Children’s Literature: Broadening Perspectives, Encouraging Initiatives

Sonika Parashar highlights the need for initiatives like KathaVana that support making children’s literature an integral part of every child’s life.

Kathavana C Mela 2022 15

On 14 December 2023, Azim Premji University’s Bengaluru campus came alive with at least a thousand children and teachers from different government and low-fee-paying private schools. The visitors had come to join the festivities of KathaVana 2023 — the annual bilingual children’s literature festival of the University, organised in collaboration with the field arm of the Azim Premji Foundation

The theme for the festival was Teachers Writing for Children. Within the broader contours of this theme, we organised three events: a Teacher Professional Development workshop, an online children’s literature festival week, and an on-campus mela. For this post, I would refrain from sharing the whats, whys, and hows of the event as they are available here. What I do want to share here is essentially a plea.

In most of our minds, children’s literature is considered equivalent to storybooks for children, especially the ones that impart morals to children. However, not only storybooks, but children’s literature also means a rich and diverse genre that encompasses a wide array of literary works specifically crafted for young readers, from infancy to adolescence, including poetry, graphic novels and comics, nonfiction, performative traditions of literature, picture books and literature that need not necessarily impart morals. 

Oral storytelling traditions, early folk tales and oral narratives passed down through generations laid the foundation for the development of children’s literature as a distinct genre. They focussed on themes and issues relevant to the experiences and developmental stages of children.

Performative traditions are also considered children’s literature. These include, but are not limited to, puppet shows, storytelling performances, and theatrical productions with or without a moral output, specifically tailored for children. While they may not fit into traditional definitions of written or printed texts, these forms of storytelling and expression are integral components of the broader landscape of children’s literature and shape young audiences’ literary experiences. Thus, we need to expand our understanding of children’s literature and not restrict ourselves to a narrow definition of the same. 

Unfortunately, not all appreciate the breadth of children’s literature and its pivotal role in children’s lives. They are often dismissed as mere entertainment or post-academic activity. But it is imperative that stakeholders in education — teachers, parents, policymakers, leaders in education, etc., — understand that children’s literature offers numerous benefits that contribute to children’s intellectual, emotional, social, and cognitive development.

Children’s literature stimulates the imagination and fosters creativity by transporting young audiences to fantastical worlds, introducing them to diverse characters and settings, and encouraging them to envision possibilities beyond their immediate surroundings. It addresses a wide range of emotions and experiences, helping children develop emotional intelligence, empathy, and social awareness. 

When children encounter characters facing diverse challenges, triumphs, and setbacks, they learn to identify and regulate their own emotions, understand others’ perspectives, and navigate complex social dynamics. Literature exposes children to diverse cultures, perspectives, and experiences, fostering cultural awareness, empathy, and appreciation for diversity. Through stories featuring characters from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and identities, children gain insight into the richness and complexity of the world around them, promoting tolerance, inclusivity, and respect for others.

If one wants more reasons to include children’s literature in a child’s life, then, yes, research shows that it helps children gain academic success as well by contributing to their language and cognitive development. It expands their vocabulary, enhances their understanding of grammar and syntax, and exposes them to different writing styles and literary devices. 

Reading aloud to children from an early age can also foster phonemic awareness and fluency, laying a strong foundation for literacy development. Children’s literature promotes cognitive development as well. It challenges children to think critically, make connections between ideas, analyse characters’ motivations and actions, and predict story outcomes. It also enhances cognitive skills such as problem-solving, inference-making, and perspective-taking, and fosters intellectual growth and cognitive flexibility. For me personally, above all, children’s literature brings a sense of enjoyment, curiosity, and wonder. It is a pleasurable experience which makes learning and living life an enjoyable journey.

India has a rich tradition of storytelling, performative and oral literature in various Indian languages. Unfortunately, these are not considered to be children’s literature. In addition, the availability of quality print children’s literature in these languages remains limited compared to English-language children’s literature. 

English has been consistently preferred over other Indian languages in our country. This leads to a demand for English-medium educational materials, including children’s literature, by parents, schools, and publishers. This preference perpetuates the marginalisation of other Indian languages and discourages the creation and dissemination of children’s literature in Indian languages. 

Accordingly, there is a lack of investment and infrastructure for publishing and promoting children’s literature in different Indian languages. Further, children’s literature in Indian languages needs more experimentation with themes, language use, illustrations, structure, and other elements that make children’s literature attractive, interesting, and meaningful for children. Perhaps it is because of these too that children’s literature in English is preferred over that in Indian languages.

Considering these thoughts, my plea to stakeholders in education, thus, is to expand our view of the meaning of children’s literature, recognise its importance in children’s lives and encourage quality children’s literature of different forms and styles, especially in Indian languages. More training, exposure and experience is needed for people interested in publishing or working with children’s literature in Indian languages, including work on translations across languages. 

More initiatives need to be taken up to promote access to children’s literature in various Indian languages for children from different backgrounds and support local authors, performers, illustrators, and artists working in the field of children’s literature. We need to organise children’s literature festivals, book fairs, storytelling sessions, community libraries, and events that showcase local oral and performative traditions. These will expand everyone’s understanding of children’s literature, share its relevance in children’s lives, and respond to the dearth of children’s literature in Indian languages.

KathaVana, organised by our University, is one such initiative. I hope and wish for many more such initiatives that support making children’s literature an integral part of every child’s life.

Glimpses from KathaVana

About the Author

Sonika Parashar is a faculty member at Azim Premji University. In addition to anchoring KathaVana since 2021, she is currently working on a research project Teachers Writing for Children and their Classroom Practices’. This research project is another attempt to create and disseminate children’s literature in Indian languages (Kannada in this case). Additionally, it provides an opportunity for government school teachers from across Karnataka to develop their writing skills and publish children’s literature.