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Creating a timeless classic isn’t quite child’s play

There is a separate category for children’s literature at the Crossword Awards, but the jury decided that there would be no award this year, and with good reason, writes Anita Roy

ANITA ROY  30th Sep 2012

A page from 'Mayil Will Not Be Quiet' by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, which made the shortlist

ast year, when the Pulitzer board announced that there would be no winner for fiction, novelist Ann Patchett spoke for many when she said, "The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost."

For the first time in the Crossword Book Award's 11-year history, there will be no prize winner in one of its categories: children's literature. The surprise announcement prompted Patchett-like reactions among the book community here. Well-known children's author Paro Anand said she was "nothing short of furious" at the decision: "those writing, and writing well, for children need to be applauded, supported and felicitated, not rubbished."

After the five shortlisted books had been read out, R. Sriram, the founder of the Crossword Prize, read out the following statement from the jury:

"Writing for children demands the best and the freshest of a writer's imagination, backed by a high degree of editorial skill. The listed books are good reads and tackle a variety of themes, but in the meld of originality, ideas, and narrative skill, they fall short. We looked for empathy rather than discrimination, fun rather than instruction, audacity rather than political correctness, wonder rather than world-weary ennui — and came away disappointed. We didn't find the quality of timelessness that so distinguishes award-winning material. We have listed five books for honourable mention. There is no award this year."

Was there really not a single book for children published in India in the whole of 2011 worthy of the prize? The identity of those jury members will not be disclosed until the prize ceremony in Mumbai on October 18th, so they couldn't be contacted for comment, but comments there were aplenty from the children's book sphere.

Columnist and blogger, Jai Arjun Singh felt it was a "brave decision", a sentiment echoed by many, including Penguin's marketing director Anand Padmanabhan. Bangalore-based writer Aravinda Anantharaman was also "pleasantly surprised" by the decision. She goes on to elaborate: "Perhaps this is the wake-up call Indian children's writing and publishing needs. I was beginning to detect a sense of complacency, a patting of one's own back, and that's never a good thing."

Sriram himself stands squarely behind the judges' decision: "The prize shouldn't be awarded just because it's there: the prize-winning books have to come up to that level of excellence. Only then will this become a coveted prize, one that really stands for something."

Monideepa Sahu, author of Riddle of the Seventh Stone, sounds a note of despair: "Fresh, original, imaginative and skillfully written books for children are not viable commercially. In a country where parents will gladly empty their wallets on fast food for their kids, original books are considered a waste of time and money." Another writer, commenting on Facebook, puts it even more strongly: "Children's literature in English in India has never taken off. All are moral fables which now children hate." Publishers of children's books in India, myself included, would beg to differ. Talking to Shobha Viswanath of Karadi Tales, Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu of Duckbill, Radhika Menon of Tulika books, it's clear that the move away from 'moral fables' that we've seen in the past decade or so is more than just a trend: it's an actively pursued publishing policy.

We didn’t find the quality of timelessness that so distinguishes award-winning material. We have listed five books for honourable mention. There is no award this year.

s for the first part of the statement, I think all industry insiders would add a one-word caveat: "yet." The signs of new writers tackling bold subjects with energy, verve and confidence, and publishers casting their net wide to encourage the next generation of children's authors, lead many to think that it is just a question of time before we see the field "taking off" in the way that first adult fiction (in English) and then Indian trade non-fiction, and now Indian popular fiction have over recent years.

The Crossword jury's announcement has also sparked off a debate on the judging critera — as often happens when there's a controversy surrounding a prize, for example Virago director Carmen Callil's very public resignation from the Man Booker Prize jury on the award being given to Philip Roth last year.

Jai Arjun Singh puts it thus: "I think that if one has bought into the (basically ridiculous and hubristic) idea of competitive prizes in art, one might as well see it all the way through without worrying about faux-objective notions such as 'timelessness'." In other words, most classics are prize-winners, but not all prize-winners are classics.

Others questioned whether a single prize for 'children's writing' makes any sense at all. Radhika Menon points out that it is "meaningless" to compare a picture book for toddlers with a young adult novel. Writer Samina Mishra describes an "award for children's writing as a single category [as] a bit tokenistic."

"I just wish they would do a separate award for picture books so that they can see some of the really wonderful work emerging from Indian children's publishers these last few years!" says Shobha Viswanath.

As a separate category, the Crossword prize for children's literature is barely a toddler – just three years old – and perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn its baby steps. At least they're in the right direction. I don't think the jury could have done a greater service either to the prize itself (by raising the bar) or children's literature in India (by opening the debate). But I shall leave the final word to Sunday Guardian columnist Aishwarya Subramanian: "Applause. Brave decision. We're only ever going to receive quality books when we demand them."

Children's Literature Shortlist

  • Raja and the Giant Donut by Prashant Pinge
  • The Mystery of MindNet by Aniruddha Sen Gupta
  • Mayil Will Not Be Quiet by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran
  • Beyond the Blue River by B Vinayan
  • Mumbai Rollercoaster by Rajorshi Chakraborti

Anita Roy is senior editor with Young Zubaan. A guidebook 101 Indian Children's Books We Love, edited by Roy and Samina Mishra, will be published in 2013.

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