Scholastic Posts

Marvel books

Marvel comics were launched in America in 1939. According to Wikipedia:

Martin Goodman, a pulp magazine publisher who had started with a Western pulp in 1933, was expanding into the emerging—and by then already highly popular—new medium of comic books. Launching his new line from his existing company’s offices at 330 West 42nd Street, New York City, he officially held the titles of editor, managing editor, and business manager, with Abraham Goodman officially listed as publisher.

Timely’s first publication, Marvel Comics #1 (cover dated Oct. 1939), included the first appearance of Carl Burgos’ android superhero the Human Torch, and the first appearances of Bill Everett’s anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, among other features. The issue was a great success, with it and a second printing the following month selling, combined, nearly 900,000 copies. While its contents came from an outside packager, Funnies, Inc., Timely had its own staff in place by the following year. The company’s first true editor, writer-artist Joe Simon, teamed with emerging industry’s notable artist Jack Kirby to create one of the first patriotically themed superhero, Captain America, in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). It, too, proved a hit, with sales of nearly one million. Goodman formed Timely Comics, Inc., beginning with comics cover-dated April 1941 or Spring 1941.

While no other Timely character would achieve the success of these three characters, some notable heroes—many of which continue to appear in modern-day retcon appearances and flashbacks—include the Whizzer, Miss America, the Destroyer, the original Vision, and the Angel. Timely also published one of humor cartoonist Basil Wolverton’s best-known features, “Powerhouse Pepper”, as well as a line of children’s funny-animal comics featuring popular characters like Super Rabbit and the duo Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal.

Goodman hired his wife’s cousin,  Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant in 1939.  When editor Simon left the company in late 1941,  Goodman made Lieber—by then writing pseudonymously as “Stan Lee”—interim editor of the comics line, a position Lee kept for decades except for three years during his military service in World War II. Lee wrote extensively for Timely, contributing to a number of different titles.

Goodman’s business strategy involved having his various magazines and comic books published by a number of corporations all operating out of the same office and with the same staff.  One of these shell companies through which Timely Comics was published was named Marvel Comics by at least Marvel Mystery Comics #55 (May 1944). As well, some comics’ covers, such as All Surprise Comics #12 (Winter 1946–47), were labeled “A Marvel Magazine” many years before Goodman would formally adopt the name in 1961. 

For nearly eight decades Marvel comics have survived despite financial turbulence, been at the cutting edge of testing new publishing models, experimented in mediums and continued telling stories with superheros that have gripped the imaginations of young and old alike. With the booming popularity of films many of the superheroes came alive on the screen — Iron Man, Superman, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Wolverine, Captain America, and Hulk to name a few.  On August 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company announced a deal to acquire Marvel Comics’ parent corporation, Marvel Entertainment, for $4 billion. As of the start of September 2015, films based on Marvel’s properties represent the highest-grossing U.S. franchise, having grossed over $7.7 billion  as part of a worldwide gross of over $18 billion.

Marvel books published by Scholastic, Summer 2017

The last decade has seen the explosion of digital and print mediums and recently of the two experiences coming together. It helps in creating an immersion which is absolute for die-hard fans of the Marvel superheroes. Scholastic, a publishing firm specialising in children’s literature predating the formation of Marvel Comics, has been over the years releasing a range of print products to meet this demand. Take for instance the recently released film Guardians of the Galaxy 2  ( April 2017) where popular actors have done voiceovers for the characters. ( Vin Diesel is the voice for Baby Groot!) Scholastic to coincide with the film published a range of books around the Guardians of Galaxy characters. These include “the movie storybook”, a novel “inspired by the film”, colouring and activity book and a sticker activity book. What is absolutely incredible is how smoothly the publicity team has created a range of successful publishing collateral targetting different age groups of readers. Children are immediately drawn to the books and are kept happily entertained for hours. Along with this a revised hardback edition of Marvel Super Hero Encyclopedia was released. Even though it is priced slightly on the higher side for the local Indian market it has proved to be a bestseller, notching up healthy sales. ( This, despite parents and schools, advising children not to buy such “useless” books!) What is a particularly charming aspect of these stories is that though the super heros are gender-defined and their physical forms are some illustrator’s fantasy of the ideal body shape, the characters appeal is gender neutral. Thankfully, irrespective of the gender of the reader, all children ( and adults) gravitate towards the books. Here is a link posted on Facebook by Seale Ballenger, Publicity Director, Disney Publishing Worldwide ( 29 June 2014) of the legendary Stan Lee speaking about the importance of writing stories for younger readers:

Stan Lee talking about the importance of writing for young readers at ALA 2014

Posted by Seale Ballenger on Saturday, June 28, 2014

Frankly the fascination of these Marvel books is obvious and worth recommending. They keep children happily engaged and away from electronic babysitting while opening up an imaginative world away from their daily routines. It is like going down a worm hole on an adventure with bizarre characters.

27 June 2017 

Kunskapsskolan Book Week ( 1-5 May 2017)

I was invited by Kunskapsskolan Gurgaon to curate their book week. They have nearly 1200 students. The book week had to be created for all grades from pre-Nursery to Form 10. Since it has been recently established in India the classes are bottom-heavy with a larger number of students in primary school. Also the teaching staff is young, energetic and eager to learn new ways of learning particularly using technology.

Kunskapsskolan has been established in India via a joint venture partnership between Sweden and India. The schools follow the KED programme whose motto is: “Personalize each student’s education according to their individual needs and abilities. All resources in the school are carefully designed and organized around the student in a complete and coherent system.” Another characteristic of Kunskapsskolan schools is to align themselves with the educational system approved by the government of the country they are establishing schools in. So in India they are recognised by the CBSE board. Having said that they implement the curriculum using theme-based learning and from grades 3-8 it is primarily using digital resources. A unique aspect of Kunskapsskolan is its inclusive policy to have students with behavioural and learning challenges. There is a department that has skilled educators and councillors who are instrumental in the integration of these special children with rest of the school community.

Given the interesting mix of students with varying capabilities and incorporating the simple mandate of the school management — “By making a qualitative difference to the school community by immersing everyone in a world of books. It is also to introduce children to the love of reading via various methodologies and a well-curated book exhibition.” It was decided to hold the book week along with Scholastic India. With ninety-five years experience of publishing for children worldwide, of those twenty in India, Scholastic India is equipped to meet the requirements of the school. For instance putting together a theme-based book fair, introduction to audiobooks, ebooks and levelled readers for students such as Book Flix ( primary) and LitPro ( middle and secondary).

Teacher’s workshop led by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, 29 April 2017

The book week began with a workshop for the school teachers on the “promotion of reading and digital resources”. I led two workshops. First for early years and primary school teachers. The second one was for middle and secondary school teachers. The emphasis was on importance of reading as a lifelong skill to acquire and not just to complete school curriculum. Given that this is the information age where its imperative to know how to read and glean

Anu Singh Chowdhary

knowledge, reading as an activity has to be enjoyable. It has to inculcate a love for reading without making it a chore. Today there are multiple formats by which children can access books for pleasure and information. According to Kids & Family Reading Report 2016 (KFRR ) children prefer reading for fun and helps develop a fondness for the activity. Parents too agreed that reading is important.

  • 86% of kids interviewed said their favourite books – the ones they were likely to finish – were the ones they pick out themselves. This is close to the USA average of 93%.
  • Across all ages, an overwhelming majority of children (87%) say they would read more if they could find more books that they like.
  • Children and parents prefer curated selections as it is easier to discover books. The top sources of books are the school book fairs, book clubs and word-of-mouth recommendations.  Libraries and bookshops are a close second.

    Anupa Lal

A primary school teacher’s feedback on the sessions and book fair, 5 May 2017

The teachers were introduced to online digital resources ( free and subscription based) that were age-appropriate and supported their curriculum. The workshops had been customised to align with KED methodology. So though the focuse was on resources available online many scrumptious examples of print books were also shared to gasps of astonished delight. A teacher who works primarily with children who have learning disabilities wrote in later to say “I simply loved the session!”

Something similar was witnessed at the Kunskapsskolan Book Week.

A student’s enthusiastic response to the book fair.

On the first day two little tiddlers hurtled down the stairs breathless with excitement, ” This book fair is awesome! The collection is so good!”

Paro Anand reading out aloud “Wingless”

Every single day there were sessions with authors, illustrators, storytellers, dramatists, cartoonists and editors. The idea being to introduce children to different aspects of books and reading. There were even sessions planned around audio books and animations based on popular stories as with Book Flix. Unfortunately due to privacy issues I am unable to upload some of the magnificent pictures taken during the events. Children, irrespective of whether they were toddlers or young adults, were mesmerised by the sessions. I have pictures of children who were trooped into the sessions and sat very quietly not knowing what to expect. Within minutes of the resource people beginning we had children absorbed listening to the stories in wide-eyed wonder, small or big the students were sprawled across the carpets, some were sitting under classroom desks and peering out, others were clapping their hands in glee and yet others body language was a delight to watch.  Inevitably within minutes the students would surround the resource person and it was absolutely marvellous to watch the adult engulfed in a sea of blue with loud chirrups of happiness from the children.

Simi Srivastava, storyteller

Simi Srivastava told a deliciously onomatopoeic tale about a bear. It was narrated accompanied to music. It went down very well with the toddlers. After the session a little boy came and gave her a tight hug while planting a slurpy wet kiss of appreciation on her cheek. Another girl came up politely and said “It was nice” but her twinkling eyes noted her deep appreciation of the storytelling performance.

Paro Anand, an exceptional storyteller, read out aloud her brilliant fable Wingless to a mesmerised audience of 9 and 10 year olds. ( According to KFRR, across all ages, the overwhelming majority of kids (85%) say they love(d) being read books aloud.) When she said she had written 27 books for children, a tiny little hand went up and a solemn little child said, “It means you are ‘experienced'” much to Paro’s delight.

Later Paro Anand had a session with the senior children around her recently launched graphic novel 2. It is the first Indo-Swedish collaborative book and it was apt that the first school event was held at an Indo-Swedish school. Paro Anand has written this book with Swedish writer, Örjan Persson. Her session was converted into a writing workshop too. The children were broken up into teams of two and given the task of writing stories together, aping the collaboration between the authors of 2. They were given two days to work on the stories. Three winning teams were awarded prizes along with notes of appreciation by Paro Anand.

There were sessions planned with renowned storytellers like Anupa Lal, Anu

(L-R) Anu Singh Chowdhury, Anupa Lal and Blossom D’Souza

Singh Chowdhury conducted a session in Hindi introducing children to Gulzar’s poetry and stories, seasoned publisher-cum-author Arthy Muthana led a workshop on editing and book production wherein the children looked astonished upon hearing of the “small pile” of manuscripts waiting to be read on her desk, dramatist Vanessa Ohri had the children spellbound, and cartoonist Ajit Narayan’s infectious enthusiasm for drawing characters was palpable as children quickly sketched in their art books while he demonstrated. He was provocative with his remarks like “I still have not found the right picture” but it only spurred the children on to improve. They drew furiously and clucked around him for appreciation.

Ajit Narayan

Arthy Muthana

While the book week was on a team of student volunteers had banded together to form a temporary editorial team. These four senior school students were entrusted with the task of creating “books” documenting the book week. They could choose any form of narrative as long as it contained highlights of the sessions and brought in different perspectives. For this they interviewed the resource people, students and teachers to get their views too. The students chose to illustrate with line drawings and soon took photographs to accompany the text. The books are to be placed in the school library. The exercise helped give an insight into the team effort, creativity and patience required to put a book together.

By the last day I too had students smiling and greeting me. The primary school students would give a broad smile or a hug. The senior school students were a little more reserved but it did not prevent them from lurking behind pillars and popping out unexpectedly to waylay me for a chat. It was a tremendous experience and I look forward to many more such occasions.

8 May 2017

*All the pictures except for the one of the school entrance have been taken by me and posted with permission of the school management.

“The Bicycle Spy” & “Brave Like My Brother”

Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.

Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.

17 February 2017 

Literature and inclusiveness

nari-bhav Nari Bhav, published by Niyogi Books, is a collection of essays exploring androgyny and female impersonation in India. These are fascinating insights by practitioners, interviews with actors and some academic papers discussing the concept of nari bhav is a deeply rooted cultural belief in the fluid interplay of the female and male symbolized for example as Ardhanariswara.  A truly exceptional essay is the one by translator, performer and playwright, Pritham Chakravarthy, on performing the Nirvanam. This is the name of the performance she gave to a bunch of monologues that emerged from her work exploring the myth of Aravan that hijras or eunuchs have adopted in South India, especially Tamil Nadu, to contest the many filthy names used for them by the general public. To this she wove in the stories narrated to her by a transgender, ‘Noorie’. The first performance was staged in 2000 and was only ten minutes long. Years later she continues to perform it and the presentation is now forty minutes long and could probably be expanded to sixty minutes. Pritham Chakravarty makes a very interesting comment in her essay: “I sit among the audience and come to the central performance area to emphasize the ‘everychapal-bhaduri day-ness’ of the narrative that will presently unfold before their eyes.” And yet when Chapal Bhaduri, a Bengali actor famous for female impersonations, performed an autobiographical piece at a seminar organized at a Kolkata university in March 2016 it seems that members of the audience were discomfited by the performance.

The concept was simple enough. The performance would be a companion piece to the 1999 documentary on him called Performing the Goddess [ made by Naveen Kishore, Seagull]. In the documentary, entirely shot in the modest ground-floor apartment in north Kolkata where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter of his sister Ketaki Dutta, Chapal Bhaduri gradually transforms himself from Chapal Bhaduri to Chapal Rani, from a man to a woman, from a human to a goddess, from the ordinary to the spectacular. At the seminar he would be doing the reverse. Her would appear before the audience as the Goddess Sitala, and then gradually divest himself of the divinity, the feminity, the spectacular, and end the piece by becoming what he is off-stage: human, male, ordinary. 

While discussing the book with a dear friend I discovered some very interesting facts about his family. This friend shikhandihas often told me how there has always been a space in the Indian society for all genders including for the currently fashionable term — “gender fluid” individuals. When I showed him a picture of Chapal Bhaduri, he told me about his grand-uncle whom everyone in the family called “Dada” and had remained a bachelor all his life. He died a few years ago. Interestingly Dada used to be an usher at some “talkies” in CP or Old Delhi but was always fascinated by dancing and dressing up as a woman. Apparently he was the go-to david-walliamsman in the family for advice on shringar, saris, buying gold jewellery etc. Dada was extremely fond of wearing beautiful Benarasi saris and spent a great part of his meagre salary to amass quite a collection.  While still a young man he began dressing up as a woman. It seems he used to give performances at private gathering. Apparently Dada was very informed about mudras and used to be a delight to watch. Also the family was completely at ease with his gender identity.  Apparently he was considered one of the respected elders of the family and his advice was sought on all important matters. He was also the matchmaker of the community. It probably also explains the comfort family members had with the eunuchs who used to wander in the colony.My friend has childhood memories of having the eunuchs over at home for tea and snacks. It was a regular affair and everyone was at ease with this practice. Another anecdote he recounts is of attending a wedding where where three uncles of the bride dressed up as women in saris and danced as part of the festivities.

And he is not alone in his observations. Anita Roy, publisher and author, wrote this wonderful article in 2006 “Dancing with God” to witness the kōla ceremony; a puja that honours the village deity. ( http://bit.ly/2enwIcW)

Each family in the village undertakes to host this ritual every year.  The presiding bhuta of Adve is Jhumadi (or Dhumavati in the local language, Tulu). A protector of the village and its inhabitants, human, animal and plant, Jhumadi is gendered female and believed to be one of the manifestations of the Goddess Shakti. But like Shiva’s incarnation as Ardhanariswara, she mixes both male and female attributes. Unlike the Puranic gods, who are worshipped in temples, officiated by Brahmin priests and receive offerings as silent spectators, bhutas are more localized spirits who directly influence the lives of their devotees with whom they have a much more intimate, almost neighbourly, relationship.

GeorgeAt the Myrin International Children’s Festival, Reykjavík, well-known author and translator, Lawrence Schimel lawrence-schimel-oct-2016-icelandwhose picture book for children, Amigos Y Vecinos, includes a gay family said that it’s extremely important to include LGBT+ characters in children’s books so they reflect the world that children already live in. (LILJA KATRÍN GUNNARSDÓTTIR, 6 Oct 2016 “LGBT lives just as important as heterosexual ones” http://bit.ly/2fgwEJE ) David Walliam’s first book for children The Boy in the Dress, Alex Gino’s incredibly powerful novel for young adults —George and Richa Jha’s picture book The Unboy Boy are examples of contemporary literature being inclusive by accepting and respecting “unconventional” characters for who they are. Vivek Tejuja, book critic, wrote a poignant article last year entitled “Being gay: how books and reading saved richa-jha-the-unboy-boymy life”. ( Scroll, 21 March 2015, http://bit.ly/2e1gb05)

Reading provided the much needed solace. Reading was a balm to all my aches. Books transported me, took me away from reality. I did not know want to face reality. Why should I? I thought to myself, when I could be lost in the lands of Oz and travel with Gulliver and be miserable with Jane Eyre. Nothing was of consequence, but the authors and the books I read. . . . Reading books was sufficient then. They did not discriminate against me. 

Vivek Tejuja’s forthcoming book meant for young adults will be addressing some of these issues. Siddharth Dube’s precisely told memoir No One Else and A. Revathi’s gripping account of her life as an activist in A Life in Trans Activism are recent contributions to Indian literature discussing sexuality and the grey areas it inhabits —these exist in Nature. revathiThe biggest challenge lies in making this reality visible for now the hypocritic notion that heterosexuality is the norm and everything else is unacceptable on any moral compass reigns supreme. And yet as mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik confirms in Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you which is a collection of stories celebrating life “narrated by our ancestors that are rarely retold publicly as they seem to challenge popular notions of normality”. In Oct 2016, Parmesh Shahani, Head – Godrej India Culture Lab, said at the India Economic Summit, New Delhi that parmesh-shahani“inclusion is for everyone and not just the LGBT community”. He bolstered it with evidence that if businesses & institutions are inclusive then it will have a positive impact on productivity, growth and development. ( “India Economic Summit: Breaking Down Diversity Barriers”, 6 Oct 2016. http://bit.ly/2enrUoa )

( Note: All the images are off the internet. If you own the copyright please let me know and I will acknowledge it. )

2 November 2016 

 

 

 

 

Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai’s “Raza’s Bindu” with an afterword by S. H. Raza

IMG_20160724_102616In late 2014 Scholastic India published a remarkable little book called Raza’s Bindu. It is the first in “I am an Artist” series created by the firm to introduce children to great Indian modern artists. This book is to be followed by a peek into the life and works of another famous painter Ambadas. Raza’s Bindu is a slim and neatly produced little hardback that introduces children to the life of renowned painter S.H. Raza. Instead of being merely a dry autobiographical account the book incorporates fabulous tasks for the child to engage with. They are not run-of-the-mill instructions of creating paintings at home but pages incorporated into the book design that permit the child to scribble happily in the book itself. Though the book could not have been easy to put through to production with its fussy IMG_20160724_102720detailing it is reasonably priced at Rs 350.

Yesterday with the sad news of the passing away of ninety-four-year old Raza I could not help but reflect on the remarkable legacy he has left for the next generation of children and more. Sure his paintings hang in galleries and private collections around the world but in his final years IMG_20160724_102701he was able to reach out generously to children breaking into tiny morsels his philosophy of painting by exploring the multiple possibilites which reside in the universal dot or bindu. Is it a window to the world? Does it represent the God who resides in one’s heart? Is it the Panchtatva ( five elements — earth, water, fire, air and space) that IMG_20160724_102634exist in all his paintings? By mixing storytelling especially beginning with him being a daydreamer in class who was more intent on doodling till he reprimanded by his teacher and asked as a punishment to stare at a dot drawn on the blackboard. It was to be the turning point in Raza’s life. In fact  some of his more familiar paintings incorporated into the book will resonate with the young reader.

This is a tremendous book conceptualised and created by Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai.

Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai “Raza’s Bindu” with an afterword by S. H. Raza. Scholastic India, Gurgaon, 2014. Hb. Rs 350 

24 July 2016 

 

“Penguin on Wheels: Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India”

WBF 2( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. ) 

Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”

     -Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)

On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.

This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”

The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.

Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya WBF 6Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.

WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,

“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”

India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.

The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.

Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)

Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”

In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”

The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.

In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).

Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.

“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”

The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.

The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.

Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

28 June 2016

Pam Munzo Ryan “Echo: A Novel”

ECHO-medalYour fate is not yet sealed,

Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, 

A bell will chime, a path will be revealed. 

Award-winning writer Pam Munzo Ryan’s Echo is a stupendous book. It is four stories intertwined, much like a symphony coming together in the last movement and hence, “a novel”. The first three stories are about four children — Friedrich Schmidt ( Oct 1933, Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany), orphans Mike and Frankie Flannery ( June 1935, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA) and Ivy Maria Lopez ( December 1942, Southern California, USA). Each story focuses on their love of music, playing the harmonica, piano and flute exquisitely.  It is a beautiful space the children create with their talent at a time of grim reality — concentration camps, rise of Hitler, persecution of Jews and the marginalised, the Great Depression, state of orphanages, adoption, the captivity of American Japanese after Pearl Harbour by the government, segregation of Mexican children in schools, etc. There is a touch of magical realism which seems to be perfectly acceptable in young adult fiction (but would have been nitpicked about in adult trade literature such as Yann Martel and Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novels). The magical thread binding the stories has an extraordinary fairytale element to it. It is the harmonica presented to the craftsman Otto when he was a child by the three princesses Eins, Zwei and Drei upon whom a spell has been cast by a witch. Once Otto as an adult decides to donate the harmonica it is found by the other children — Friedrich when he worked as an apprentice at the local harmonica factory, Frankie who had dreams of playing in Alfred Hoxie’s then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards, and later Ivy Maria Lopez who uses it to perform in her school orchestra. In 1951 the young musicians perform Gershwin together at Carnegie Hall.

Ivy felt as if she’d been touched by magic. Her eyes caught the glances of other musicians. And it was clear they felt it, too. 

Who can explain it?

Who can tell you why?

Fools give you reasons,

Wise men never try.

Some enchanted evening. . .

Tonight there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars. . .

. . . and connected by the same silken thread. 

Here is a wonderful profile from Kirkus Reviews of Pam Munzo Ryan ( https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/pam-munoz-ryan/)

Echo is written for young adults but it is a magical book that will appeal across ages. Appreciate it for its inspired storytelling or read it as a conversation starter in classrooms but read it you must.

Pam Munzo Ryan Echo: A Novel Decorations by Dinara Mirtalipova. Scholastic Press, An imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2015. Hb. 

16 April 2016

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

PubSpeak, Jaya
( My column, “PubSpeak”, for June 2013 is on What constitutes good literature? It is published in BusinessWorld online. The link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/good-lit-versus-saleable-lit/r964342.37528/page/0 . It was uploaded on 29 June 2013. )

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit

What is good literature? The fine, complex and well-crafted story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well? The debate is on…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are sitting curled up in a chair and reading. I read and read. I bought books, I was gifted books, I inherited books. My brother and I browsed through encyclopaedias, books on art and museums, read fiction, non-fiction, and anything else in between. Call it by any name, but the pleasure of holding and reading a book was tremendous. In fact one of the canvases I painted was of my brother reading a Leslie Charteris “Saint” novel, borrowed from the library its red jacket visible while he lies on the bed absorbed in reading. We read voraciously. We read whatever came our way. I don’t recall anyone telling us that books were strictly by age or category. We liked a good story. Period.

Today it is different. In June 2013 award-winning German writer, translator and Publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, Michael Krüger, said in Publishing Perspectives, the daily e-newsletter on publishing, “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. …Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding.” Publishers are increasingly more careful about commissioning titles and work a great deal on the packaging and promotion of the books. Always with an eye on the market, reaching out to the regular customers and trying to connect with new readers. For instance titles for children are being classified according to age, to make it easier for customers to find authors.

New imprints are being launched especially for young adult literature (it is a booming market segment) – Inked (Penguin Books India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications), Duckbill (Westland) and Scholastic Nova. The idea is to always have a pulse on the market. Some of the genres that are popular are commercial fiction, children’s literature, non-fiction, self-help, business and then there are new lists appearing – young adult/ tweens, cross-over titles, and speculative fiction.

Jaspreet Gill, a marketing executive who wandered into the industry a year ago, (and the publishing bug has bitten him) says “It is not an industry for the most part driven by Editorial (I thought it was), or the quality of content. The whole trade is driven by sales. The worth of a book is judged by how well it can be sold, or how much the author can spend and how well he can be utilised for marketing. This is also, with all due respect to them. They are smart salesmen, but that is all that they are, selling commodities, not presenting ideas, ideologies, and good literature. I sincerely believe that the reason for success of the authors of commercial fiction is not the quality of their content, but the price of the book, and visibility they are able to get at the retail stores. They are also clever marketers, and know how to sell their products to people.”

Somak Ghoshal, former literary fiction commissioning editor with Penguin Books, acquired some fine literature (Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Anjan Sundaram, Neamat Imam and Shazaf Fatima Haider) says, “Commercial fiction sells. The print runs are staggering. The success of these titles allows the firm to acquire literature that in turn develops the brand of the firm. It is a symbiotic relationship.”

It raises the (eternal) question of what is good literature? What sells? And why? Does good literature equal saleable literature? Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata (with offices in New York and London), offers an explanation “Like everything else, we need to question the ‘market’. After all, it cannot exist in a vacuum. To put it another way: without content — largely implying the labour of the author, the effort of the publisher and all the other players including the vital function that a translator plays — where would the market be? What would it ‘showcase’? What would it sell? And let us make no bones about the fact that ‘content’ is not simply and only about a certain swiftly ‘saleable’ kind of book. It is also about the arts and literature and culture and philosophy and thought that go into making us human. Again if we persist with our interpretation of what the market wants we will end up by not publishing 90 per cent of these subjects. What kind of a future will that be? It is in this context that the market has a responsibility and a proactive role to play. ‘It’ (the market) cannot be lazy about this and merely sit back and expect only the books that make the grade according to ‘its’ standards be accepted! The market has to learn to cater, feed, nurture tastes for literature that do not necessarily extend to the millions . . . always remembering that the first Kafka text only sold 800 copies! If the market had behaved as it does now we would never have had a Franz Kafka! It is in this context that I suggest that the market needs to find you.” Sterling Lord, literary agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Casey, Gloria Steinem, and Berenstains reports in his memoir Lord of Publishing of Ted Geisel, editor, Random House who published the Berenstain bear stories that he insisted on the story being a page-turner. But it “wasn’t only the story that Ted focused on; he cared about the title page, the type, the paper, every phrase, every word, every rhyme, and every drawing.” The intervention of the editor created a book that would sell and launched a new author into the market. By March 2009, nearly fifty years after publication, The Berenstain Bears Go to School had sold 3,520,554 copies in North America alone.

Of course the notion of what constitutes “good” literature is subjective but it is obviously a challenge that plagues the industry worldwide. Is it literature that is fine, complex, well-crafted and tells a good story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well and caters to the mass market? Can literary tastes even be defined? Eric Hobsbawm says it well in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “… much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.” No one really knows. Is it the author that creates a market with their storytelling or does the market create an author? Publishing continues. New authors are discovered. New readers emerge. The cycle continues.

As I file this column, it is announced that Penguin Books India has signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) with Ravi Subramanian, popularly referred to as the John Grisham of banking. This follows close on the heels of Amish Tripathi, of the Shiva trilogy fame, who has inked a deal worth Rs 5 crore (approx $843,000) with Westland for his next series.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.

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