Research has established multiple benefits of recreational reading for children. Literature helps develop language skills (Sen and Sikka 2019), fosters social and emotional learning (Tamir et al 2015), builds perspective and gives children an opportunity to engage with and respond to the text (Rosenblatt 1978). When read along with adults, books help foster an emotional bond between the child and the adult (Canfield et al 2020). Most of all, however, reading literature gives children joy.
Despite its rich history and advantages, access to good quality children’s literature, particularly in Indian languages, is a challenge for majority of children and young adults in India. What are the notable books published for children in India every year? Where does one find good books that children can read, especially books with Indian stories and characters, and familiar social and cultural contexts? Who are some active authors, illustrators and publishers in the field? Can these books be bought at bookshops or borrowed from libraries nearby?
The Parag Honour List (PHL) was conceptualized to address some of these questions. The Honour List is an annual recommended reading list of the best of Indian children and young adult literature in Hindi and English. It has been created with careful screening and multiple reviews by experts in the children’s literature sector. Only original text is considered for the list. Retellings, if done with a fresh perspective, are also considered. The list is different from book awards, where one book is selected per category. Rather, the list highlights a variety of notable books published over one year across age groups and genres.
“I appreciate that the selection process is rigorous and independent. Every publisher is free to send books. One round of shortlisting is done based on the selection criteria. Post that, books are sent to us. We read every book, make detailed comments about each book, and then meet to discuss and arrive at a final list,” shares Arun Kamal, a jury member and author.
In the entire process, Parag only plays the role of a facilitator and does not have a say in the decision of the jury.
Quality children’s literature in India
The definition of a good children’s book is shaped by several factors – exposure to different genres, writing styles of different authors across age groups, the span of illustrations and design, our understanding of the reader, and the socio-cultural context in which the discourse is situated. To an extent, any recommended reading list will reflect the understanding, previous experiences and choice of its jury. The intent of PHL is to come up with a list of books that children will enjoy and see value in, that will enrich them, connect with them, educate them and also leave them with new ways of seeing. Not all books have all the qualities, but the list aims to achieve a fine balance.
The PHL jury looks for books where language is creative, playful and inviting for the reader to connect with. Sometimes, the language is bold. Many authors featured on the list have experimented with prose and verse, bringing freshness to their writing. Take the collection of Hindi poems, Bhai Tu Aisi Kavita Kyun Karta Hai (PHL 2021). The word play, humour and simplicity of the poems make them a delightful read for children and adults alike. There are several other Hindi poetry collections that have made it to the list since its launch in 2020. These are not only excellent resources for children to experience the richness of the language, but also play a key role in introducing Hindi to children for whom it is a second or third language.
Children’s books can be meaningful, evocative and delightful. As the jury says, “We look for layered stories. For younger children, the story can be seemingly simple, opening up many ideas and thoughts.” One such book is Machli Nadi Khol Ke Baithi (PHL 2022). A picture book for early readers, the text reveals something novel with each read and presents a profound thought about our relationship with nature. Another poignant entry to PHL 2022 is Jamlo Walks, a story of Jamlo’s long walk home during the lockdown. The story attempts to present the contrasting lives children lived during the lockdown. With simple language and thoughtful illustrations, the book brings alive the disparities of privilege in children’s lives.
Library educators have also appreciated books with layered themes towards their direct work with children.
“Chutki and Cheero from the PHL Book Box 2021, is one of the favourites amongst our children. I have used it to talk about fear, particularly to address anxiety and uncertainty in the pandemic. Conversations around the books helped me gauge children’s anxieties around re-opening of schools,” shares Kiran Tiwari from Upakram Foundation in Uttar Pradesh. The foundation works with open communities and primary schools through Pop-up and Jhola Libraries in Sonbhadra district.
“Many books like Ghudsawar and Hau Hau Hupp challenged my biases around using difficult books with children. I work with children from tribal areas, with many of them at low learning levels. I thought they would not be able to grasp difficult or layered storylines. I was wrong! Ghudsawar is such an intense book and our children loved it.”
Lack of availability in Indian languages
The selection process for the list has highlighted the existing trends and gaps in the children’s literature sector in India. A majority of Indian publishers publish only translations and fairy tales. Over the last three years, Parag received 519 books in English language and only 120 from Hindi publishers. After the launch of the List in 2020, many Hindi publishers and also a few K-12 English publishers stopped sending in books. They realized their books would not meet the selection criteria for PHL. A few Hindi publishers we interacted with acknowledged that the quality of books in the language was poor. They wanted to publish good quality books, but unfortunately did not see a market among Hindi readers, particularly for children’s literature.
The books sent in for PHL by publishers are predominantly fiction, followed by a small fraction of non-fiction books. Poetry is almost negligible in English publishing for children, with only two books received over three years. Other genres such as biographies and dramas are also absent. Even good quality graphic novels for children and young adults are difficult to come by, pointing to a lack of exploration in formats.
“For me, there is nothing like a children’s book. A good book is enjoyed by everyone, adults and children alike. From picture books to ghost stories to fantasies to reflective, philosophical books – libraries and classrooms need to have an entire range. This is missing currently and many genres are absent,” shares Prachi Kalra, a jury member and a teacher educator at University of Delhi.
Promoting children’s literature
Through PHL and its associated work, Parag also aims to create a market and demand for good quality children’s literature. To this end, PHL is disseminated to libraries, schools, NGOs working in school education and school boards. The first PHL (PHL 2020) was launched at the New Delhi World Book Fair. A display of the PHL Books was put up. Hundreds of parents and children browsed through the books and made a beeline for the different titles and publishers that were featured.
The PHL Book Box was further launched to create awareness about the list and the books. Separate sets of English and Hindi books are sent to non-profit organizations, libraries, schools, home libraries and learning centres that have been doing meaningful work in the library space. Parag invites applications and has detailed conversations with the applicants to understand their work, before selecting the applicant.
“With a curated collection of books across different themes, the PHL Book Box has helped me look for other books under similar themes, as well as explore varied themes in children’s literature. The curated collection also helped me greatly in running a month-long readathon called Book Explore, where we used the books from the Book Box,” says Haripriya Bathula from The Book Shelf Library, Hyderabad. The Book Shelf Library began in 2016. It is an award-winning and self-funded library for children and aims to nurture readers. The library received the PHL Book Box in 2020 and 2021.
While English books continue to have better visibility than Hindi books, independent publishers feel that a curated reading list has helped in popularizing books irrespective of the language. Most urban children prefer reading English books by foreign authors. They need to be actively introduced to Indian children’s literature that is accessible and available in their schools, libraries and homes. Parag experimented with this idea at the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival in New Delhi in 2021. Bookaroo caters to an urban audience and the team was doubtful of selling many copies, especially the Hindi PHL books. Contrary to the team’s expectations, the response was tremendous, with numerous takers for Hindi books. Many titles on the shelf were sold out.
“Every year, we look forward to our books being featured on the list, which is unique as an initiative in the children’s literature sector. It has greatly contributed to the diversity of our reach,” says Sushil Shukla, publisher and founder of Ektara.
Notably, India’s National Education Policy (2020), talks at length about the three-language formula with education in local language/mother tongue and an exposure to and promotion of Indian languages. It emphasizes local language or home language learning, especially in the early years to ensure and develop comprehension. The role of good quality, contextual and multilingual children’s literature and vibrant libraries is well-established in early language research. It is imperative towards enabling comprehensive language learning. If we want children to experience and enjoy different languages, we need to encourage a love for books, stories and rhymes at an early age. For government schools, the state governments are primarily responsible for selecting and providing books for school libraries. Recommended Reading Lists can support in large scale procurement of curated Indian children’s books for school libraries and promoting access to quality literature.
The Parag Honour List is a medium to talk about the best of Indian children’s literature, encourage good quality publishing and enable these books to reach a diverse audience. Overall, the hope is that PHL and other curated lists are able to contribute towards high quality children’s literature globally.
• Canfield, C., Miller, E., Shaw, D., Morris, P., Alonso, A., & Mendelsohn, A. (2020). “Beyond language: Impacts of shared reading on parenting stress and early parent-child relational health”. Developmental Psychology, 56(7), 1305-1315.
• Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978) The reader, the text, the poem: A transactional theory of literacy work. Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
• Sen. S and Sikka S. (2019). “Importance of Literature to Literacy”. In ASER 2019 – Annual Status of Education Report (Rural): Early Years”. Pratham Education Foundation, New Delhi.
• Tamir, D., Bricker, A., Dodell-Feder, D., & Mitchell, J. (2015). “Reading fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network”. Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, 11(2), 215-224. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv114.
The author is the India country director for STiR Education, an international non-profit that supports education systems focused on motivating every child, teacher and official to learn and improve. Previously, the author spent a decade with the Tata Trusts, leading the Parag Initiative. She can be reached at email@example.com.