Monday, January 17, 2011

New Readers, New Directions in Children’s Literature

The Kerala State Institute of Children's Literature (KSICL) organised  a three-day workshop called New Readers, New Directions in Children’s Literature for writers, illustrators, publishers and teachers from Kerala at the Trivandrum Bookfair (18-26 December 2010). Radhika Menon, Tulika Publishers, facilitated the workshop and reflects upon the experience.

(Picture: Rubin, Director, KSICL, Anita Rampal from Delhi University, Krishna Kumar from Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti)

Kerala has clearly had a head start as far as children’s books are concerned, with its long history of children’s publishing. Over the last two or three years, there has been a change in the kinds of books being published, thanks to the initiatives taken by the Kerala Bala Sahitya Institute. Private publishers, too, have started publishing children’s books with renewed focus. This is clearly in response to the greater demand for them from the market as well as schools. Government initiatives to promote reading literacy, greater focus on library buying for government schools, private schools - and the many international schools that are opening up - taking steps to build up their libraries and the opening of chain bookstores across the country are some of the factors driving this demand.

Children’s publishing is at a kind of crossroads today and it is important at this juncture to reflect on past experiences of writing, illustrating and publishing in Malayalam and ask some hard questions. Has this long tradition of publishing broken new ground in children’s writing or illustrations? Has it generated fresh thinking about children’s literature?

The current focus on building up school libraries and using books in the classroom is clearly a result of educational reforms sparked off by the National Curriculum Framework. The revised NCF 2005 which was published after a long process of discussion and debate by a wide group of eminent scholars from different areas, teachers and parents is now widely accepted as the framework for developing school curriculum and text books across the country. “It is guided by the Constitutional vision of India as a secular, egalitarian and pluralistic society founded on the values of social justice and equality.” The NCF 2005 has been translated into all the nineteen scheduled languages of the Constitution and is widely accessible. It is an inspiring document which can impact school education in India significantly enriching it in the process.  We can already see this happening in textbook writing and in curriculum design.

One of the guiding principles of the NCF is enriching the curriculum to provide for overall development of children rather than remain textbook centric.  It strongly recommends using a range of sources in the classroom both text books and non-textbooks. In this context  books will play a much greater role in children’s everyday learning in the classroom. Children’s books with its diverse and creative content can open up wonderful opportunities in the classroom both for teachers and the students to explore a multitude of topics – social, cultural, emotional,  political apart from being excellent supplementary resource for different  subjects.

(Picture: Radhika Menon at the seminar)
I think if writers reflect on the NCF’s goals and concerns it will help gain a broader perspective on children’s books and will it will inspire them to break out of old conventional ways of writing and illustrating. It can be a strong motivator to rethink the kind of content that has been typical of children’s books.  To do this with the fullest artistic intergrity is the challenge before writers and illustrators.

This quote from NCF 2005 makes the deep connect between books and children’s learning clear:
Appreciation of beauty and art forms is an integral part of human life. Creativity in arts, literature and other domains of knowledge is closely linked. Education must provide the means and opportunities to enhance the child’s creative expression and the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. Education for aesthetic appreciation and creativity is even more important today when aesthetic gullibility allows for opinion and taste to be manufactured and manipulated by market forces.  
NCF 2005 p. 11
Children’s books offer ‘teachable moments’ that are invaluable. Though it sounds didactic, it is really the opposite. The sponaneity with which a book can open up the most difficult and complex issues for discussion is truly amazing – and I speak from both my experience as a teacher and as a parent of two book-loving boys. Children are eager to question and respond when they hold a book in their hand which talks to them. They are negotiating their own world and not the adult’s. Through books and our interaction with the young readers, we offer them a democratic experience which empowers.

It will now be useful for us to ask what kind of books will reflect this contemporary reality
·        Books that include experiences of different kinds of childhoods. It is not just a mainstream middle class childhood but those of the marginalized and the economically backward - but not sentimental and full-of-sympathy stories which do little to make children relate to them or empathise with the characters.
·        Picture books that open up a dialogue between the words and pictures. Pictures filling spaces that the words create and offering children a visual experience that enhances the reading and sometimes is complete in itself.
·        Books that break away from the tried and tested and the instruct-and-inform mode.
·        Books strongly rooted in our own cultural context – both in the writing and illustrating.
·        Books that use language and writing styles that are imaginative and natural to the story, that represent different communities, that reflect our multilinguality.

In the workshop that followed, I gave the participants  a kind of questionnaire which was designed to make them look at different picture books - both at the text and pictures - carefully, and write about it. In the process, they were made aware of what makes a picture book. By critically looking at text and pictures, and commenting, the participants gained an understanding of how the different aspects have to come together – story, writing style, length, age appropriateness, illustrations, style of illustrations, design, layout – to make a good picture book.

There were also discussions and readings from their own writing which gave me a further understanding of how writing in Indian languages shorn of all its conventional baggage could give Indian children’s literature a strong, distinctive voice. This has been a constant learning process for Tulika while doing books simultaneously in eight Indian languages and English. Translating books into English and translating English books by writers who bring a different sensibility to language creates a richly diverse range of books for children – contemporary, democratic and rooted in a plural, multilingual culture.

1 comment:

  1. thanks a lot for sharing this.
    i am a research scholar, pursuing PhD from EFL University hyderabad. my research work is mainly to do with analysis of representations in children's book illustrations of India. It would be kind of you, if you can inform me about such events in advance, so that i can also participate in the discussions.
    regards, Vasvi.


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