No kidding: From subjects to technology, children’s literature is changing rapidly
Reading for pleasure – amusing adventures, the thrill of a mystery, stories of friendship, folk tales – seems to have gone out of fashion in children’s literature, giving way to complex concepts like inclusiveness, equality, diversity to which children are exposed at ages as early as 2-3 years.
At the time, an episode of Looney Tunes meant younger versions of Disney characters were having fun in diapers. Tom & Jerry turned out to be an interesting game of chasing friendship and hatred between its characters. The pleasant and ordinary portrayal of cartoons like Oswald, Pingu and Noddy was a treat for the youngsters.
However, children’s tastes are no longer the same in the content they want to consume and the resulting change can be seen in the way cartoons, comics and storybooks take shape today.
Ten-year-old tech-savvy Ryder leads six brave puppies, who work together on important rescue missions to save the people of the community of Adventure Bay. It is the heart of the Paw Patrol children’s cartoon series which is popular among children today.
The series which first came out in 2013 contrasts sharply with the sensibilities and tastes of children growing up until the 90s. Cartoon series or storybooks today have an important mission: to raise awareness the future generation to concepts such as inclusivity, equal rights, diversity, gender, racism, etc.
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Take for example the 2020 book No!: My First Book of Protest by Julie Merberg which was written for children aged 0-3. The book talks about major protest movements by popular figures like Malala Yousafzai. Antiracist Baby by Ibrahim X Kendi, published in 2020, was also written for the same age group. At the time, racism and protests were subjects that were only introduced in school textbooks. However, as the world moves towards an inclusive and diverse future, these topics are becoming the necessity of the day, but conveying them to the beginner level, from the ages of 0-3, is another talking point.
With maturing sensitivities in children born in a technology-driven age, there is also an inclination towards technology early on. It’s not uncommon to see a 2 to 4 year old using a phone on their own and putting on their favorite nursery rhyme or cartoon series. In fact, on several occasions, experts have feared that the propensity to use phones and technology is leading to a decline in reading habits among young people.
Nalini Ramachandran, author and publisher of children’s books, agrees that the current generation has several other interests or hobbies, other than reading. “But children mainly cultivate their habit of reading with the people they see around them – parents, teachers, friends. Indian children’s literature, which is constantly evolving, offers them enough choices. A lot of experimentation is going on, in terms of themes, character diversity, storytelling and formats. Books in Hindi and other regional languages, graphic novels, audiobooks and e-book platforms have also made their presence felt. And then there are the litfests for kids, which introduce them (and the grown-ups) to whole new worlds through workshops and author sessions. So, the children’s literature sector in India has a lot of potential for growth and it is moving in the right direction,” says Ramachandran.
Jataka or Panchtantra, Tinkle, Archie and other popular children’s comics and storybooks that were once constant companions are now being consumed via audiobooks or videos. That doesn’t mean they’re going out of circulation but they’ve innovated over time to stay relevant. Archie, who first appeared in 1941, for example, gave their characters a modern twist.
Amar Chitra Katha, publisher of children’s books has also adapted to audio books. But does this imply that reading habits are declining in children?
Preeti Vyas, President and CEO, Amar Chitra Katha, calls it an “urban myth”. “There are far more stimuli and options for entertainment than a decade ago, but today’s parents and teachers have a better understanding of the importance of the reading habit for overall development. of the child. There are more children’s books from Indian and global publishers available than ever before. Schools all over the country, even in small towns, organize their own literature festivals and book weeks,” says Vyas.
Vyas points to the constant evolution they have gone through in order to keep up with the changing times. “In addition to continually evolving our writing style and art to suit today’s generation of readers, we are present on every possible content platform. We believe that as publishers we are first and foremost storytellers and should remain platform independent,” she says.
When it comes to pay equity in the publishing industry, several authors share that writing for children earns less than writing non-fiction or fiction. In fact, there is a big gap in children’s literature in India, according to experts. Academic books dominate the market for children’s and young adult literature, while non-academic books find few takers. The low salaries paid to authors of children’s literature due to low readership further add to the pressure.
Nalini Ramachandran explains how the payment system works in the industry. “In the commercial picture book market (picture books are a big part of children’s literature), the author is usually paid a flat fee and the rights to the work pass to the publisher. It is therefore the only payment the author receives, regardless of the number of copies sold by the publisher over time. In the picture book market, some organizations work under the Creative Commons license. Here too, the author is paid a flat rate. The license allows anyone to use this open source material (even to modify and reuse it, with proper credits). Some organizations sell certain titles created under this license, but the work is above all created to be freely accessible on a public platform”, she specifies. Pratham Books’ Storyweaver works on the same model. Depending on their future plans and other factors, some picture book publishers may occasionally agree to make room for royalties. Long-form books, which include novels, short stories, and chapter books (fiction and non-fiction), mostly follow the advance-for-royalty arrangement. Thus, depending on the contract and the number of books sold, the author can collect royalties. The lump sum paid to authors of picture books is often less than the advance paid to authors of long books. This, again, is based on several different factors.
Therefore, being a children’s writer in India may often not provide enough income to support oneself. “A children’s author I spoke to remembered that writing children’s books couldn’t be her main job because she was barely paid. Instead, she had to take it as her hobby and do other jobs as well to earn a decent living,” says Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, co-founder and curator of Neev Literature Festival.
Ramachandran, who says she’s always wanted to write children’s literature too, agrees to take on coffee table book editing duties, magazine issues and academic paper editing to support herself. its needs. “People also think they can make money from workshops, but not everyone has the reach or connections to run workshops,” she adds. Sabharwal asserts that the unsustainability and non-existence of the children’s literature market makes authors reluctant to choose children’s writing as a career path. “Careers in children’s writing are dwindling. What they receive is very less and rarely exceeds Rs 50,000 for a book. There are several children’s writers in India. But the challenge is that they are doing it in parallel,” shares Sabharwal.
ACK’s Preeti Vyas admits that authors and illustrators of children’s books are not paid as well, but this is largely due to the ceiling price of children’s books in India. “A color picture book in the United States would retail for a minimum of $10-15. Here in India, we cannot charge more than `250. This price cap puts huge pressure on the whole chain, from author to publisher, from distributor to retailer. But with growing awareness, literature will only grow. I don’t foresee a decline,” she explains.
As for Ramachandran, she believes that budget allocations are not equal between children’s genres and other genres in publishing, which, in turn, leads to disparity. “A certain parity can only be achieved when the literary genre itself is treated with importance. It’s also possible that the differences occur because there’s this misconception that children’s books are easy to work with. Only those who work at it, day in and day out, can tell you it’s a lot of work,” she adds.