Teenagers watch movies and play online games, but they don’t read any more. Today’s children aren’t interested in books. Familiar complaints, often voiced in “readers are an endangered species” arguments, but they miss two crucial points.
Most literate cultures lose readers in the teenage years. Though most teens continue to be highly connected to reading, narrative and textuality—through Twitter, social media networks, graphic novels and comics, films, and new technospeak argots, they seem to move away from books.
In India, we could hardly complain that teenagers don’t read any more, if we had so little to offer them to read. But there’s been a sharp shift over the last few years with writers like Siddhartha Sarma (The Grasshopper’s Run, which blends action adventure and contemporary history), Shazia Omar (Like a Diamond in the Sky — crossover fiction) and others joining fantasy veteran Samit Basu, who has considerable crossover appeal, or Paro Anand and Anshumani Ruddra, whose works increasingly appeal to teens.
This week, four publishing insiders share their views on the young adult writing scene in India: Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India; Sayoni Basu, Publishing Director, Scholastic India; Anita Roy, Commissioning Editor, Zubaan Books; and Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, Editorial Director, Puffin Books.
Is there a growing demand for young adult fiction?
Sayoni Basu (Scholastic): There’s a very definite age group between the Enid Blytons, Nancy Drew and the Sidney Sheldons! Young adults, roughly between the ages of 14 and 18, have their own interests and issues—first love, growing up, career choices—which few children’s or adult novels deal with.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh (Puffin): Young readers want books that are written for them and that feature their thinking; Puffin is actively looking to commission original fiction for this segment.
Anita Roy (Zubaan): There’s both a need and a demand. Previously you just had “adult” and “children’s” literature. JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and Stephanie Jordan were commercially successful because they were “cross-over fiction”—their series have been read by adults as well as kids. A pessimist might say that adults are less inclined to read serious, grown-up, ‘high’ literature. An optimist would see this — as I’m more inclined to do — as the fact that really good writers are telling gripping stories which appeal to readers regardless of their age.
Thomas Abraham (Hachette): It’s the old problem: once teenagers cross the 15-plus threshold, (with rare exceptions) we seem to lose them where leisure reading is concerned. A lot come back when they are early 20s mainly for non-fiction that ‘must be read’ (read career advancement reading). But unless we have initiatives to get the teen segment reading for pleasure, this young populace will be a non-reading population even if it is a literate one.
What does this age group want to read? And what challenges do Indian writers face?
Sayoni: Parents are still uncomfortable with the idea that their children might be interested in knowing about sex or relationships. Readers want stories that relate to their lives or stories with protagonists of a similar age group. At Scholastic, we’ve found that non-fiction—travel, science, mythology, space, maths—targeted at this age group tends to sell very well.
Sudeshna: We’re looking at books that are based on the reality around us today—relationships, friends, peer issues — or at highly popular fantasy adventure books. Suchitra Krishnamoorthi’s Swapnalok Society series, for instance, are set in a residential society in Mumbai and follow the trials of a group of children 12 years and over. Faces in the Water by Ranjit Lal, set in modern Delhi, offers a surreal take on female infanticide.
Anita: They want good writing. Stories which capture the imagination, and don’t talk down to the reader; strong characters, gripping plots, books which reflect young lives and are not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. Indian writers and publishers, I feel, too often hamper their own creativity by deciding what ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be written for children. We should see more writers and publishers taking risks—leading to a healthy crop of Indian books for young adults which challenge, delight, disturb, entertain and provoke.
Thomas: Vampire and paranormal romance fiction has obviously sunk its teeth in! Abroad, this category offers perspectives on growing up and discussions on major political and social themes. We have, for instance, Arjun Rao’s Third Best coming out, a gritty, almost hard-boiled look at life in a residential school that we will market to teens. Unfortunately, the top teen bestsellers would probably still be the guides to SAT, IIT-JEE etc. Leisure reading needs to catch up.
Recommendations, aside from books already mentioned: Ranjit Lal’s The Battle for Number 19, Paro Anand’s Weed and No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, Kavita Daswani’s A Girl Named Indie, Michaela Clarke’s The City of Jewels, Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s Double Click and writers like Samit Basu, Payal Dhar, Sarnath Banerji, Amruta Patil.