Interview with Tulika Books' Radhika Menon (Founder and Publisher) and Sandhya Rao (Editor & well-known children's book writer)
by Aline Pereira*
Tulika Publishers is an independent publishing house from Chennai, India which, since 1996, has been publishing multilingual children's books and stories in translation in a variety of genres. The first publisher of bilingual books in India, Tulika is committed to addressing the needs of children growing up in a pluralistic society.
Their single and dual-language books speak in many voices and cover a range of social milieus. By including the experiences of many different kinds of children, the books speak to all children. The visual language of the books is just as diverse, showing the traditional side-by-side with the contemporary.
Can you tell us how and why you started Tulika?
RM: We started Tulika in1996 because of the lack of good Indian children’s books in any genre in any language. There were imported children’s books in English from the west and the small percentage who had access to those grew up on Western books exclusively. To create books rooted in the Indian multilingual, multicultural context was the inspiration that motivated us to start Tulika. Both Sandhya and I were convinced about the need to give importance to Indian languages, and to make books available in Indian languages. The first three titles we published were two bilingual picture books, Line and Circle and Number Birds and a Hindi alphabet book called Ka se kapde kaise.
Have your goals changed over the past 14 years?
RM: They haven’t changed, but have been strengthened in many ways. The scope of the kind of publishing we do has widened tremendously and we have achieved a greater impact on children’s reading than we had envisaged. We are now publishing books in more languages than when we started.
India is so culturally, socially, economically, politically, linguistically diverse that there cannot be any one representation of the whole. Doing books in different languages helps us give voice and image to the details of this diversity in a way that publishing in just one language does not. The experience has made it clear to us that our books can and must work for all children, reading in different cultural contexts, within and outside India. The choices in terms of the kind of books we publish are based on this.
For those readers not familiar with Tulika, how would you describe your catalogue? What are some of your new and upcoming titles?
SR: “Inclusive and wide-ranging books for a multilingual, multicultural, pluralistic world” is probably how I’d describe our catalogue. We’re very pleased, for instance, to announce a science book called Why the sky is blue which features the Nobel prize winning physicist Dr C. V. Raman in a most unusual way.
The book is based on Dr Raman’s talk about science and what the scientific temper really means. It’s been compiled by two of the most unusual people we know, the renowned dancer and humanist Chandralekha, with photographs by the remarkable artist/sculptor Dashrath Patel.
Having said this, I have to say we love each book equally, and each differently. There’s another very simple title, School is Cool, based on the author’s father’s experience of being part of the midday meal scheme in school. Sounds prosaic, doesn’t it? You have to read the book to see the joy of it! Then there’s a new series of six bilingual books based on the Panchatantra, retold with new twists and illustrated in folk styles. These books also stimulate language acquisition. There is also a richly illustrated collection of stories from Kashmir called The Enchanted Sarang. The bottom line, though, is that each and every book is fun, a joy to read, a challenge to eager readers/minds.
A good number of your titles have been released in multiple language combinations. Has the public’s attitude toward bilingual and translated books changed since 1996? How so?
SR: When we first did our bilingual books, some people said, ‘remove the vernacular’ (and that’s such an awful, pejorative word). But we persisted, because we believed in our books. I believe one of the greatest strengths of the Indian people is their facility with languages. We may not all be literate, but we can all speak one, two, maybe even three languages. So, it was just a question of being patient. I think just having more books on the bilingual list has helped the cause. Today, people ask specifically for bilingual books. And we have seen in schools/centres all over India, children poring over these books, reading or attempting to read in their own language and in the other language, usually English.
There was not so much resistance to single language translations, although sales of books in different languages differ, depending upon various factors. Then again, translation is such a subjective thing… so there are always opinions. But there is definitely greater awareness of the need for books in Indian languages, and so more copies sell. Especially as, today, there are many reading programmes in place in different parts of the country.
In your slideshow about Tulika’s commitment to Multilingual Publishing, we read: “The process of translation is like walking a tightrope, but it does free up both language and thought and often results in culturally diverse books–books that reflect a broader ‘Indianness’, rather than a dominant Indian identity.” Can you please expand on this?
RM: Translating books from one language into different languages imparts a distinctive cultural sensibility to the books. It is not just the content but also the style of the language used that is culturally different even in simple texts. Translation does sometimes challenge norms in the use of a language but if done with thought and sensitivity it not only enriches the language but also opens up young readers to a plural world. Such books reflect a pluralistic, multilingual reality and break away from stereotypes that create a dominant cultural identity. In other words, relating to one language through another intrinsically provides passage from one culture to another.
For quite some time now people from all over the world have shown a growing interest in India and all things Indian. How has this international interest affected Tulika?
RM: In terms of children’s books, most people still associate “Indian” with the overt images of the culture so the books tend to fit the popular notion of what is Indian. But there is a definite interest in bilingual and multilingual books and more openness to different themes in such books.
In your opinion, and based on all your travels, how is children’s literature from India seen nowadays, inside and outside the country?
SR: Everywhere, children’s literature is seen as an important component of the life of children, even if it is not given corresponding space when it comes to discussion/dialogue. What I mean is that when it comes to writing about children’s literature/books, or talking about it at conferences, and so on, it is always perceived as being somehow inferior to adult literature. So there’s a huge lacuna there, and this I have seen both in India and at conferences/platforms abroad.
Specifically about children’s literature from India: within India children’s literature is generally seen very much in the context of literacy. So what we have today is an awareness of the need for books to reach children all over the country, and that’s what drives our children’s literature distribution/access activities. In this scenario, while the discerning recognize good, pioneering work that sets new standards of excellence in terms of content and production, for the most part this tends to get lost in the overall demand for books, more books. So organizations that should actually be concentrating on distributing books, are now themselves creating books. Naturally there is a watering down of quality, because as everybody knows, publishing is a specialized business that calls for a certain kind of expertise, not least of which is quality content sifted by trained/sensitive editors.
The other end of the spectrum, within India, is epitomized by the standard question posed by many, including journalists: “So, when are we going to produce a JK Rowling?” There are many Rowling wannabes as can be seen by the spurt in books for children ages 10 +, all in English, which again narrows down your readership completely. And as far as writers themselves go, for many Rowling is the yardstick by which they measure their monetary potential. So, as you can see, this is all pretty unrealistic.
Outside the country: quite clearly, there is greater interest in multicultural children’s literature all over the world. But there is still some stereotyping among Western publishers as to the multicultural angle on their list.
I think the real answers come from the responses of children. I have read to/interacted with children in England, Sweden, Germany, Sri Lanka… and everywhere I have found very positive responses to the books/stories. Sometimes, librarians, teachers, publishers have had some misgivings with respect to what they perceive as culturally different (strange sounding names, etc). But in every single case, children have had no issues at all. They have responded to the stories, the names, completely unfamiliar contexts and experiences, with excitement, enthusiasm and curiosity. And in fact, teachers among these groups have actually then been infected by the children’s excitement. I have found that children LOVE strange, unfamiliar things… they rise admirably to the challenge. Often, they don’t even see any ‘difference’…. They are able to quickly translate in their minds/ or approximate to a more familiar reference through which they understand the unfamiliar. For instance, a group of little children in a school in Scotland was able to understand the larger story of Partition because it was told through the story of the loss of friends (Mukand and Riaz). They were able to engage with the difficult topic of death (My Friend the Sea) even though the teacher in charge had expressed great disapproval of the book because it talks about a child’s experience of loss and confusion in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.
So, yes, Indian children’s literature is welcomed by those who count: the young readers. The bottom line, as always, anywhere, is: it has to be a compellingly told story. Never mind which culture it comes from.
What would you say are the biggest challenges you face as a publisher in India?
RM: Translating in nine different languages is a constant challenge editorially – each translation presenting a new one! Marketing and distributing the books in nine languages is the biggest bottleneck we face, especially to the large chain bookstores which have come to dominate the mainstream market. It’s quite common to see Tulika’s books in a remote village library or a school in the US or UK but not in the big chain stores in metropolitan areas.
Can you tell us about your partnership with other organizations to promote literacy?
RM: Organisations that set up community and school libraries offer us an alternative distribution network outside the mainstream, especially for the books in different languages. We continue to work closely with these groups, sending them information on new titles and reprinting books at special prices in languages they require. Sometimes there is a request for books in a language we haven’t done and we then print a special edition, for instance in Nepali, Urdu, Oriya, etc.
The network of such organizations has become wider over the years. We often customize library packages according to their requirements and reading levels. We have developed the Thumb Thumb books as a beginner reader series keeping the needs of children with little exposure to books in mind. Children from all backgrounds can relate to the characters and storylines as they are not culture specific. This has worked very well and we will be continuing the series with more titles.
We are now partnering with the Hippocampus Reading Foundation that promotes reading in government schools by developing teaching resources based on the Tulika books. This is proving to be very effective and the response from teachers has been very good. We offer book packages at special discounts to the Foundation.
Sandhya–In addition to being Tulika’s senior editor, you are also a well-known writer with over 20 books to your credit. Does being an author help your job as an editor and publisher?
SR: I think it does. For one, I think it gives me some insights about the thin skin of writers! It helps me think in pictures, and so to engage with illustrators. It has sensitized my ears to possible ‘wrong notes’ in form or content. Also, since I do have opportunities to interact with children with different profiles and from different regions/countries, I think it helps me understand how they might think… I hope! Not that that always changes how a person writes, because you write what you write… but it certainly helps sharpen your sensibilities, if nothing else.
What are your hopes for the future of Tulika?
RM: To continue to do a diverse range of books, to explore other genres including non-fiction for children, to continue to discover new talent in writing, illustrating and translating, to increase the reach of our books in the different languages not just in India but outside as well, and to partner with organizations to use the content of our books in different media and in different forms and to extend the reach of books in the different languages.
Anything else you’d like to add?
RM: Our books are being increasingly used as supplementary readers in schools and many of our stories are being used in text books. Our books are also being adapted for animation, children’s theatre, audio books and digital formats. Three of our books are available as apps and ebooks for the ipad, not just in English but in Hindi and Tamil as well. Book-based merchandise is being developed. Thus the content of the Tulika books, both text and visuals, is slowly and steadily impacting the cultural milieu of the child in significant ways. In the Indian context, with its deep roots in colonialism especially in school education, this is a significant development.
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers' Managing Editor and Producer
Posted October 2010
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Published by Tulika Books (sample list):
Out of the Way! Out of the Way!
written by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy
written and illustrated by Nina Sabnani
School is Cool
written by Sowmya Rajendran, illustrated by Kanchon Mitra
"Looking at Art" Series
The Veena Player
A Trail of Paint
written by Anjali Raghbeer, illustrated by Soumya Menon
My Name is Amrita…born to be an artist
written by Anjali Raghbeer, with reproductions of art by Amrita Sher-Gil
What Shall I Make?
written by Nandini Nayar, illustretd by Proiti Roy
Dancing on Walls
written by Shamim Padamsee, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy
Mukand and Riaz
written and illustrated by Nina Sabnani
Avneet Aunty's Mobile Phone
written and illustrated by Kavita Singh Kale
My Mother's Sari
written by Sandhya Rao, illustrated by Nina Sabnani
For more information, visit Tulika's website and blog, or follow their news on Facebook and Twitter.
More on the web:
Watch a video about Tulika's commitment to multilingual publishing
Check out their catalog
Read these great articles about Tulika's work and philosophy
Find some of Tulika's iphone and ipad apps here
Watch their slideshows, book trailers and videos of storytelling events
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