One of the most enjoyable sessions during the trip was our visit to the Kinderbuchhaus (Children’s Book House) in the Altona Museum in Hamburg. It’s a charming place that conducts activities geared towards getting children (and their parents) more involved with books. For instance, there are workshops where children are shown how to bind books – something that helps them appreciate the process that goes into the creation of the picture-books they would otherwise take for granted; to see a book as something that has to be carefully put together so that they can enjoy the end product. Enthusiasm levels run high at these workshops: project coordinator Heike Roegler told us that children are very proud – and very possessive – about the books they make themselves.
Also held here are exhibitions of framed, original versions of children’s book illustrations, so that visitors can see these drawing as works of art in their own right. On the day we were there, a Peter Schössow exhibition was on (Schössow himself was there too, as mentioned in the last post). Illustrations like this one – a child’s-eye perspective of a little cat in the foreground of a big city – look spectacular when you see them in their full-size versions:
Looking at high-quality illustrations for their artistic value, you realise there’s a lesson here for the many Indian parents who instinctively judge the worth of a children’s book by the amount of text it contains (all the better when it’s placed in the service of a pedantic moral lesson), failing to realise the role a series of beautiful drawings can play in developing a child’s imagination. (“Ismein padhne ka toh kuch hai hi nahin” is the typical response when a parent opens a book that’s full of beautiful drawings but very little text. But as Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar, and one of the most entertaining members of our party, says, “You want value for your word-count? Buy a newspaper.”)
Earlier in the day, I had spoken with Zubaan’s Anita Roy about the often-haphazard way in which illustrations for children’s books are put together in India. “The Indian arts scene is actually lively and brilliant,” Anita said, “but there’s a lack of understanding of how children’s picture-books work. Illustrators are so central to the children’s publishing industry everywhere except India, where they get sidelined. They are not used to having publishers involving them in the creative aspect of putting a book together. It’s usually done very mechanically: an author will send in a story, the editor will say okay, this needs illustrations, and she’ll choose an illustrator and a format and send the text across and say we need 10 drawings of this size. And then someone else will put the text and illustrations together – a typesetter, or a designer if you’re very lucky. Everyone works in isolation, not much thought is given to layout, which is a crucial part of the process.”
“Most children’s publishing houses in India don’t even have a proper art director, so decisions about art design, layout etc are taken by editors like me, which is not the best way to do these things. Words persons end up having to learn how to think visually. Putting together a good picture-book requires an understanding of how text and visuals have to play off each other, but this is a neglected field in India.”
(I should mention here that Young Zubaan has just published one of the best-looking Indian picture-books I’ve seen, Mister Jeejeebhoy and the Birds by Anitha Balachandran. Lots of lovely drawings, notably a two-page spread of a sweet-shop that you just can’t tear your eyes away from. I first saw some of the illustrations at Bookaroo last winter and have been looking forward to the book ever since.)
The German Book Office in Delhi has now launched a programme called Jumpstart for children’s publishing in India, and among its initiatives is a series of intensive workshops for professionals involved in children’s books: writers and editors, illustrators, librarians and teachers, and marketing personnel. These will be held starting in July this year - mainly at the Max Mueller Bhawan, Delhi - and will hopefully address some of the issues facing children’s publishing in India. Anita tells me that as far as she knows none of the design colleges or art schools in India have courses that specialise in children’s book illustrations - certainly there's nothing that's comparable to the rigour with which these things are done in the West. The Jumpstart workshops should be a step in the desired direction.
(More about our meeting with the illustrators in another post)