Gatekeeping and the Indian kid

By Sayoni Basu

As an editor of Indian books for children and young adults, one of the things that consistently baffles me is the disregard that these books are frequently held in.

Much has changed in the twenty years that I have been doing this. The most delightful change of all, to me, is the sheer range and diversity of books for children now being published. There are many new voices, writing in a large variety of genres and on subjects that were pretty much unimaginable even a decade ago. And there are awards and there are indie bookshops and bloggers who write regularly—and in many ways, things are so immensely better than they were.

Yet something fundamental remains unchanged which undermines all this—and that fundamental thing is the Indian parents see books as devices to mould minds, and as a result there is much gatekeeping of what a child reads and the kinds of books she has access to.

As a publisher of books for children, reader responses to the books one publishes is always unreliable since it is mediated through the parents, and one rarely, if ever hears, actual children’s  feedback, unalloyed by adult intervention. Just the fact that adults report their words mitigates the honesty of the responses. Also, of course, as adults and parents, we hear what we want to hear—and there always is some (perhaps even unintentional) editing.

And what one gathers from parents when they are talking about books they want for their kids from different kinds of groups on social media is that parents want a safety net. They want their kids to read exactly the same books that they themselves read. So it is (in English) Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew and RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond and the so-called classics, like Hard Times and Gulliver’s Travels, which were never written for kids anyway, but somehow through the gently transfiguring processes of time, are now almost exclusively read by reluctant children and equally reluctant EngLit undergraduates. Worse still, they are read in their abridged versions, which means that the language is changed, thus destroying the very quality that makes them classics.  Perhaps the only two contemporary writers for whom there is enthusiasm are Rowling and Riordan, whose international reputation makes them acceptable.

The one area in which parents willingly embrace new books is mythology. Perhaps because the subject itself is age-old, modern renditions are more acceptable—and they often look nicer and are written in a more accessible manner. There is also the perennial parental obsession with ‘improving’ children. I lose track of the number of requests I read about ‘my child has anxiety—suggest a book’; ‘my child is not eating vegetables—suggest a book’; ‘my child is afraid of the dark—suggest a book’. Also, ‘my child hates reading—suggest a book to make him want to read’. If parents see books merely as one-stop solution to problems, children are unlikely to embrace them with enthusiasm.

Just like the feedback, the processes by which children have access to the new ideas and new genres and wonderfully wacky creative things that are happening in the world today are mediated through adult agency, and adult agency tends to be by and large nervous of change when it comes to children. Part of it is laziness—to actually figure out if a book is worth reading the adult would have to engage with it. It’s easier, then, to pick the books they have read themselves as children. There are of course parents who buck the trend, and there are wonderful indie bookstores which promote unusual books that they love, and some children (in the days when children could actually go to school and to a library) are lucky enough to have librarians who will get unusual books for the school library. But by and large the selection of books which are available to most children is curated by the desires of their parents and by the marketing divisions of large publishing houses, for whom the lowest common denominator is frequently what produces most success.

It is not, for example, that the large publishing houses do not produce unusual and lovely books, but in terms of what the marketing and sales department will push to the large chain sellers (not that those poor things are around this year!) and the online store for most exposure are likely to be the tried and tested international bestsellers which the parent company in the UK or US has asked its Indian branch to push, or the worthy and stable selections of Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty and Devdutt Pattanaik—all writers who in different ways hark back to the past or to mythology.

This is perhaps reflective of a nation where present troubles lead us to rewrite our past to create a glorious golden story which then becomes the fictional standard to emulate in the present day. And this is frequently the story it is easiest for us to pass on to children—because as parents and adults we feel the need to protect them from the harshness of the world around us and the tricky ambiguous issues that we fail to negotiate, and therefore we assume children cannot (because of course adults are always more intelligent and capable).

And so, while Indian publishers are increasingly producing books that are complex and unusual, these frequently languish unread while parents and bookshops promote the big international brands and the Indian ‘brand’ authors.

There are, of course, many parents and teachers and bookshops today which embrace unusual and diverse books and seek them out—so that their kids have access to new ideas. But there is a palpable dearth of excitement from parents in general about books which are silly or funny or pointless but still an excellent read.  And since parents are the ones who by and large decide children’s reading, children still lack access to the range of books wherein lies the hope that each child will find the kind of book that speaks to them. And parents continue to be conscientious gatekeepers to mould little mini mes.