New Delhi, Aug 23 (IANS) A recipient of the Bal Sahitya Puraskar, Paro Anand is a veteran when it comes to capturing the world of children in stories. In her latest, “The Other”, she sketches a searing portrayal of the minds of todays teenagers, and contends that adults often underestimate the wisdom of children.
“Young people have a strong sense of justice and fair play. I am not suggesting that they are all sweet angels, but their sense of justice is undeniable. I think we should recognise this and empower young people to act upon that sense of right and not shy away from positive action,” Anand, who has authored at least 18 books for children and young adults, including plays, short stories, novellas and novels, told IANS in an interview.
She said that human beings are not born with prejudices but from a very young age we start absorbing them from what we see and hear around us.
“Suppose we become more careful about what it is that poisons our own minds and let them make up their own hearts. There is something that I call, ‘heard hatred’. Children are absorbing comments that we casually toss around in their presence and they pick up on this. Thus we lead them into a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The world would be a better place if we could leave them whole in their hearts instead,” she quipped.
But can literature, at least those written for young adults, bridge this gap?
Asked to elaborate on this in the context of her personal experiences, the former editor of the National Centre for Children’s Literature at the National Book Trust, said that stories are “a safe space” to talk about issues that are already impacting children in ways that adults may not even fathom.
“Parents often want to keep their children ‘safe’ by avoiding talking about ‘such things’. One mother said that she never lets her child read monster stories because she doesn’t want to scare her. But, when asked, she agreed that the child would sit with adults when the TV news was blaring.
“Aren’t there real-life monsters in that? Instead of shying away from talking about issues such as sexual assault, violence and religious intolerance, why not empower them through well-written, sensitive stories and follow-up discussions,” she asked.
Anand is no stranger to the world of children. Apart from engaging with them through her writings, she also works with children in schools and NGOs, through her programme “Literature in Action”, and holds a record for helping over 3,000 children make the world’s longest newspaper.
But writing about children and writing for children are two different things. “The Other”, although about children, is for both adults and young adults. Asked to throw light on her writing process, particularly for children, and if there were some precautions she took, Anand said that she always ends the story on an “upswing”.
“I want to leave my young reader with the comfort that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark that tunnel may seem right now. I have to give them hope. The teenage years and soon after are a fairly dark time. Think back to the poetry you wrote when you were a teenager, it was dark and angsty. I don’t want to leave my reader with a sense of feeling helpless.
“I want to empower them to take positive steps forward. That does not mean that I tie up my story with pretty pink bows, all neat and tidy. I don’t want to make it unrealistic either. I just want my reader to know that no matter how bad things are, they can survive it,” she said.
Anand has been a long-time advocate of Young Adult literature, urging writers, publishers and readers to take them more seriously. She was happy to note that the quality of writing and the number of publishers, at least in English, is increasing.
“There is a distinct upswing in the importance that schools are giving to reading. When I first started, children could not name any Indian writer beyond (R.K.) Narayan and Ruskin Bond. That’s not so anymore. In fact, when I get to a group of children (she has interacted with over three lakh children), some of them are already familiar with my work and those of other writers,” she said.
Anand agreed that “access is a huge gaping hole” and said that it should be addressed.
“In a country of a huge literate young populace, good books should sell in the thousands. Print runs of 2,000-3,000 are way too small. Certainly, author interactions and the burgeoning number of lit fests countrywide have increased access. But much more needs to be done to expose kids to books beyond Potter and Hunger Games,” she said.