Prominent Indian authors share what it takes to write for children, and keep them engaged.
Prominent Indian authors share what it takes to write for children, and keep them engaged.

Children’s Day: What do kids want? A lovely story, say these authors

Ahead of Children’s Day (November 14), prominent Indian writers Anand Neelakantan, Devdutt Pattanaik and Ravi Subramanian, talk about how they are dabbling in the genre of children’s literature, and the challenges they have encountered.
By Henna Rakheja | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON NOV 14, 2020 01:08 AM IST

They have conquered minds and enamoured many a reader with their magic of spinning the words. But, when it came to writing for the young ones, even these most renowned Indian authors had to take a step back and introspect if they could please the pure souls. From wanting to teach the unseen side of mythology to giving them stories beyond the western fairy tales, the reason for these writers to venture into or continue writing for children have been varied, but experience mostly one, that is, unnerving!

Hear it from the masters of the word trade - Anand Neelakantan, Devdutt Pattanaik and Ravi Subramanian - on their experiences, when they set out to conceive and conquer children’s literature. While Neelakantan and Subramanian have recently encountered their escapade, Pattanaik has become quite comfortable in this genre.

Read on to know about each one’s journey...

Anand Neelakantan: An adult reader may forgive a few loose lines in a novel; children are unforgiving

Author Anand Neelakantan is well known for his Baahubali series. (PHOTO: Vijaynand Gupta)
Author Anand Neelakantan is well known for his Baahubali series. (PHOTO: Vijaynand Gupta)

Q. What compelled you to come up with a book for children?

There are a few books that can introduce the ghosts, goblins, and vetalas of our fantastic tales that would appeal to the generation who have grown up on Disney films. Some kids found the books based on Indian puranas not cool, and often preachy. I thought, why not write a fun book for them in the way I had experienced these tales? Not a preachy book, not a moral book, but with some delightful irreverence, some quirkiness, some songs and dance with stories that celebrate life.

Anand Neelakantan’s debut work for children is a tale of asura twins, Kundakka and Mandakka.
Anand Neelakantan’s debut work for children is a tale of asura twins, Kundakka and Mandakka.

Q. How difficult or easy is it to write for children vis a vis adults? Did you face any challenges?

Children’s book is the toughest to write. One has to change the language to suit the children, the ideas need to be simple and entertaining and dialogues crispy. An adult reader may forgive a few loose lines in a novel. Children are unforgiving. Anyone who tells stories to children would know how difficult it is to satisfy them.

Even after seven best sellers for adults and almost 500 episodes in popular television series, I never dared to write for children. Thankfully, the team in Puffin (publishing house) was so encouraging that I have plunged into this formidable task.

Q. Who is your favourite children’s writer, and why?

Ruskin Bond and RK Narayan are my two favourite children’s writers. They take me back to my childhood. I had a Malgudiesque childhood; I grew up drunk on stories. There was a tale about the ghost living on the tamarind tree in the rear courtyard of an abandoned palace, another about the seductress witch on the palm tree. The Yakshi would stand with her bewitching smile by the river on a moonlit night in search of her next prey. There was this about the giant who frequented the temple pond at midnight. This giant kept one foot on a banyan tree and the other on the Indian devil tree on the other shore of the pond and leaned to lap up water using his long blue tongue. And I was that kid who wondered what would happen to the giant if one of the trees broke with his weight. Would he fall flat on his face and flood the village? When I read Swami of Malgudi, I often cry out, that is I. Same with Rusty, the boy from the hills.

Q. Any incident with a kid that you found so amusing that you remember till date?

Namita Gokhale, the curator of Jaipur Literature Festival asked me whether I can tell stories to children and I agreed, not knowing that I had to tell tales to the children of rural Rajasthan. Only when I started telling my stories that I understood I had to tell the story in Hindi. This was in 2013, and my Hindi was patchy at that time. A girl volunteered to translate my English into Hindi. It turned out to be hilarious as I started speaking in broken Hindi unconsciously and she started translating my broken Hindi to broken English. Instead of storytelling, it became a standup comedy act with children hooting and howling with laughter. My kids do not laugh at my jokes. Even now I irritate them by showing this video of Jaipur kids laughing. They quip that they are not laughing for my ‘dad’ jokes but at me. I don’t care as long as they laugh. The world needs all the fun and mischief it can afford and then some more.

Devdutt Pattanaik: A kid argued with me that Ram does not have a moustache

Author Devdutt Pattanaik is well known for his writings on the relevance of mythology in modern times.
Author Devdutt Pattanaik is well known for his writings on the relevance of mythology in modern times.

Q. What compelled you to come up with works for children?

I believe we have to make Hindu gods accessible to children. Many of the children’s books make gods very forbidding or tell the stories in an extremely insensible way, without taking attention into caste and gender sensibility. The 21st century needs telling of stories differently, and this is a great challenge that I love to take up.

Q. How difficult or easy it is to write for children vis a vis adults? Do you still face challenges after writing so many books for young ones or was it only the first time?

Writing for children is not difficult if you are clear in your head and enjoy explaining ideas.

I don’t like to change the stories. I like to tell the stories as they are even if some stories can be rather disturbing because I believe these stories are preparing children for the horrors of real life.

Vahana is Devdutt Pattanaik’s tenth book for children.
Vahana is Devdutt Pattanaik’s tenth book for children.

Q. Who is your favourite children’s writer, and why?

There is no particular writer as such. I generally like fairy tales like the Russian and Grimm Fairy tales a lot.

I enjoy the way J K Rowling tells stories and also the Karadi tales have created a niche in India.

Q. Any incident with a kid that you found so amusing that you remember till date?

I remember a kid arguing with me that Ram does not have a moustache because on television Ram did not have one, I realised the power of television.

When I show them traditional paintings where Ram has a moustache and beard or Shiva has a beard or pot belly, the children get very upset because they are so used to the television version of six pack Ram and six pack Shiva, and that is the most amusing thing for me.

Ravi Subramanian: Children are ruthless; keeping them engaged is a difficult task

Author Ravi Subramanian’s successful stint with thrillers has often earned him the epithet of John Grisham of India.
Author Ravi Subramanian’s successful stint with thrillers has often earned him the epithet of John Grisham of India.

Q. What compelled you to come up with a book for children?

I am a firm believer of the fact that authors need to challenge themselves all the time. Anyone who boxes himself or herself in a particular genre or segment is not doing justice to his craft. I love to experiment and that too in challenging areas. Children’s book presents a humongous challenge to all writers. And I felt that to get published in that space and to do well will be a huge accomplishment for me. This is what motivated me to write in this space.

Q. How difficult or easy it is to write for children vis a vis adults? What challenges did you face?

Writing for children is one of the toughest things for any writer. Children are ruthless. They either like you as an author, or they don’t. It doesn’t take them longer than a few pages of any book to make up their minds. And once they make up their minds, they dump you, never to pick you up again. Keeping them engaged is a difficult task. With their span of attention, you need to make sure that you keep them engaged throughout the book. That apart, writing in the dialect they relate to, and using concepts that they understand is very tough. A normal children’s book is one third or maybe even one fourth the size of a book for adult readers, but the effort it takes is almost more than double. Once you have written a book, marketing it to the right audiences is also complicated. Children don’t read what adults recommend. They only read what their peers recommend. Marketing to them is a nightmare.

Ravi Subramanian’s latest is a detective fiction for children.
Ravi Subramanian’s latest is a detective fiction for children.

Q. Who is your favourite children’s writer, and why?

I read all kinds of books as a child. I grew up on the staple fare of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Ruskin Bond etc. In those days, books were expensive. We would look forward to train journeys because that was the only time we were allowed to buy books. We would otherwise borrow books from libraries. I was particularly fond of reading RK Narayan and his stories. Crisp, lucid, simple language, set in small town India, those stories had it in them to leave an impact. Swami and Friends, to my mind was a masterpiece.

Q. Any incident with a kid that you found so amusing that you remember till date?

Before I elaborate, let me tell you that I have a brother, Suresh, one year elder to me. He was the nice, well behaved, highly intellectual guy in school, whereas I was the naughty, intellectual but not so much as him, and the rebel. So he always used to be the loved one at a school. Teachers would ask me, why I could not be like him. I used to write a lot of short stories at that time. And in my stories, I would normally have two boys. One would be the good, rich and successful guy, and the other would be a poor, struggling chap. And guess what would be the names of the two characters…. The former would be called Ravi and the second – no prizes for guessing, would be called Suresh. It was my way of getting back at him. Cheap thrills, I guess. Hahaha. We still talk about it a lot and laugh. A lot has changed since. He is a wonderful doctor, settled in the United States now and doing extremely well, and I am proud of him.

Author tweets @HennaRakheja

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