Friday, June 10, 2011

Asian Content for the World's Children

Notes from Singapore Part 3: More musings on children's publishing after the Asian Festival of Children's Content 2011 (AFCC) from our editor, Manasi Subramaniam:

Through the course of the conferences and seminars at the AFCC, there was a lot of learning involved for me, especially in the sessions that talked about current publishing trends and future predictions for publishing. The focus on Asian content, at least as far as the book publishing industry was concerned, was refreshing. A lot of publishers provided us with perspective on the kind of books that travel well internationally, sell well domestically etc., all of which is relevant to an industry that caters to a global audience.

The focus of the publishing seminars was ‘Asian Content for the World’s Children’ and I think this was approached very systematically. Bringing in publishers from the West who talked about the kind of Asian content that works for the West was a nice touch.

Among several other things, I was keenly interested in trying to understand why Asian content doesn’t always work in the Western market and what we can do about it. In a session called 'The Global Market for Asian Children's Books: What Travels, What Doesn't and Why', American editor Neal Porter of Neal Porter Books addressed this issue thoroughly. He talked about both the content we produce and the way we produce it. In another session by literary agent Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency in the USA called 'The Children’s Market: What Has Changed and What Sells Now', this was briefly covered once more.

From these sessions and from others, I've gathered three valuable suggestions on how a book can be made more 'universal'.

Firstly, it's probably time for us to stop moralising. Asian content tends to be didactic and heavy on morals. This is something that doesn’t work for an international audience. This deep moralising is, I think, one of the remnants of our fable culture – we like to end stories with a moral. While western culture shrugged themselves off Aesop and Grimm and even Beatrix Potter and have moved comfortably on to stories that deal with human problems in a more contemporary and realistic manner (look at Pippi Longstocking, for example), Asian content is a little caught up in the notion that a good story must have a good moral. This is clear especially from the number of books in the market that end with 'And the moral of the story is...' I think that we must ask ourselves - whatever happened to reading for the sake of reading?

Research has also shown that anthropomorphic characters (talking animals) are passé. Asian content tends to give animals human characteristics and often even has animals and humans interacting with each other. It's hard for me to understand why this doesn't always work, especially since talking animals have been a staple part of children's content since the Aesop days. But the contention was that children of the world are interested in character-driven stories - stories that they can identify with. And they can best identify with other children.

Another suggestion was to stop regurgitating the same stories over and over again. Folklore and myth may have been important at some point. But in creating multicultural content, international publishers are more interested in contemporary stories than in old folktales. Walk into any bookstore in India and the children's section will be filled with dozens of different retellings of the Panchatantra and the Jataka. In fact, a lot of Karadi Tales titles are inspired from a rich history of folk stories. But I've begun to wonder - while these may be the stories that we want to tell our kids, are these the stories that they want to hear? Unless the adaptation is truly unique, there's nothing that really 'stands out' about a folktale retold. 

Of course, this begs the question of why we should bother creating content for children of the Western world when so many of our own need books to read. But I've come to believe that there is such a thing as universality of the human spirit and that it is possible to achieve that kind of universality while maintaining an authentic voice and a sense of territory.

These are ideas that I'm very keen to explore in the kind of picture books that we have lined up on our publishing agenda.

Read Part 1 on 'Connecting with Connected Kids' and Part 2 on 'Potato Chips and Arsenic' of our AFCC report!