If one were to walk into any regular bookstore in India and head to the youth fiction section, they’d immediately notice a veritable forest of colourful books. The age-old Enid Blyton and Lady Bird books in the pride of place, surrounded by more recent hits, like the Twilight series, or books by the indomitable Ravinder Singh. Guided by the fervour of nostalgia or mass popularity, we don’t usually stop to notice the problems that many of these 'traditional' books can pose.
Some of these, written specifically for young American or European readers, fail to resonate with the Indian context or existence. Others, including those written by Indians, follow predictable patterns, reproducing toxic patriarchal ideals, with publishers favouring these time-tested formulas for 'safety'. Youth fiction from all over the world is often full of casual sexism, xenophobia or snobbery, passing unnoticed in the garb of humour.
Young Indians have been gradually gaining access to Western fiction which feature unconventional storylines probing normalised systems of oppression. However, much of the youth fiction available in India, whether originating here or outside, is still regressive and 'traditional'.
It’s understandable, of course. It’s never easy to come out of safe zones into uncharted territory.
But the times they are a-changin', and the hourglass seems to be running out of sand for 'safe' children’s literature. Contemporary authors have shouldered the challenge, and one brave book at a time, are taking over the very structure of youth fiction. Foremost in this word-lead march for change are women, broaching supposedly unspeakable topics (think queer identities) and fighting societal norms.
Inclusive, representative fiction is the order of the day, portraying young protagonists who are going through real struggles that any young person might face. Indian children are now being offered Indian fare, books they can connect to and which affirm their value, no matter how bold or different they are.
To spread the spirit of that change, here’s a short list of five women in India and neighbouring countries who are making this possible with their hilarious and exciting “different” books for young people. They deal with a wild array of topics, ranging from gender equality to newly discovered identities to incomprehensible emotions.
Though Natasha has experience in fields as disparate as pizza and watches, what she does best is read the minds of children. Her books are a curious mix of laughter and gently slid in trivia which keeps young people wanting to know more. Icky, Mucky, Yucky (Young Zubaan) and the Squiggle’s Adventures in English series (Young Zubaan/Penguin) are two of her extremely popular creations, which broach the issues of bad manners and punctuation without ever being preachy. Wholeheartedly silly and easy to read, they are often chosen for dramatised re-tellings in schools and libraries.
Natasha also writes historical fiction for young people, such as Razia and the Pesky Presents, which tells the story of 'Sultan' Razia, humorously questioning gender performance practices. With the severe dearth of Indian historical fiction for kids and teens, books like this are a welcome gift.
If the lack of gripping Indian YA fantasy fiction had ever been an issue, Payal Dhar exterminated it. Her ability to weave magical worlds into the fabric of mundane adolescent girl issues led to the creation of her A Shadow in Eternity trilogy, published by Young Zubaan. Based in a parallel universe and still somehow relatable, her books strongly reiterate that all heroes are not men.
Payal’s Slightly Burnt, published by Bloomsbury deals sensitively with the question of adolescent queer identities, offering a supportive narrative which could help young people figuring themselves out. And she does this without falling into the YA love triangle plot trap! Her ability to write smoothly about issues which are still not quite mainstream, even in adult fiction, is brilliant.
She has also co-edited a fantastic collection of dystopian, sci-fi short stories and graphic stories called Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (Young Zubaan). The anthology is proudly feminist but also manages to successfully juggle other critical issues like human rights, food security and environmental degradation.
Rupa Gulab is a columnist and successful author of several YA books. She builds simple stories to address complex emotions which slightly older children may be experiencing. Her Hot Chocolate is Thicker than Blood (Duckbill) addresses questions of adoption, showing it from the non-adopted child’s point of view, intertwining it with themes of family bonding and teenage angst. The protagonist is a conflicted young girl, going through school and life much like the targeted reader would be, as well.
Daddy Come Lately (Duckbill) too, is an emotional roller-coaster, offering the reader an understanding of the internal turmoil that single parent families often face. The captivating and unabashedly feelings-oriented story line sends out the subtle message that it’s okay for life to be turbulent.
An award-winning writer from Bhutan, when Kunzang turned her hand to children’s books, she chose an endearingly simple medium: picture books. Her two picture books are beautifully illustrated by Pema Tshering, making them favourites of even very young children. While Aunty Mouse (Young Zubaan) is a charming retelling of a classic Bhutanese folktale, Room in Your Heart (Young Zubaan) is an original story, written in a similar folk rhythm.
Inspired by the tales she heard during her own childhood, she firmly states in an interview with the Hindu, 'stories are not just to be told, but they have to be interactive. That is how Bhutanese stories are.' Both her picture books live up to this legacy. The stories feature women who control their own lives, and take their own decisions, even if it leads to a sticky end in certain cases. They can be instrumental in helping little ones think about life choices without feeling like a strict moral lesson.
A well-known social entrepreneur and educationist, Geeta Dharmarajan is also the mind behind Katha Books, which publishes socially conscious literature for children. She deeply believes in the power of translation as a unificatory tool in India, and thus, Katha often publishes books in multiple regional languages. Her interest in children has led her to becoming the Honorary Chairperson of the National Bal Bhavan.
Most importantly, however, Geeta is also an author. Her books for children feature irreverent and unapologetic women leads, who don’t let any restrictions stop them from achieving their goals. So Lachmi, in Lachmi’s War (Katha), fights for women’s education, and Jivuba in Choo...mantar! (Katha) battles opposition to achieve her aspirations. Told in the form of mythical fairy tales, they are captivating and thought-provoking at the same time.