Saraswathy Rajagopalan

In Conversation with Saraswathy Rajagopalan: On the Politics and Policies of Publishing Children’s Literature

in Interview
Published on: 25 July 2019
Priya Vijay in conversation with Saraswathy Rajagopalan

Saraswathy Rajagopalan has over two decades' experience in the world of publishing. She has a Diploma in Advanced Studies in Publishing from Oxford Brookes University. She started her publishing career in Oxford University Press (OUP), followed by Taylor & Francis, and then moved back to OUP. She has been the executive editor of Mango (DC Books) since 2009 and has been instrumental in the growth and development of the imprint.

Priya Vijay is a research scholar with an educational background in English Language and Literature, Comparative Literature and Media Studies with work experience in publishing and teaching. She is currently teaching English at Greenwood High International School, Bangalore. Her current research interest is in the interdisciplinary fields of visual culture, performance studies, memories studies and the study of the quotidian. 


Priya Vijay (PV): The primary aim of this interview is to explore connections between childhood and children’s literature in Kerala from a publisher’s/editor’s point of view.

Saraswathy Rajagopalan (SR): I am a bit of an oddity if I may say so myself! I am a non-Malayali heading a children’s imprint publishing only in English for DC Books, the towering literary publisher publishing for over four decades mainly in Malayalam. My responses will be biased more towards children's books in English because that is what I do and know best.

PV: The publishing industry has a profound impact on the kinds of books that are commissioned, written, produced and marketed. It has the potential to change the literary landscape and reading sensibilities of its reading public. Could you give an overview of the state of children’s literature in Kerala and the publisher’s role in creating that reading category?

SR: Kerala, as we all know, has a thriving reading culture and Keralites take immense pride in their language. Avid readers always want more and there comes in the need for publishing children’s books in English. As publishers who want to be known and read across the country we do not focus on stories from Kerala alone. Our idea is to introduce readers to new landscapes. We have developed a list that has a lot of early learning stories, fiction written by talented Indian authors, classics (both Indian and World Literature), non-fiction and picture books for early learners.

PV: According to the publishing industry, what is children’s literature? Is a children’s book a book written ‘by’ children or ‘for’ children? Is there a difference in the way the publishing industry in different regions approach this matter?

SR: A broad definition would be a book written for children by anyone. Although more often than not, the ‘anyone’ is an adult! The reason being that while adults are keen to get published, in the case of children it is the parents who have to make a dedicated effort to get their children’s works published. And that does not happen often. To sum it up, I think we look at the story more than we look at the author.

PV: What does it mean to write a book ‘for’ children? As a publisher/editor, what pointers do you give your commissioned author and the editorial team to keep in mind while creating children’s text for the market?

SR: Interesting question, but I think in our 11 years of publishing books for children we have not instructed authors on how to write their fiction. Authors write to us with their stories and we take a collective editorial decision on whether to publish or not. We give guidelines for biographies, textbooks, etc. This comes from my personal view that editors should only guide, and not be overly intrusive. Right or wrong, I do not know.

PV: Is a book written ‘for’ children still a children’s book if it is (only) read by adults? What of ‘adult’ books read also by children—are they children’s literature?

SR: I am not sure that a children’s book will be read (only) by adults. I would define a children’s book as one where the author has written keeping children as the target audience, and books written with adults as the target readers are adult books. But there are no strong dividing lines. I still read a lot of picture books to recreate the magic of the world they present. A classic case would be Harry Potterare the books in the series written for children or adults? And let us not forget that children could be anyone between the ages of 5 and 14! That is a huge age range that we are talking about here. There is some fluidity and crossover in definitions according to me (mainly in the young adult and adult categories).

PV: Who is the child for the publishing industry? Beyond the childadult binary based on the legal age of 18, what are the different reading group classifications made by the publishing industry for the larger category of anyone under 18?

SR: The child is defined at different stages in the publishing industry. Early learners are seen as readers up to the age of 5. We then classify our books as 5+, 7+, 10+ and 14+: the last being the Young Adult (YA) category. Our books also carry a note on self-reading and being read out to. A child might not be able to read a book, but might be smart enough to understand when the book is read out to her/him.

PV: Children’s literature is most often expected to be didactic, moralistic and educational. What is the publishing philosophy and ethical checklist that Mango books has for creating texts that is relevant and appealing to a multicultural audience?

SR: No! We do not want children’s literature to be didactic, although the narrative often has a message. We at Mango do not want the message/moral to be in the reader’s face. Subtlety is the name of the game! Except in the complete edition of the ‘Panchatantra’, where we had some stories with a moral at the end, we have not gone into the moralistic mode at all.

We try to keep the names of characters neutral and have no gender bias; I am talking about fiction here. We are careful about themes like violence, death, sex and caste. We have not yet published a book about desperate poverty and survival. We have just received our first manuscript based on this and it is under review. We are careful not to offend any community.

PV: Do you make children’s books for global reach or for the region? Is there literature specifically being produced for children in Kerala paying attention to the specificity of their lived experiences and the history of the location?

SR:  At Mango, our vision is to evolve into an all-India and global player. We have achieved the former and to some extent the latter as well. We have published Ramayana, Mahabharata, Buddha and Gora with a UK partner. Going global is a tricky business because the Western world is so self-engrossed when it comes to children’s literature that they are not willing to look at new fiction from anywhere else. We continue to explore markets closer to home, but have not had much luck with translation. Perhaps in the years to come there will be a situation when more non-English-speaking work will be popular in the world of children’s literature as it is in the world of adult literature. Since we are looking at the national market we have some stories that are Kerala-specific but our themes and experiences are based on kids in metros.

PV: Adult writer—Adult buyer—the child reader. Is there a friction, often a gap between writing and reading ‘real’ childhood as it is lived and imagined by children and the adult-constructions of childhood? If there is, how is it addressed and tackled at the editorial stage?

SR: We all draw from our life’s experiences and childhood is an important phase. Many a time adults are writing stories that were part of their childhood experience. More often than not they transport themselves to that place and time, so there is not much of a conflict. But sometimes a good children’s story can be marred by an author who lays on the adult perspective rather thick. As editors we do edit the manuscripts very carefully and make suggestions asking them to change. We are also able to suggest alternative ideas and plots, based on our childhoods! At Mango, we have not experienced too much of a conflict in this area.

PV: Is there an ideal buyer/consumer/reader for whom the book is published? Who is the target audience? While conceptualising, editing and creating the final text, what are the parameters that the publisher keeps in mind to reach its ideal target?

SR: Our target audience is the English-savvy metro parent/child. While editing the books we do assume that the readers have a good understanding of the worldor let us say, young global citizens. Because of this, we can push the language bar quite high. Our main aim is to keep the text error-free, sharp and focused. Illustrations and the cover are important elements to attract the readers to the book. Pricing plays an important part as well. A good book will not sell if it is too highly priced. All these elements have to come together in each and every book.

PV: Most of my questions are rooted in the theoretical premise that childhood is a socially and historically constructed category, which means it is a concern of spatiality and temporality as well. What are your reflections on this matter?

SR: First of all, I think one should not standardise childhood to fit into a straightjacket. Childhood means many different things to many different children. The place, the economic strata the child is born into, the child’s appearance, personal circumstances, and in an Indian scenario, caste, make narrowing down on any specific definition of childhood difficult. And even if we were to standardise the definition and notion of childhood, what about communication? Do we know of the world that resides within the child’s mind? Children often know far more than we give them credit for, but often as adults we are afraid to acknowledge this fact. I think childhood is a mystery: the known, the unknown, the imagined, the unsaid and then at times the harsh, brutal realities of life experiences.

PV: If conceptions of childhood can differ sharply, so can ideas of children’s books. What are the implications of this for a publisher?

SR: I think as publishers we need to keep an open mind. We also need to push the boundaries and introduce children to worlds beyond their familiar comfort zones. But then we also have to be pragmatic, as there is a commercial angle. Why would one want to move to new areas when the tried and tested stories sell and are commercially successful? It is a balancing act, staying with the old but constantly exploring new worlds and ideas of childhood.

PV: Children’s texts not only reflect but also construct ideal childhoods that a) teachers and parents want their children to aspire to, b) children want to aspire to. In the publication projects undertaken so far by Mango Books, is there a singular normative sense of ideal childhood that has come through the various works over the years? If yes, what is that ideal childhood? More importantly, whose childhood is it representative of?

SR: I think it would be easier for me to answer this question with reference to specific books published by Mango. The Kerala Mystique series, comprising nine books, by Vinitha Ramchandani has central characters who are all offbeat, not a teacher’s or parent’s ideal. They are all special though. There, I believe, is a beautiful message to the child, that the ‘ideal’ is being redefined. Anjana Vaswani’s female characters in her magical rendering of folk tales (Banjaran, Kaveri and Korran, The Forgotten Princess, Butterflies of the Sahyadris) are all brave, bold and defy gender stereotypes. Then there is Apoorva in Nandini Nayar’s series of four books on the diary of an Indian schoolgirl. Overweight, wearing glasses and with unruly curly hair, Apoorva does not fit any stereotype. She is NOT what her parents and teachers would like her to be, yet she is a winner. I do not think there is one definition or vision of childhood that makes up these stories. I believe there are elements incorporated from everywhere.

PV: What are the usual themes and topics covered in children’s literature in Kerala? Themes like child abuse, harassment, bullying, child sexuality especially queer, are difficult for the conservative adult buyer to digest, yet relevant to the ultimate consumer, the child. How are these issues tackled in the books? To what extent does the market demand and determine the treatment of these sensitive topics in children’s texts?

SR: We have addressed bullying, body shaming, gender and caste biases and child abuse in our books. I believe there is a market for books on the topics that you have listed. I have mentioned Apoorva in my previous answer. All the four books in the series touch upon all these topics. Apoorva’s Fat Diary, the first book in the series and Laugh Loud Apoorva, have both been chosen in the Readers’ Choice in a nationwide event conducted by Young India Forum. Child sexuality and queer narratives are areas that we have not ventured into.

PV: Translations from children’s literature from other languages within and outside of India make up a huge portion of the children’s texts available to children in Kerala. What is the basis on which particular texts are selected for translations? Is it translatability of the culture, availability of translators, existing popularity of the original text, or some other factor dictated by the market?

SR: When it comes to classics from world literature then familiarity with the texts is a winning factor. For example, the translation of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, science fiction titles etc. sell well in Malayalam. But I think we underestimate readers and when we give them something new they read the books enthusiastically. One example will be the Animal Opposites series, published in partnership with an American publisher. Here the animals do exactly the opposite of what they are meant to do: a bear who does not want to hibernate, an eagle who does not want to wear glasses and an elephant who cannot remember and more. The Malayalam translation of six titles in the series sold much faster than the English editions.

PV: Children’s texts are often sidelined not as ‘serious’ literature, or too didactic, or even ‘innocent’. Do you feel that there is an underlying presence of ideologies and political standpoints within these texts? Between the writer and the reader, what interventions can the invisible editorial/publishing team make with regard to these implicit political meanings? Is it dependent on the particular editorial teams or the policies of the publishing house?

SR: Yes, a lot depends on the editorial team’s perspective. I believe children’s literature is serious because it influences young minds. At Mango we believe that children need to approach reading with an open mind. It is okay to have a differing view point, even if it goes against the grain. We do not believe there should be any ideology cleverly introduced into the narrative. Let the child read, think and come to her/his own conclusions. Even with the classics we have a section at the end, which asks the young reader leading questions that will make her/him think and look at the stories from all angles.