“Books not only entertain, but contain a kernel of foodfor- thought”

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shares Shamim Padamsee in conversation with Varsha Verma. A seasoned writer of children books, she delves into the status of children literature in India. Shamim Padamsee loves books – to read and to write. Her dream of having a room filled with books is fast becoming reality. Her love for children’s books has been the driving force and led her to set up Young India Books, a website that reviews and promotes Indian books for children. As an author she is constantly concocting new stories to share with her six adorable grand-children. She has had several avatars in her life – globe-trotter, an educationist and a diplomat and has reveled in everyone of them. She is passionately interested in chi ldren’s literature and believes that books are important learning tools. Here, she shares her views on children literature.

Varsha: What have been the changes in the children literature in the last decade?

Shamim PadamseeShamim: The industry is changing, and definitely for the better. From the earlier didactic and moralistic books, today we have books that entertain, and yet, contain a kernel of foodfor- thought. And of course, the print quality is definitely better. Middle-grade fiction, which had been stagnating has in recent years exploded on the scene with a bang. Humour, wit, adventure, school life and realistic fiction, are all there.

Kids today have an amazing choice thanks also to the newer publishers, like Duckbill, who have carved a niche for themselves, and confidently stand by the publishing giants of children’s literature, Puffin, Scholastic and Hachette. In fact most of the titles that have won recent awards are in this category. And yet, we have miles to go! Close on the heels of middle grade fiction is the YA segment. Here too, we see great offerings. Publishers are taking bold steps in exploring today’s reality, issues of child molestation, female infanticide, drug abuse, homosexuality and such, are no longer taboo. Sensitively written, the books are articulate, entertaining and touching at the same time. Younger authors are now breaking new grounds. To name a few are Ranjit Lal, Revathy Suresh, Sowmya Rajendran and Himanjali Sankar.

Varsha: Do you think the Indian children bookpublishing industry is at par with the foreign counterparts, in terms of authors, illustrators, production quality, etc? Why/Why not?

Shamim: Though, our industry is making progress by leaps and bounds, we are yet to reach the finesse and quality of content of international literature for children. The gaps are many.

Varsha: What changes would you like to see in the industry?

Shamim: Sadly, in India we do not have board books for the very young. Which is sad, as this category, introduces children to the joys of reading at a young age, helping them grasp vital concepts and also provide building blocks for literacy.

Today, there is an abundance of picture books available with a wide range of topics, from fantasy to realistic fiction to creative non-fiction, the arts and more. Recently, some titles are more inclusive and have introduced differently-abled children as protagonists. One example is Catch that Cat by Tulika, featuring a feisty girl on a wheelchair. Books such as these enable mainstream children to be more accepting and empathetic. I would love to see more of these.

Another category that I would like to see more of is one that reflects the diversity of the land, peoples from different parts of the country with different lifestyles thus enabling children to experience perspectives other than their own. These would make for a more tolerant society in the future.

Sadly, however, the quality of our picture books, fluctuate from being excellent to downright bad. Too wordy, didactic, preachy, and even boring! Just the right ingredients to put off a young reader from books forever! This needs to change for, if the book does not capture the imagination of the child, we have lost a future reader.

Varsha: Tell us something about the efforts you are making in this direction?

Shamim: Young India Books is striving to place the best-of-India books in the hands of gen-next, to lay some essential building blocks towards a better India. We have a wide range of books reviewed on the site.

In order to further widen the awareness of these books and to applaud and appreciate schools that promote reading of India-centric books we have initiated an award for schools titled, The Leading Reading Schools of India Awards. The theme for last year was Wild About Wildlife. Children read from a recommended list of books (based on Indian fauna) and wrote an autobiography of the animal.

The theme this year is, You Be the Judge, through which kids will read a book, rate it and review it. Thus we get to delve into the minds and see the books through their eyes.

Varsha: What message would you like to give to parents/ teachers to choose the right books for children?

Shamim: Unfortunately, many parents do not see the value that lies hidden within the pages of a book. Books take you to far away worlds, and also enable you to dive deep within. They teach values, without preaching. They help you empathise, and best of all, they make a sensitive adult, one who cares about the world around him. So, my advise to parents would be, instead of getting your children mechanical toys, video games, get them books and see them grow into articulate, thinking adults.

Varsha: Anything else you would like to add…

Shamim: In general, books showcase characters and events with which children can identify. Hence, books set in our own milieu are vital to the child’s growth. Alas, as imported books are better known and produced they line the bookshelves of schools, bookstores and even in homes with impunity, thus denying our children the opportunity to see their own lives reflected in a book.

India-centric books have lower visibility and hence, it is quite understandable that children are quite ignorant of their land. For example, when I do story telling sessions in schools of my book, Poachers in Paradise, which talks of poaching of the Red Deer or Hangul, I usually start by asking children to name a few deer species. It is heartbreaking to hear most of them come up with – reindeer! Only an odd child here and there, will mention a Chital or a Sambar. If a child has not read books on our own flora and fauna – their heritage, will they want to protect and denounce the mass scale destruction of its habitat?

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