Browse through any of the must-read book lists for children, and Tulika Publishers is sure to find multiple entries in these lists. This year, Tulika turns 20 and its founder Radhika Menon only wants to do more in the children’s publishing arena. The Chennai-based publishing house, popular for translations, bilingual titles, fabulous illustrations and text that’s crisp as a “bonda”, is working on books about an unhappy moon, a lion who wants to get a haircut, a maharaja who loses his royal elephant and more this year. In an interview with BW Businessworld’s Sanjitha Rao Chaini, Menon talks about the popularity of children’s book titles in India, a must-read list of children’s books and guidelines to choosing a manuscript.

How did the idea of starting Tulika Books come to you?

As a teacher at the J. Krishnamurthi School in Chennai and later Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi, I was very interested in finding ways of engaging children imaginatively while teaching. And children’s books, too, are really about that – engaging the child in a creative world of words and pictures. This and my interest in publishing itself led me to start Tulika. Once I had gained some experience in prepress and production, I was ready to start publishing children’s books – which is what I did.

The Indian book market is the sixth-largest in the world, according to a Nielsen study. However, children’s books by Indian authors is still to take off in a big way in India. Your views?

There is probably not the same buzz as in the West about children’s books if that is the yardstick used to judge the impact of children’s books by Indian authors. Rupa Pai’s The Gita for Children sold 20,000 in a few months of publishing and will probably sell five times that in a year. Ruskin Bond, Devdutt Pattanaik, Payal Kapadia (Horrid High series) probably sell as much or more. The bigger publishers do sell 30,000 to 40,000 of top-selling titles. As for picture books, especially in regional languages, my estimate is that they could sell as many as 2 to 3 lakhs in a year if there are government orders. But these don’t even figure when discussing market trends!

Gajapati’s sneeze, Appaka’s Nonu, Bondapalli’s snack are slowly gaining popularity. What do you have in store for 2016?

This year, the picture books are about an unhappy moon, a lion who wants to get a haircut, Pooni the cat at the Taj, a little girl playing Kasturba in a school play, a maharaja who loses his royal elephant, a cow who creates a traffic jam, a little girl becoming a ‘dream writer’…. All the books will be published in nine languages.

Then, there is the next in The Illustrated Classics series – Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s delightful Fox’s Wedding, and the first in the non-fiction series on India – Excavating History: India Through Archaeology. The next one in the series is also in the pipeline.

What is your view on non-fiction story books for kids? For example, how is Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Whyselling as opposed to a fiction title?

Non-fiction for children is considered educational and even boring compared to fiction. This is because we see them as “information” books – which, by the way are top selling books in the Indian market. The more packed with facts and figures the better they sell.

Tulika’s has been a very different approach. Books like Bhimrao Ambedkar – The Boy Who Asked Why, My Gandhi Story, to name a couple of picture books, for the 6-8 age group, are narrative non-fiction which have all the elements of a story. The author finds a peg, connects facts and constructs a narrative with a strong voice and emotional tone, without making anything up. Books for older children like The House That Sonabai Built, Stitching Stories, Cave Art, etc., too are narrative non-fiction for an older age group. The reader gets much more from such books than mere facts and descriptions.

Even in information-focused books like Excavating History – India Through Archaeology and others planned in the series, we have to first arrive at a structure for the book – both for visuals and texts. These books have several strands of information along with illustrations, photographs, information graphics, etc., which have to be woven together in a fine balance to give the complete picture on a particular topic.
What comes to my mind here is a non-fiction writer, whose name I didn’t remember quoting Dr Seuss from Cat in the Hat to describe very aptly the process of putting a non-fiction book together.
“Look at me!
Look at me now!” said the cat.
“With a cup and a cake
On the top of my hat!
I can hold up TWO books!
I can hold up the fish!
And a little toy ship!
And some milk on a dish!”

Last year, Pratham Books launched an online story telling portal. Do you have plans of launching a portal with your stories in it?
No we don’t. Pratham Books’s is a very different publishing approach and generating stories the way they do doesn’t work for us. But it is a fantastic resource and a great portfolio of writers, illustrators and translators on a hugely popular site.

What are the guidelines in choosing a manuscript at Tulika? Your advice to those venturing into children’s book publishing…
In a nutshell, original ideas are what we look for in any kind of book that we do. But there are other criteria like stories that offer strong visual possibilities, settings or characters that are not the usual in children’s books, offbeat themes and so on. Good writing does override sometimes because that is not something we come across much unfortunately – especially in picture books.

Your list of must read books for children (5 Tulika books, and 5 non-Tulika books)?
This is a very difficult question. There are so many reasons why a children’s book is a must read. In the Tulika list, I have had to leave out many must reads! As for other publisher’s books I have not read many especially the recent ones. So, it is hardly a fair selection!

Ekki Dokki by Sandhya Rao, illustrated by Ranjan De
Why Why Girl by Mahashweta Devi, illustrated by Kanyika Kini
Mukand and Riaz by Nina Sabnani
Oluguti Toluguti: Indian Rhymes to Read and Recite
Being Boys
Gender Talk – Super Hero Size Zero

Other publishers:
Procession by Mickey Patel
Payal Kho Gayi by children of Muskan, illustrated by Kanak Shashi
Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Raviishankar, illustrated by Pulak Biswas
Cobra in My Kitchen by Zai Whitaker
Unprincess by Manjula Padmanabhan