When the teacher greeted the audience and turned the microphone over to one of the committee members, the budding author simply shook her head. Perhaps because she had already put what she wanted to say into words and pictures.
It’s perfectly permissible, and even nice, if you are only five or six years old and among a group of schoolchildren who first get a taste of the biblical interest. The event was an unofficial launch of 19 students from Shiv Nadar School in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, who created independently published or self-published books.
The pandemic and enforced isolation have inspired children to take reading and writing more seriously, as the children of Shiv Nadar School attest. From kindergarten to teens, nineteen schoolchildren explored storytelling, poems, and illustrations, while delving into the genres of fairy tales as well as fantasies and thrills.
However, it is just a stepping stone to the publishing world where few people are making the cut.
Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, publisher of children’s and young people’s books, Hachette India, says they get their fair share of manuscripts from children – an average of one in 25 submissions. “They are sent mostly by parents, but often children write themselves, over the age of 12. There has been a slight uptick during Covid-19,” she adds.
Shelves in bookstores don’t separate books authored by children, and age isn’t a deciding factor for publishers making a deal. “The subject matter, originality and quality of writing are our main concerns. Our contracts with minor authors also have clauses in mind about a child doing so without coercion and without any violation of child labor laws or any rules and regulations regarding children,” says Banerjee.
At the moment, Hachette India has only one child author on its list – Zak Sanjith from Bengaluru, who was 10 when he wrote A History of the World in 3 Points published earlier this year. “We really liked the idea of the laminated history book. He had been putting the book together for two years alone while studying online and had plenty of time on hand during the worst months of the pandemic,” says Banerjee.
Sohini Mitra, publisher of the children’s division of Penguin Random House India, agrees that there are a lot of applications from children. “It is an encouraging trend because it shows that they are reading, there is a renewed interest in schools, and even parents are recognizing the need to keep them off screen. Children who love literature eventually get to work with some writing.” However, she adds, there isn’t much original work, which is what the publisher is looking at.
Over a decade ago, post-Harry Potter publishing houses began receiving a deluge of manuscripts on fantasy fiction as children were starting the genre. Despite the decline, publishers still receive plenty of fiction, says Mitra, which encourages parents to take the self-publishing route to motivate children to write more.
However, last year Penguin published a book called The Great Big Lion, drawn and written by three-year-old Chris Knight of Canada.
Among Indians in recent years, a group of teenagers including daughter of author Ravi Subramanian Anusha, author of Never Gone (2016), and Zuni Chopra’s debut novel The House that Spoke (2017) have published.
She had earlier published Arjun Vajpai, when he became the youngest Indian to climb Mount Everest (On Top of the World, 2010) at the age of 16, and had also published a book called Unmasked: Stories from the Pandemic by Paro Anand, who writes books for children. She collected 18 stories and left the 19th blank space for the reader to write herself.
Literary agent and publishing commentator Kanishka Gupta recalls that few promising young writers were published a decade ago based solely on merit.
He cites the example of Shreya Mathur, who wrote But Ira Said (2012) while on residency before the board of directors when she was 15. He commissioned Shreya’s book based on chapters only,” he says, adding that most self-published books are vanity projects and tend to be spinoffs or inspired by other books. “Many self-publishers complain about the unavailability of books in bookstores or online. This is because vanity presses have no distribution.”
Publishers also feel that apart from a solitary pursuit of writing, children are under pressure to achieve.
Banerjee says, “In a generation, publishing an article in a school magazine was a joy. Now the boundaries of these accomplishments are being expanded. Kids have resumes these days, and parents are just as keen to publish young children’s work.” She adds that self-publishing provides an easy space to post. “Among older children, sometimes publishing a book helps them get accepted into college.”