Towards Skillful & Sensitive Publishing

Tulika Books has been making a place for itself in the hearts of young readers all over. Radhika Menon, publishing director, Tulika Books tells Janani Rajeswari. S, about the journey to success of the publishing house. Excerpts.

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AABP: Tulika Books has carved a niche for itself in the world of young adults and children’s writing. How did it all start?

Radhika: Tulika Publishers was set up in 1996 fuelled by a determination to create Indian books that were as good as the best books anywhere. Ours was a generation reacting to having grown up on a diet of books from the west, while shying away from didactic, badly produced Indian books. Good books happened elsewhere, usually in England it seemed!

AABP: How has the world of children’s writing changed over the years?

Radhika: We would say, definitely for the better. With a spurt in the number of publishers’ world over, there are more opportunities for talented writers and illustrators. After years of moralistic stories, recycled mythological and folk tales, Enid Blyton imitations and the like, children now have a range of books that they can identify with – in terms of themes, settings, and names – more culturally rooted children’s literature. There are also books for children catering to specific age groups, for example, Young Adult and non-fiction, with writers and illustrators exploring many genres, subjects, concerns and media. While children’s books seem to be a space publishers want to be in, there is still a long way to go before we find a distinctive ‘voice.’ It will happen because the good news is that many writers are turning to it as a profession (if not full-time). But with it comes the danger of diluting quality – the notion that anything will do for children, and of the whole process getting fast-tracked in the race for publishers to add more and more books to the list. It will take time and space to mature. Innovation and changes in technology are putting books on digital platforms and this is also transforming the way content is created and presented.

AABP: What sets Tulika Books apart from the crowd?

Radhika: The range of books (picture books in nine languages, bilingual books, fiction, non-fiction, books on art, the environment, history, politics and topical issues, and resource books), high standards of writing, illustrating, design and production. Rooted in the Indian context, the books are class, caste- and gender-sensitive and offer a rich reading experience to children across social, economic, political and cultural divides. The skill and sensitivity that goes into the publishing books ensures an enriching, empowering and assimilative reading experience for all children.

Tulika’s eclectic books are conceived in innovative ways by authors and illustrators who share our vision of creating children’s contemporary books reflecting their immediate environment and portray different childhoods. Each book is the result of the need to challenge the norms of what works for children. Our books have found devoted readers across the world.

From a runaway peppercorn to a wild kiang, a sleepy elephant Bahadur to a pleasant rakshasa, from stories born of thumbprints to friendships across barbed wires and over mangoes, Tulika offers an amazing variety of original stories for children to savour and ponder over. The treatment of these stories and use of language play a big part in engaging the child.

Pictures are distinctive, rich and diverse, complementing and supplementing the text in numerous ways. Sometimes, they tell a parallel story or provide a sub text. Many other times, they add wit and make subtle and overt comments that words simply cannot. So, words and pictures in aesthetic and imaginative layouts take the story forward. These elements of Tulika Books offer a sumptuous reading experience.

AABP: Your books are more pictorial laying greater emphasis on the illustrator’s work. Tell us more about the process of creating such books such as printing and colour schemes.

Radhika: A picture book is in many ways the child’s first window to literacy. Thus, creative possibilities and challenges are very exciting for both the creators and the readers. We have worked with seasoned and young illustrators over the years. So, we know what books would suit their styles and they know how exacting we can be! We work closely with our illustrators, from creating rough sketches to final illustrations.

The choice of paper – thickness, matte or glossy – is chosen based on the medium on which the pictures are done. This is followed by the quality of the printing. The black text needs to be sharp and the colours of the pictures faithful to the illustrator’s originals. But costs are always an important consideration. After the initial resistance to the high pricing of books (as compared to the market suited for Indian books), Tulika’s books are now as seen as reasonably priced for the quality offered. Publishing in regional languages pricing is something we are constantly balancing.

Next in line is an attractive cover that compels one to pick up the book. As our books are multilingual, our first criterion is the space for the title in all the nine languages we publish in. In some languages, the title can be longer – what is two words in English may become three or four words, or just one. So, the challenge with every cover is to make sure that it doesn’t look too cramped or have too much empty space. Names can be longer in some languages, and we also have to make space for the translation credit on the cover. Another big drawback is the inability to use colour in the title or credits on the cover, or even inside of the title page. All text has to be in black because while printing books in several languages. Title and credits in colour increase the production cost while doing multiple editions. Thus, only the black is overprinted. Very often, a picture from the inside is used for the cover. However, we ask our illustrators not to make the cover merely illustrative of the title – it should be suggestive, giving a glimpse of what the reader could look forward to in the book. Children get attracted and do judge a book by its cover, according to an interesting insight from the experience of groups, who run reading literacy programmes.

Initially, parents and teachers pick books up for teaching purposes, however, the learning element becomes secondary. The colour palette chosen by the illustrator is, of course, based on the story and setting, However, we like to ensure that the text is very readable using clear, child-friendly fonts.

In our bilingual picture books, the visuals range from rich folk and contemporary styles to photographs and graphics. They add another dimension to the bilingual texts and makes learning a new language less intimidating. So the quality of pictures is paramount, as they allow children to engage visually with a world before they embark on their tryst with language.

AABP: Over the years, it’s been raining accolades for Tulika Books. Tell us more about these nominations and accolades.

Radhika: Our books have been well appreciated and awarded in India and across the globe– The Literary Translation Initiative Award – International Excellence Awards, The London Book Fair, Outstanding International Book – USBBY, Honour Book – South Asia Book Awards, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, Children’s Book Council, USA, The White Ravens Outstanding International Book, International Youth Library, Germany, Vermont Red Clover Award, USA, Silver Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, USA, Ambitious Children’s Book Project, Berliner Kinder und Jugendbuchpreis, Germany, Honor Book, Society of School Librarians International, USA. We have also sold international rights to many of our books. It is a great feeling to know that our books are travelling not just in English but in French, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Malay, carrying strong cultural images.

In India, the Bal Sahitya Puraskar, Sahitya Akademi; The Hindu-Young World-Goodbooks Award; Darsana National Award; Publisher of the Year, Publishing Next Industry Awards, Uttam Bal Sahitya Award – Tamil Nadu Hindi Academy,Excellence in Book Production (Children’s Category) – Federation of Indian Publishers, Best of Indian Children’s Writing: Contemporary Awards, Best Picture Book of the Year – Neev Book Awards, Best Indian Children’s Books – Parents and Kids Choice Awards,Economist-Crossword Book Award, and so on.

AABP: That’s indeed a long list. So how do you plan to take things forward in future?

Radhika: We want to continue to publish a diverse range of books, explore new genres and discover new talent. We want to continue finding sustainable ways of taking books to different languages and their target audience. And this keeps happening in unexpected ways. As we speak, our bestselling picture book Picture Gandhi by Sandhya Rao is coming out with a new look to mark the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi. This latest edition, along with English, will be released in six north eastern languages: Adi, Apatani, Miju Mishmi, Nyishi and Nocte of Arunachal Pradesh, and in the Bodo language of Assam.

And we want to explore ways of using the digital medium creatively in the different languages we publish in and make the content accessible to more children.

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