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Friday 9 February 2024

Indian Picture Books and Cultural Diversity

Mark Macleod has been involved with children's publishing for over twenty-five years, as a lecturer, publisher, freelance editor and as an author of picture books for children, as well as poems for children and adults. This week Mark takes us on a journey to India to expand our cultural horizons through picture books.

For years Australia's minimal interest in South Asian cultures has been puzzling. Like Indonesia, countries such as India have been regarded by us as great places for a holiday, but literature, film, music? Strictly arthouse appeal. 


That's changing rapidly, though. The 2021 census records 673,352 Australians born in India; Hinduism and Islam are among the top 5 Australian religions; and Hindi and Punjabi among the top 5 languages. Getting South Asian children's books for your library collection can be challenging, but the rewards make it so worthwhile. 


A great place to start is Sydney's Lost in Books, with a website that includes children's books in 15 of the more than 400 languages in the region.  Some are dual language editions of UK and US books, but most are Indian originals. Another place to start is with Indian publishers' websites, or children's booksellers in India such as the wonderful Kahani Tree in Mumbai. 


One of the reasons I love Indian books is that small publishers such as Tulika, Tara, Pickle Yolk Books, Pratham and Duckbill maintain and celebrate cultural diversity. Twenty years ago, I would have said this about Australia, but with a few exceptions, the bigger that Australian mainstream publishers have become, the greater the sameness in what they now publish. The economics of mainstream publishing in a small market are depressingly simple.

The Indian picture book Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit by Amrita Das (2013, Tara), however, celebrates diversity in several ways. As the young narrator travels from her village to Chennai, she notices examples of both wealth and poverty, and begins to wonder whether the idealised memories of her own childhood were produced by a lack of clear vision. She notices the courage and pragmatism of people living with poverty and disability. Was life different when she was a child, or did she observe it selectively? Or are cities always different from villages? In Chennai she is shocked to see a girl with one foot, going about her business of selling fruit. "She's her own creature, I thought, she's walking around, she's earning and supporting her family.' All the exquisitely detailed images are rendered in Mithila folk art - one of the many Indian traditions under some pressure from mainstream western art. 


The empowering subtext of such books is not just inclusion, but sustainability. The rights and dignity of every member of a community are essential for a sustainable future. 


As Robert Frost said, 'No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.' I love the way the closure of Indian picture books such as A Walk with Thambi by Lavanya Karthik and Proiti Roy (2017, Tulika), or Machher Jhol by Richa Jha and Sumanta Dey (2018 Pickle Yolk Books) makes us completely rethink what we have just read. Karthik's narrator begins 'I took Thambi for a walk today' and the illustrator shows us a boy and a dog. They take a simple but exhilarating walk through the village, the bazaar, by the river, and it's only when they arrive back home that we realise the narrator isn't Thambi at all: Thambi is silently carrying a white cane, and the narrator is his unnamed four-legged companion. 

Finally, it's one of the ironies of Indian publishing  that although they are comparatively 'small', independent publishers can project enough sales to make confronting picture books viable. But Scholastic's Puu, by C. G Salamander and Samidha Gunjal (2018), shows that the courage of independent publishers is inspiring the mainstream too. The occupation of the young narrator in Puu is picking flowers. The rivers, the drains, are full of 'puu' - one of the Indian words for 'flower' - and the illustrations swamp the village in a froth of sweet pink. But gradually the reader understands that what she is collecting is only too well understood in English: her family's occupation is in fact collecting animal waste and the froth of flowers is a sarcastic metaphor. The kids at school avoid the narrator: only the dogs, pigs and flies seem to find her attractive. And the text never comments on the fact that her skin is darker brown than the other kids'. The final words of the text resist closure: 'Most people ignore me. But it's not like I care.' In the stunned silence that follows such a conclusion, Puu challenges us to think long and hard about social justice.

Visit Read Aloud by Scholastic India 
to discover further Indian picture books.

Of course there are playful books, silly books, beautiful heartwarming books, too, being published every week in India: I've chosen just a few which exemplify the diversity, integrity, and humanity that I feel Australian picture books are in danger of losing. If you are discovering Indian picture books for the first time, you're going to love the journey!


Mark Macleod

Mark's latest book for young readers is a collection of poems, The Secret Boat, illustrated by Hélène Magisson (2023, WestWords).

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