(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2015)

This is from a favourite essay by a favourite writer – Philip Pullman, who should know, on why children need reading and the arts in their lives:

“Children need to read and listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for. The difficulty with persuading grown-up people about this is that if you deprive children of shelter and kindness and food and drink and exercise, they die visibly; whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and theatre, they perish on the inside, and it doesn’t show… I’m not going to argue about this; I’m right.”

Children also need the right kind of books, by which I mean chiefly the kind that doesn’t preach or talk down to them. They sense when you’re sneaking a moral into a story, or trying to sell fiction that is a lesson in disguise, and their bullshit detectors are as sharp as ours were as kids. “I don’t like books that talk to me like Teacher Madam,” I was told once by a bright ten-year-old who was volunteering with his school’s fledgling library programme.

The kids who loved to read in his rural school didn’t pick out the easy, well-meaning and frankly stodgy books that someone had donated by the cartonload; they reached for books that were often above their vocabulary level, but that had great stories. That’s one reason why Ruskin Bond’s Rusty stories speak to so many generations of Indian children: they know he’s not talking down to them. The Room on The Roof novels worked because they were great storytelling, but also because there was no cautionary tale attached, no statutory warning that said “Running away from home is bad for your health”.

That’s why this year’s Crossword Books Award shortlist in children’s writing is a triumph: because none of the five books on the shortlist are earnest, preachy or are moral science lessons in disguise. Three of the books come from Duckbill Books, which began its operations in 2012 in typical fashion: instead of a book launch, it had the publishers’ family and friends singing the P-p-p-platypus song, and it asked authors to draw them a duckbilled platypus.

Duckbill’s publishers have the right credentials. One of its founders, Anushka Ravishankar, is a very popular children’s books author in her own right (Moin and the Monster, At Least A Fish), and is absolutely brilliant at singing monster songs. Co-founder Sayoni Basu learned the business of children’s book publishing at Puffin and Scholastic and is also an authority on the subject of what you should use to de-fluff a bellybutton (mustard oil and orange peels).

The three Platypuses on the shortlist are fairly typical of Duckbill’s list. In Shalini Srinivasan’s Vanamala and the Cephalopod, Vanamala puts up a notice offering her 8-year-old sister, Pingu, for sale; in Shals Mahajan’s Timmi in Tangles, the heroine has to deal with all sorts of annoyances, such as an Idli-amma who eats up all her idlis and dances on her stomach; and Balaji Venkataramanan’s Flat-Track Bullies is an unusual coming-of-age story set in Chennai.

The other two books on the shortlist are from different publishers. Richa Jha’s The Susu Pals (SWPB Books) brings together a trio of friends and enchanted all but the most humourless of parents, but then you have to be really humourless not to smile at the pun on “wee-wee girls”. Samit Basu already has a massive fan following for his Gameworld trilogy and the paired Turbulence and Resistance speculative fiction novels. The Adventures of Stoob (Red Turtle/ Rupa Books) introduced a ten-year-old with impossible hair, facing an Incredibly Dangerous Exam Adventure and some other creatures – a teacher called T-Rex, a Nalinisaurus and plotting monkeys.

None of Pratham Books or Tulika Books’s titles are on the shortlist this year, but these two publishing houses have also changed the way Indians read. Pratham is an NGO that publishes books in several languages – English, Hindi, Kannada for example – and also publishes story cards, priced at Rs 4/- in an attempt to take stories to the millions of children who might not be able to afford an English-language story book. They invite Champions to read a story every year on Literacy Day to children from under-represented schools: they had 250 champions in 2011, which grew to 1300 by 2014. Tulika Books, like Tara Books, does beautiful production and design on their children’s books while keeping the prices relatively low. Their bilingual books are particularly interesting, while Tara Books scores with its innovative illustrators – Swarna Chitrakar’s patua version of Pinocchio, for instance, beautifully updates an old story.

Twenty years ago, the complaint about Indian children’s books in English was that you didn’t have good production or innovative local storytellers and writers. You have both today; what’s missing is the bridges that connect publishers with readers. There are few imaginative, well-stocked children’s bookstores; the decimation of books pages to one-tenth the space has meant that children’s books don’t get reviewed outside of individual blogs; and there are almost no children’s magazines that carry thoughtful, useful books pages. But at least the books and the writers are there – perhaps the Invisibility Cloak around them will drop soon.