I am an Indian mom raising two little “American” girls in the U.S. Reading to my kids is one of my favorite things to do with them and I love sharing old favorites from my childhood, because it gives me a chance to relive my own.
Only, there are few Indian classics in children’s literature that I remember reading. Growing up in India in the 80s, I, like most urban middle-class Indians, read children’s books by British authors such as Enid Blyton or English literature classics that were mandatory reading in school such as Oliver Twist or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
I credit those books with developing my imagination. After all, back in the day when there was no cable TV, I had probably not the remotest idea what an English boarding schools was like. And what were these “pleasant summer days” that was always described in these books? Indian summers were hardly pleasant. Yet these little English kids spent their long, lazy summers swimming and picnicking. I, on the other hand, spent my lazy summers indoors, away from the humidity and heat, reading all day. These books often offered a nice escape into a world that was just so distant and foreign from mine.
Yet as a grown up, I realize that those books have, in some ways, let me down. I remember dreaming about scones as a little girl and came to the U.S. with an appetite for them, only to discover that my tongue craved samosa and masala dosa and the pancakes and scones were poor substitutes! I chalk it up to homesickness, of course, but it was one of the many things that made me realize that for all my love for the English language and western literature, I still need books that resonate with my personal experiences. Surely, my 5- year- old daughter, growing up in America but with Indian roots, feels the same.
So I had the grandparents bring the Indian children’s books I grew up reading – Amar Chitra Kathas. Yet some of these stories seem too advanced for a 5- year- old, with too many characters, verbose text and nuanced interpretations of good and evil that were hard to explain to a little child.
This surely couldn’t be my only choice. So I did some research and was amazed to find the hundreds of age-appropriate books that have been published over the last 20 years. It appears that the Indian children’s literary landscape has undergone quite a change and those of us who have grown up and moved away from that world are quite out of touch. There are hundreds of picture books that have wonderful illustrations that reflect all of India’s diversity and they are available in several languages that can truly be appreciated by bi-lingual parents. And these books, I find, speak to my kids in a way most books available in the U.S. do not.
While the neighborhood we live in is pretty diverse, the vast majority of the books that my girls read right now are sorely lacking in representing the world around them. When the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at 3200 books published in U.S. in 2016, it found that only 21 percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters. There isn’t a sub-group for south Asians so I am guessing we have even less representation. Clearly my kids are going to have a tough time finding books in the U.S. with characters that look like them.
I want my daughters to read books that are filled with pictures of children with black hair, their “ammas” in a sari and bindi, speaking a mix of English and Tamil (their mother tongue, which they are still to fully embrace). Hopefully, reading such books would ensure that their own culture will not feel alien to them as they grows up in America. And I know this sense of identity is what millions of Indians settled in the U.S. also want for their kids.
This blog is dedicated to discovering new books for Indian children that have global appeal but are rooted in authentic Indian storytelling. The market for Indian children’s books is still evolving and it cannot truly compete with books from the west unless we as parents appreciate what a well-written Indian book could offer our child and start demanding more of them.