When I serendipitously found Katherine Applegate’s book Home of the Brave, a children’s book of loss and longing, immigration, forced migration and family and so much more, I knew all was right with the world. That there are authors — and publishers — who are talking, saying what needs to be said, doing it in a format (poetry) that conveyed stories in powerful ways. The fact that they were doing it, with the risks of what comes with doing anything different, is as stupendous as it is heartening.
And Home of the Brave may have been released in December 2008, but it still tells that we are at a time where we respect children enough to tell them what is happening around them, in the world. The space of children’s literature may still be looking for its Harry Potter replacement, but not having found it, has not waited around. We have moved on.
The trends in literature, for 2019 are:
1). We are talking of sensitive, real issues more: Richa Sethi, co-founder of Writers’ Bug and children’s reading app GetLitt, says, “What is touching is how children have responded to books that deal with sensitive topics on gender, disability, death. It proves the premise that books can be the medium for many honest conversations with our children.”
On reading The Unboy Boy by Richa Jha, a story of a boy called Gagan who is at ease being what he is and who wants to show the world that there are no boy boys and un-boy boys; just boys and girls—one child says, “This book represents me when I was unboy myself and when my friends used to bully me. I felt connected to Gagan.”
After reading Boo by Neil Smith, a story of Oliver, who wakes up in heaven to find out that he did not die of a heart defect, but was murdered when he was shot and that his killer might also be in heaven, another member of GetLitt says, “This was a very emotional and heart-warming book.”
Similarly, after reading Gone Grandmother, a young reader says, “I cannot imagine the devastation of losing my grandmother who is essentially the only person in the world who truly dotes on me. The illustrations perfectly capture the setting in the text. I think it would be worse for a younger child who does not understand the concept of death and will keep wondering where his or her grand- mother has gone to. I also respect the way Nina copes with her grandmother’s death.”
I remember in 2007 when my book When the Mountains Laughed (a story about a child who was so unhappy and unloved for being bullied because of his dark skin colour), came out, the publisher took off/edited the part where the boy decided to kill himself. Ten years ago we did not talk of death and dying and the fact that sometimes children feel like dying. Children’s literature meant happy stories, and definitely happy endings. That we can talk of death, of unworthiness, of the utter sadness and homesick- ness of immigration, of loss…. is fantastic. The future of children’s literature will be more such stories that deal with multiracial experiences and are in touch with times. While Applegate broaches the subject of immigration, The Red Pencil (a verse tale of a girl’s experience in Dafur genocide), Escape from Aleppo (dealing with the tale of a Syrian teenager felling the war-torn city) and I Am Still Alive, are stories that present opportunities for the child to understand the politics of today. Diversity is another trend we keep seeing more of; whether the characters are people of colour, LGBTQ, females filling traditional male roles or having some sort of handicap….
We need to contextualise our today for our kids. Swati Popat Vats, director of Podar Jumbo Kids and president of the Early Childhood Association has been creating new content for young children. “We have rewritten the classic tales like The Red Riding Hood, We’ve rewritten old rhymes, and we are also writing fresh content.”
2). We will continue to have series: Like I said, we are still looking for another Harry Potter literature storm to happen. But until then we are doing series. Books that do well, are long stories with continuity in theme and their central characters. Bad Guys, WeirDo and Treehouse books are dominating the children’s bestseller charts, while Hunger Games, Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments Series as well as her The Infernal Devices, The Twilight Saga, the Divergent series, the Uglies Trilogy along with The Lord of the Rings and the Percy Jackson series, will contin- ue to stay popular. The Fart Monster series was released last month and later this year we can expect new instal- ments in a number of hit series including Dork Diaries and Polly and Buster. As a parent of two Harry Potter fans, when my kids (who simply stopped reading after they finished all the Harry Potter books, for the longest ever) find a series that draw them into another world, where they hunger for the next book, it is a huge relief. Storytelling, just as it is for adults who look forward to their favourite show on TV, that lures children into complex imaginative worlds and make them stay engaged with characters they care about, while the clever plotting reveals just enough story in each episode to leave us satisfied and still keen to discover more, is going to thus, stay. Everyone is happy—the publisher, the reader and parents and other care-givers. Nirupama Kaushik, librarian at the Somaiya School, endorses this when she says children still borrow the Divergent series, Hunger Games, Shatter Me by Terah Mafia, while the little ones read books by Tulliak and Pratham.
3). Graphic novels will grow: We are discussing difficult subjects. In India, as in the rest of the world, the graphic novel genre is doing well and growing. Gravity Falls, Pashmina, The Baby Sitters Club, PopularMMOs Present a Hole New World, Smile, Supernova, Drama (Raina Telge- meir’s works are enduring), Narwhal, El Deafo (which is an autobiographical novel of the author’s childhood and her living with deafness, won the Newbery Medal), Real Friends, Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom… are only some of the books that are being read and loved by kids in the 9 to 12 year old age bracket. In the young adult space too there is amazing content being built in the graphic novel space. This is one format to look out. It is already the next big space.
4). Girl power stories will grow: More books will have strong female character. Girl books will no longer be about gossipy school girls, and romance and princesses, and other giggly things. Fiction and creative non-fiction will have more stories with strong female main characters (and side characters), within compelling stories that have been written consciously and purposefully for both boys and girls. The Only Fish in the Sea (picture book), Princesses Wear Pants, Eloise (again for young kids), Malala’s Magic Pencil, Dory Fantasmagory, Escape from Aleppo (which can also fall into the category of 1, dealing with the tale of a Syrian teenager fleeing the war-torn city), Guardians of the Taiga: Wild Rescuers, May B. (a moving account of a girls struggle to survive), Hattie Big Sky, The Apothecary, The Breadwin- ner (a story of a girl defying the Taliban) are some of such stories that already big on this trend. Thus we will keep doing books on notable women in history who were changemakers.
5). The demand for child-friendly, non-fiction will continue to grow: We Indians love books for kids that will increase their ‘knowledge’ and thus, in India, as elsewhere, non-fiction will continue to be the genre that will grow. The difference will be that non-fiction will no longer be dry. It will be better written, more child-friendly, and definitely accessible. Publishers will use more colours, characters who will take the content forward in an engaging, interac- tive manner; the graphic novel format will be used more and more for this. Thus, here are books (and this will continue to grow) that children, in their world of sometimes-dull textbooks and term papers, will actually gravitate towards. From Vegetables in Underwear (picturebook) to A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, to On the Road (A brilliant blend of fiction and autobiography), to The Lego Ideas Book: Unlock Your Imagination, to We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (an award winning book where Fleming writes about Russia’s last royal family and its downfall in a gripping way, covering every spot of doom in its gilded halls (while also tending to the lives of the poor Russian masses), to DK’s The Movie Book (where in a do-it-all compendium of movie history and look at how films have fit into society that will have any teenager interested in films riveted) you will find a universe of amazing nonfiction works that are equally captivating, thought-provoking, and even worldview-affecting. This will continue to grow. As will books on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and in civic education and media literacy.
6). Parallel, fantasy worlds will continue to grow: And this is across genres and reading-age groups. We love magic and strength, adventure and adventurers, science and technology, so much that we will continue to build worlds of witches, warlocks, mermen, fairies, werewolves, multiuniverses with portals, shadowhunters and fallen angels. It has already happened, and will continue to happen: Young adult fiction has crossed the thin line between adult fiction and adult fiction. The writing is sharper, there is sexual tension, romance and tight plots, often in parallel worlds. And while stand-alone books are slowing down, kids will continue to love books that make them laugh and we will continue to look for a strong character to latch on to.