Where's our superhero?

Childrens Books

Though the market is flooded with a plethora of children’s books — picture books, illustrated books, and paperbacks, the very mention of children’s books brings to the readers’ minds a few well known names; the eternal fairytales: Sleeping Beauty, Cindrella, Snow White... for the younger children. For the older ones, there is the ever popular Enid Blyton with her cache of books, the inimitable Roald Dahl with his wicked sense of humour, and, the wonder woman J K Rowling who brought the wizard out of the cupboard into the limelight with a wave of her wand. Rowling set the ball rolling, after that it became fashionable for children as well as adults, to read children’s books. This movement was eagerly picked up by a dozen authors who were literally waiting in the wings. Their wild and wacky imagination created characters like the child criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap, the half–god, half-man Percy Jackson, and Mia of the Princess Diaries to name a few.

It has been more than a decade since Harry Potter burst into the children’s literary scene, but no Indian superhero has emerged. Indian readers have come to identify with Halloween, Easter, boggarts, ghouls, basilisks, dragons, divination and runes, but have yet to give the world a sample of their own culture, via children’s books.

“It’s true that most of the popular Indian children’s superheroes have been and are foreign ones. Those that are there have been mythological (Hanuman) or now-out-of date (Bahadur of Indrajaal Comics) or have not originated in print (Shaktimaan). The foreign brand superheroes have become those in India due to obvious reasons — children here are keen on buying into the brand that’s international, popular, with-it and great to read about. Most of these brand superheroes have enjoyed fortunate doses of marketing blitzes and attractive merchandise,” says Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, editorial director, children’s and reference books, Hachette India.

Though our adult fiction has been accepted by readers all over the world, with many of our authors going on to win the Booker prize and many other literary prizes, our children’s literary fiction is yet to come into its own. “Building a brand character needs a sustained investment of both money and effort, and the freedom, the luxury perhaps, to take a risk,” admits Vatsala Kaul Banerjee. “We haven’t yet been able to build any author or book as a ‘brand’ that children would want to read globally. The children’s market here may be very big, but it lacks discernment. People who make the buying decision, and these are mostly not the children themselves, will buy a cheaper, inferior product.”

According to Annie Chandy Mathew, editor-director of Unisun Publications, the children’s literary scene in India is just coming into its own.  She believes that the Indian taste is getting sophisticated to the point where the readers believe that gray is fun. “The Indian reader is as much fascinated by evil as others,” she admits. Good is no more fun, evil has seeped in a big way into books. Our children are more than ready for books which glorify the anti-hero, an example being Artemis Fowl.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, senior commissioning editor, Penguin Books India, has a slightly different view. She says that Indian children’s literature has some interesting characters but perhaps these books are not as widely read or talked about in the media. According to her, characters like Swami, Feluda, Rusty have their dedicated following among readers. “Many children’s writers in India are trying to create well rounded protagonists but their books need to be appreciated and read in larger numbers,” says Sudeshna. She believes that publishers are trying to create a space for children’s books in the retail space as well as the mind space of their audience.

Our children’s books suffer due to a lack of proper marketing, the journey from the printing houses to bookshops is devoid of publicity and fanfare. The books quietly enter  bookshelves and are moved to the bottom of the pile without the average reader even being aware of its presence. After that they become history.

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