A brief trajectory of children’s literature
International Children’s Book Day falls on 2nd April. This is also the day when the famous fairy tale writer – Hans Christen Andersen was born. But when Anderson wrote, children’s literature was not the established genre we recognize today. This article helps chart out the trajectory of children’s literature without overloading factoids and making it a mini-lesson on history. Additionally, this article will help sniff out some of the must-read children’s books available in the market today.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines children’s literature as “the body of written works and accompanying illustrations produced to entertain or instruct young people.” In the term “children’s literature”, the focus word is literature. For the most part, the adjective imaginative is to be felt as preceding it. It comprises the vast, expanding territory filled with fantasies, emotions, and mythical characters recognizably staked out for a junior audience, which does not mean that it is not also intended for older readers.
Historically, adults have been writing stories, poems, fables, lullabies, folk songs, and a range of materials intended for children to be termed as children’s literature. Before the 18th century, didactic and preachy materials were written for children intended for their spiritual and moral development. John Cotton, a Puritan minister wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646. It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals, and manners. Another Puritan Minister James Janeway collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children published in 1671. These are the earliest forms of literature intended specifically for children.
Then, in the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. Due to the improvement in literacy rates, there was continued demand for instructional work. Additionally, with the advancements in technology, it also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers. Some exemplary works of this age are John Newbury’s A Little Pretty Pocketbook, Hymns in Prose for Children by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. Nonetheless, the focus of these works remained moral instruction.
The 19th century saw a lateral thematic shift in children’s literature from the holy to the imaginative space. This alteration was fuelled by the works of Hans Christen Anderson and the popularization of the fairy tales by the Grimm brothers, whose first collection was published in 1812. Their engrossing folklore includes the immensely wide-read tales of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. These stories appealed to that demographic while they may not have attracted rave critical reviews. Nonetheless, they are embedded in the psyche of children and adults across the globe.
The following century saw more writers being interested in this genre and works such as Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, and the works of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton started gathering admiration. But this remained restricted to the West. In the Indian space, throughout many generations, Indian children, especially in their formative years, have been exposed to a staple reading diet that has primarily comprised translated Western classics such as English, German, Russian, and Greek fairy tales, myths and fables. These are coupled with Indian folk tales, epics and myths in regional languages, translated into English, such as the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales. The more ingenious readership slowly and gradually started drifting towards contemporary Indian writing in English. And, for a long time, the enduring names in children’s literature in the country were Ruskin Bond and R.K. Narayan – they even featured in the CBSE/ICSE/State Board curriculum.
Chitwan Mittan, founder of AdiDev Press opines, “Apart from storybooks, another form of storytelling and presentation that continues to be rather popular amongst children, who are independent readers, are comic books. However, aside from the Amar Chitra Katha series that sought to package Indian mythology, and later history, in the comic format to make these themes accessible to a younger audience, there’s scant little India can boast of. Similarly, while there are others, such as Tinkle, through evergreen characters such as Suppandi and Shikhari Shambu, and Chacha Chaudhary, that entertained and educated in equal measure, little noteworthy has happened in this space ever since their creation.”
Fighting centuries of cultural guilt, the 21st century body of children’s literature has been revamped. Indigenous publishing houses such as Tulika Books, Pickle Yolk Books, Pratham Books and the like have taken on the responsibility to bring out stories from every nook and corner of the heartland with a renewed focus on local languages and dialects, bolder themes, a rethinking of stereotypes, and setting scenes in the notedly Indian contexts to foster inclusion and sensitivity. This change has also stemmed from the fact that the parents of today are far more aware and recognize the need for the cognitive development of their child instead of merely educational instruction. Moreover, these books are also available in several languages to reach out to a wider readership. Radhika Menon, Director of Tulika Books, says that they select stories that offer a range of experiences that are inclusive and representative: of different childhoods, social milieus, cultures, and contexts.
Vidya Mani, the managing editor of Goodbooks, a website that reviews and discusses books for Indian children, says that the trend could be due to parents “actively looking for books that can connect with children here. Indian books speak a lot more to children and parents are recognizing that.” However, she wishes that teachers and librarians take a little more effort to curate reading lists for children, apart from the ones put out by the CBSE. Cognisant of the situation, Richa Sethi created GetLitt! an e-library and mobile reading app which in her words is “a secure platform for storing books licensed from publishers and a gamified space to encourage reading and self-expression through reward points.” Similarly, Pratham Books also recently launched a platform called StoryWeaver, a digital repository of multi-lingual stories which are available for free.
Consequently, the children’s literature being churned out today represents stories with a braver voice and experiments with form, tone, genre, the use of vernaculars, and a plurality of subjects. Some of the themes that are engaged with are dealing with grief, terminal illnesses, and death, resolving one’s identity issues, understanding special abilities, and mental health, and celebrating all kinds of diversity. Here are some of the must-read books in this genre:
• The Boy with Two Grandfathers, for instance, written by Mini Shrinivasan, is a poignant exploration into the world of a child who loses his mother and is surrounded by the love and warmth of two grandfathers who work together to soften the effect of the absence of his mother. In the story, Aai and I by Mamta Nainy, the story unfurls when the mother comes back from the hospital and the daughter realizes that they no longer look alike.
• Guthli has Wings, written by Kanak Shashi deals with questions of gender. It is about a child born as a boy who loves wearing dresses but is surrounded by unaccepting family members. Shashi intentionally uses the pronouns “she” and “her” to show the world as the child wants to see it. It ends on a heart-warming note with the mother understanding what the child loves and supporting it. Similarly, The Unboy Boy by Richa Jha and Gautam Benegal, published by Pickle Yolk Books gently narrates that there are no “boy boys” and no “unboy boys” and shows a child at ease with who he is. In The Boy Who Wore Bangles by Riddhi Maniar Doda, published by Karadi Tales, a young boy gives her grandmother a new perspective on clothing and gender.
• Ruhi Finds Her Princess: Follow Her Search by Reshma Bachwani published by Notion Press subtly deals with the themes of following one’s heart and touches upon the transgender community and tells the reader that they are the actual “princesses” as against the Western white women who have been holding this title for epochs.
• In Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand, Sheila Dhir writes a delicate work, in the words of a differently-abled child, who wants to tell the society not to behave in strange ways with children: “Don’t be silly/Don’t feel bad/For what you have/Just feel glad.” Similarly, Machher Jhol by Richa Jha and Sumanta Dey deals with the journey of a visually-impaired boy as he sets out on a quest to scour the ingredients for his father’s favourite fish curry.
With the upsurge in the number of titles and more and more publishing houses opening up to cater to the needs of young audiences, the landscape of the genre seems to be promising. However, Sayoni Basu of Duckbill Books believes that the real achievement would be when children opt for books by Indian authors. “A lot of parents want books with Indian mythology and folktales; for which, there are no non-Indian substitutes. So, I’m not sure how much ‘opting’ it involves,” she says.
In conclusion, it can safely be said that the perspective of writing children’s books and the lens through which the stories are told has undergone a drastic change. Many Sudha Murthys, Ramendra Kumars, Nalini Sens are coming to the forefront to shatter myths, break boundaries, expand the horizons, and add nuance and variety to the genre. Especially with the way reading is changing through e-books, audiobooks and more, books have become necessities more than luxuries, and rightly so.
The author works as an English language curriculum designer and editor. She has a Master’s degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. She has about seven years of experience working as an English language assessment specialist, a writing/speaking examiner for various international examinations, an item writer, and a content developer for the K-8 segment. Additionally, as a consultant editor with various renowned publishing houses, she has edited over 100 books ranging from academic to fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s writing. Her articles on ELT pedagogy and learning strategies have been published in several educational magazines and blogs. She can be reached at email@example.com.