A children’s book about a boy who feels like a girl. And about a child brought up by grandfathers. These are some of the stories published by Tulika Books, who have been making children’s picture books since 23 years.
Little hearts beat most to the magic of picture books—how mufflers in bright yellows and reds dance with lilacs in the wind, or how rabbits coexist with turtles in the meadows. It would be right to say that picture books impact our lives in ways that little else does. Sometimes, they are written to pull us into a world of tiny wonders. At other times, when we face the big bad wolf, picture books can teach us lessons that can be kept in our pockets for the rest of our lives, so we could revisit them when we need them most. When picture books become educational in this sense—in how they teach us to deal with the challenges in our lives—they become so not just for children but also for parents, creating a common language between the two.
One of the leading publishers of children’s literature today is Tulika Books, a publishing house based in Chennai. It has brought out stories that enable children to reflect on the everyday conflicts they face, engaging them in ways so they may pause and introspect better. In a rather extraordinary way, Tulika Books has changed how narratives are brought to children and their parents. An important step in this process has been in the way the art form of storytelling has been made more inclusive—be it through how they use multiple regional languages, as opposed to the one or two that have been dominant in children’s literature, or through how they integrate local Indian settings and characters within their stories.
I spoke to Radhika Menon, the Publishing Director of Tulika Books, to understand how the team selects their stories—the kinds of themes they are drawn to publishing today and why—and how they make their books happen.
Menon gave me an insight into Tulika Books’ curatorial process. From among the various submissions they receive on their website, the manuscripts they select have to tick several boxes off a checklist. They must have—
However, not all manuscripts fit or need to fit all criteria. “Sometimes we select a story because of its unusual theme,” said Menon, “Or if it is about a community which is under-represented in children’s books. We then work with the writer to hone the text. In some cases, the editorial inputs are extensive, if the author is open to it.”
The Boy with Two Grandfathers, for instance, written by Mini Shrinivasan, is a poignant exploration into the world of a child who loses his mother and is surrounded by the love and warmth of two grandfathers who work together to soften the effect of the absence of his mother. How does a child deal with loss and how do Appa and Ajoba (the two grandfathers) help him cope with this loss? This is a kind of story one doesn’t come across very often.
Once a story is selected, the process of bringing pictures that depict them to life, begins. Each story needs an artwork that sits well with the narration.
When stories are accompanied by illustrations, they must be in harmony to make for a joyful reading. The words must be reflected in the colours and shapes, the details in the characters, and vice versa. They must both speak to each other and lend a unified vision of the story. Having published more than 350 picture books since 1996, Tulika Books has worked with many illustrators with a range of styles: “from first-time illustrators to very senior ones.”
A lot of effort goes into finding the right combination between the artistic style and storytelling style. When one looks at Ammachi’s Glasses, for instance, one finds a perfect representation of a grandmother in an urban setting, wearing a chatta–mundu (a white top and cloth wrapped around the waist) who walks around the house joyously, unaware that she has washed and hung the cat on the bark of a tree or walked into the house pet—the dog—because she has forgotten to wear her glasses.
In A Walk with Thambi, on the other hand, the illustration style is completely different because the story, as well as the setting, is different. Whereas Ammachi’s adventures were mostly inside the house, the adventures in A Walk with Thambi take place outside. The family members and children are painted against a backdrop of idyllic settings—a river where the children play, trees, boats, and playgrounds—even a bazaar, like in smaller towns,can be seen. Therefore, the colour palette becomes lighter, instead of solid and bold colours. Mornings reflect the innocence of the children, from whose point of view the story is narrated. Conversely, in Ammachi’s Glasses, the nights are quirkier, with many shades of blue, to reflect the grandmother’s misadventures that, though childlike, are not of a child!
“Along the way, we have developed a strong instinct for picking the right illustrator for a story,” said Radhika Menon. “We look for an illustration style we think would suit the story best and choose the illustrator accordingly. In our experience, not all illustrators can illustrate all books. Depending on the kind of story it is, we visualise a style that would complement and enrich the story—it could be a light, humorous style, a painterly style, stylised contemporary illustrations, or folk or ethnic styles.”
While Tulika Books makes the right match between the artist and the storyteller, it also fills a gap which has existed in children’s books. And this is of inclusivity.
Tulika Books realises the need to represent readers around the country through their books. With this diverse readership in mind, Tulika Books selects stories that offer “a range of experiences that are inclusive and representative: of different childhoods, social milieus, cultures and contexts.”
It is no surprise then that, in a fantastic release this year, we saw a brilliantly sensitive book Guthli has Wings, written by Kanak Shashi, published under Tulika Books. This book deals with questions of gender. It is about a child born as a boy who loves wearing dresses but is told by unaccepting family members “not to wear her sister’s frilly frock that she loves but her own boy’s clothes.” The author intentionally uses the pronouns “she” and “her” to show the world as the child wants to see it. It ends on a heart-warming note with the mother understanding what the child loves and supporting it. Looking back on children’s books, I can hardly find one that deals with an issue like this. It is incredible that a story like Guthli’s exists today for children as well as for adults. It encourages evolved ways of thinking about gender. Readers can overcome the kinds of stereotypes and boundaries that result from looking at the world in binaries.
“It is not always that we get a sensitively written and illustrated story like Guthli. We know it is not a book that is going to fly off the shelves but it is an important book,” shared Radhika Menon. “The issue that it gently explores is something that most adults feel inadequate and even helpless about discussing with children. Books like Guthli facilitate that greatly.” She added,
“This is one of the most valuable functions of a picture book—to open up spaces for discussion and dialogue where children are encouraged to express their deepest fears or anxieties or even to just ask questions about the world around them. And discover the joy of reading in the process.”
In Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand, Sheila Dhirwrites a delicate work, in the words of a differently-abled child, who wants to tell society not to behave in strange ways with children: “Don’t be silly/Don’t feel bad/For what you have/Just feel glad.” Written in verse, this book about disability in children, much like gender in Guthli has Wings, marks a significant development in the way children’s books are introducing real-life subjects and ways to spread love.
Apart from inviting plurality in its subjects, Tulika Books also makes their books available in many languages. “While we cover a range of genres, we focus on multilingual picture books for children—in English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali—which makes more books accessible to more children… In fact, we encourage manuscripts in other languages as we think they will have a very different sensibility, [thus] enriching the diversity of books.” In a country like ours, where it can be difficult to reach out to everyone owing to the linguistic diversity, this is so necessary.
It is exciting then to think that children’s literature in India is capturing the spirit of so many children today through the most wonderful stories. The familiarity in the voices of the children and families portrayed in these picture books contributes immensely to evolving this genre. These recent works are so much like our everyday stories yet carry little pieces of magic within them. “The belief that children’s books can make a difference to the lives of children is what fuels our work,” said Menon. “In the 23 years we have been publishing, we have got so much feedback that has reinforced this belief and that has been most gratifying.”
Pick up your favourite picture book here.
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