked him about his unusual attire, Stupido replied, "I had 'no-body' to come with."
Stupido — a goofy schoolboy who's always getting things wrong — is the creation of 12-year-old Ekagra Aggarwal. The Class VI student at Delhi's Shiv Nadar School has written and illustrated a comic strip collection of 25 Stupido jokes, which will be published as a book this year, by Offshoots, the young author imprint of Wisdom Tree Publishers.
"I used to doodle in class whenever I felt bored. That's where Stupido was born," says Aggarwal. When the cartoon character became a hit among his schoolmates, Aggarwal drew a whole series on the scrawny, funny-looking boy. "I submitted the comic strips for the school newsletter. My principal forwarded them to the publishers," says the pre-teen.
In India's growing fraternity of young writers, Aggarwal would probably be considered a senior. Bangalore-based Vidur Ayappa is half his age and already a published author. His illustrations and poem — about him being a pizza, who goes to the Pyramid of Giza, where he's mistaken for Monalisa — were part of a children's book, My Book of Me, published by Timbuktoo Publishing last December. "Vidur was thrilled to see his name in print," says the six-year-old's mother, Aarti Devaiah.
Launched last year by Aparna Raman, Timbuktoo is a publishing platform for books by children, for children. "Children can be terrific content generators. Timbuktoo's aim is to create a new market for child authors who write for their contemporaries," says Raman. Its first publication, My Book of Me, is authored by seven children between the age of six to nine years.
Publishing books, clearly, seems to have become child's play. At an age when most children are learning to spell "vocabulary", many pre-teens are penning books. "There is a growing perception in the publishing industry that young readers connect better with authors their age," says Rajat Barjatya, managing director and CEO, Rajshri Entertainment, Mumbai. The company launched its publishing division, Rajshri Books, with Barjatya's nine-year-old daughter Kashvee's fantasy novel recently.
At this year's Jaipur Literature Festival, Jhumpa Lahiri and William Dalrymple were rubbing shoulders with a 12-year-old poet who has two books under her belt. Zuni Chopra was invited to the literary event to speak at a panel discussion on "The writer within: creating your first book". "Writing is not like mathematics or rocket science. You have an idea, pen it down," she advised the audience.
After the discussion, Chopra's second book, Painting with Words — a collection of 55 poems — was unveiled. The poems are on random subjects, she says, from a seasick pirate to a dejected dinosaur. "I always had a head full of ideas. Writing them came naturally," recalls the Mumbai-based Class VII student.
These pint-sized writers are also riding on the fact that the market for children's books in India is growing at about 15 per cent per annum. "Look at the numbers of children's imprints being launched by publishing firms. Everyone — from Rupa, Penguin, Zubaan to Wisdom Tree — has jumped on the bandwagon. This has created new space for pre-teen authors to get their works published," says M. Venkatesh, co- founder, Bookaroo Children's Literary Festival.
Rupa Publications' youth author (YA) imprint, Red Turtle — launched last January — has rolled out 24 books, two by pre-teen authors. "Indian children's publishing has been the fastest growing segment within the industry. Red Turtle was launched to cater to this market," says Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, editorial director, Red Turtle.
Pre-teens, however, are a very recent entrant into the young author market — largely made up of teenagers, IITians and MBA students writing about life and love on college campuses. "Between various publishers, the number of books by pre-teens is just about reaching double digits. From here, it's only going to go north," believes Ghosh.
(From top) Zuni Chopra; Ekagra Aggarwal and Kashvee Barjatya
According to Ameya Nagarajan, editor, Penguin India, the current crop of children's writing in India — written largely by adult authors — is nostalgic, occasionally didactic and seems to come from an external voice. "Modern-day pre-teens want none of that," she says. Penguin's YA imprint, Inked — launched last April — aims to bring change by publishing authentic children's voices.
With the proliferation of literary festivals and high media focus, authors are more visible and accessible today. "Writing has suddenly become a glamorous, desirable profession," says Ghosh. Everyone — as well as their children — wants to be an author.
Also, in these times of auto-correct, online thesaurus and Google search, writing has become much easier than what it used to be. Anusha Subramanian — who was 11 when her first novel, Heirs of Catriona was published — will vouch for this. The 50,000-word fantasy fiction — about two friends, an evil queen and an alternate world — borrows heavily from Norse, or Scandinavian, mythology. "Norse folklore is full of fascinating characters, who added colour to my story. The Internet was my research tool," says the Class VIII student of Arya Vidya Mandir, Mumbai. She will start work on a sequel — with Indian mythology as a backdrop this time — once she's done with her final exams.
Besides printing books for and by young authors, publishing houses in India are also hosting diverse writing workshops and contests to get children's creative juices flowing. Inked, for instance, runs an online community for children authors.
Last year, Rupa Publications partnered with Max Life Insurance to launch the i-genius Young Authors Hunt, an annual contest to recognise writing talent in pre-teens. "This is an age when children start expressing their thoughts. The contest aims to motivate them to put it on paper," says Anisha Motwani, director and chief marketing officer, Max Life Insurance.
The contest received 5,500 stories as entries, out of which 50 were selected and published as a paperback titled i-genius A Twist in the Tale last December. A special e-book edition of 100 stories has also been brought out. "The book has sold out its initial print run," says Red Turtle editor Ghosh.
At Timbuktoo, publishing children's books is not just about running grammar and spellchecks on manuscripts before they go to the press. "We offer an end to end book-writing process for children, from mentoring through creative writing, editing to finally publishing," says founder Raman. Timbuktoo has two workshops lined up for the year — Genre Genie and one on creative writing — which will culminate in publishing two books. "I'm also mentoring a 12-year-old to write a fantasy novel," adds Raman.
Another 12-year-old, cartoonist Ekagra Aggarwal, meanwhile, has started work on his second project — a biography of Steve Jobs in comic book format. The Apple founder would have approved of his young biographer.