Feb 16, 2013

The Wide, Wide World of Books/Remix!

Well, one year into my blogging career and I've lost a post for the first time. 
This is my best effort at recreating it, with sincere apologies to guest blogger, Richa Jha, and to any readers who've been inconvenienced by this error.

JoAnn Macken, Janet Halfmann,
 and Kathryn Heling

Imagine two days immersed in the best possible company- those who create, produce, sell, circulate, read, teach, share, and love books. Books for the youngest, books for teens, books for professionals, fiction and non-fiction, and countless resources to support their use. 
On February 7 and 8 I did just that with other members of SCBWI at the annual WSRA (Wisconsin State Reading Association) convention in Milwaukee.

Shelia Llanas and
Stephanie Golightly Lowden

Surrounded as I was by an abundance of books I found myself reflecting on thoughts shared by my virtual/social media friend Richa. Lagos-based writer Richa Jha is a self-procalimed picture book fanatic and believes in a good picture book’s power to unleash imagination and wonder in a child’s mind. She shares her thoughts and features books at http://snugglewithpicturebooks.com/ and http://www.facebook.com/snugglewithpicturebooks
She's been experiencing some website gremlins of her own, so if you try the links and find anything other than an informative world-view of picture books, please be patient and return to try back later. I assure you it will be worthwhile. Welcome, Richa!

Richa Jha

A Disconnected Connect

My family’s love for picture books has become a bit of a joke among our friends. We’ve been known to have missed phone calls and door bells and play dates and lunch invites and other pressing demands when snuggled with picture books! And they are easy to spot in my house - in door-nooks, next to the cookies jar, under the dining table, behind the curtains, in the car seat pocket; any place which is large enough for us to curl up with one. 

But, and here’s the big but, your chances of finding more than a few Indian picture books in those piles is slim. Not because we don’t have picture books in India, but because my kids and I find it difficult to connect with most. For my children, more often than not, it’s not finding themselves on the pages that creates the dissonance. A big number of books are about trees and leaves and birds and monkeys and clouds and mountains that want to stand in for children, but fall short of being overly simplistic (and badly executed) tales of only the trees and birds and monkeys and clouds and mountains. Just that and no more. With most other books, it’s rare for my kids to see characters who are like them. This needs qualifying; time to stir up a hornest’s nest back home!

Let me begin at the beginning: the diversity of India. Which gives rise to the realities of hundreds of multicultural sub agendas at various levels: socio-economic, regional, cultural, linguistic, and more. What’s true of one end of India may not necessarily be true of the other. The largest chunk of our picture books comes from south India, and naturally, carries a strong regional flavour. Which percolates to every single bit about how the children endearingly address their parents to the foods they eat to the names they carry to the way they tie their hair to the way they dress up (at least, most certainly in the way they are depicted in these books). Should I be bold enough and say this – what’s missing from the bulk of our picture books is the young north or east or north east Indian child.

For my children, therefore, a grandmother being lovingly called ‘Pati’ by a little one in a book is as alien as ‘Nokomi’ is for an American child. The book has lost its very first chance of connecting with my child right there. Of course, I play the politically-correct mom and render a little homily to my kids on the virtues of multiculturalism within our country, and therefore the need to appreciate that in books. I show them some academic pieces on the web that do the same, and I feel happy that I have done my bit as a responsible mom raising informed sensitive global kids. ‘Ah, so we do feel a bit like those Latino kids feel in the US!’ Ok, something like that!

And that’s not all. Each time I see them grumble at the sight of yet another folk tale retelling or a folk art illustration, I quickly look around to make sure the walls didn’t hear that. ‘You two will make sure I get ostracized within my own picture book community, you little rascals,’ I mutter under my breath, but proceed with remarkable poise with another impromptu homily on our great storytelling and folkart traditions and the need to know and preserve them. But deep within, I see over-dependence on these as a shortcoming (I often end up with a feeling that it’s more for the Western eyes than it is for our own kids).
But, if the unfamiliarity with the main characters in the books is one factor that leads to the disconnect, why is it that picture books from the West resonate well with my kids? That’s because even though the faces and the names are different, the settings are familiar. A typical urban Indian child today has far more in common with an American child in LA, or one in London or in Sydney than she has with a child in rural India (which is where most of our folk tales and folk art stories, or even our newer stories are based). They read the same books, speak the same language, watch the same channels, wear the same brands, gorge on the same junk and play the same games on the Tabs. Against this backdrop, throw in an equally familiar and universal world of a child’s – a world full of questions, big little fears, facing those fears, anxieties, courage, friendships, camaraderie, loyalties, betrayals, joys, sorrows, heart-aches, desires, expectations, dilemmas or choices – and you have a perfect recipe for instant deep bonding with the book! Doesn’t matter that it got created thousands of miles away!

The lack of these last ingredients mentioned above, coupled with paper-thin, situational, or fluffy and bizarre fantasy-led plots in most of our books is what leaves and my children and me with a lukewarm feeling by the time I reach the last pages. I feel cheated at being denied the privilege of having been a part of a real character’s real life, real crisis and a genuinely real resolution of the problem, or of any layered reading.

Do I sound over-critical?! Let me admit that there is a visible change in the way our picture book shelves look at the book stores of late; some of our newer releases are delightful! And each time I come across a gem, it renews my belief that our picture books will only get better with time.

Richa Jha

Thanks for joining me here, Richa, and for reminding us that quality picture books, like kids themselves, transcend cultural boundaries and enrich us all.

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