‘Books should help children think openly’

Mumbai-based writer and illustrator Deepa Balsavar, a recipient of the Big Little Book Award, speaks to Labonita Ghosh about books and why they should, besides being fun to read, foster critical thinking in children. Edited excerpts from the interview:

The Parag Initiative endeavours to promote reading, particularly among first-time learners. What are the challenges involved in making this happen?

The challenge has always been with distribution and reaching children. We’re not talking about kids in the big cities who go to schools with well-funded libraries. We’re talking about children in smaller towns and villages who, traditionally, haven’t had access to books. That’s where organisations like Parag have an immensely important role to play — in making sure that more children have access, not just to school books but also books that are informative and fun to read.

It’s a challenge also because education seems to be extremely low in our list of priorities. India’s education budget has been falling every year; more is allocated to defence than education. In states such as Maharashtra, education is sometimes outsourced to private agencies because the government doesn’t see it as an imperative. That’s why others have to pick up the slack.

When writing and illustrating myself, the process is simultaneous as I form pictures in my mind while writing, which complement or extend the story.”

How do you inculcate the reading habit in children hooked to screens?

When parents pose this question, I ask them: how much time do you spend reading? Children imitate their parents. You can tell them repeatedly to read a book, but if they see you on your mobile phone or computer all day, those are the actions they will emulate.

Set an example for your children. Make reading a daily activity. If it’s a young child, read to her. If she’s older, take her to a bookshop. When we were young we had corner libraries but they were full of Western books, so we grew up on a cultural diet we knew little about. But that didn’t prevent us from enjoying those books. Today you have more options.

Schools have an important role in propagating a love for books. The library should be the centre of the school, and every subject taught or every project assigned should take the child back to the library. Kids don’t just see libraries as a place to source information but as a place to meet new friends through the characters in books. A library should be a place of joy and teachers should also treat it as such.

What about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who have these facilities but are not using them?

There are two wonderful examples in Mumbai. In Ghatkopar there is an organisation called Sahyog Roshan Library which began a community library in a place where children had no access to books. It was run by people from the community who had done a library teachers’ course. Every session for the kids began with a discussion about maps or a treasure hunt. The library was a safe and happy place for them.

When the pandemic hit, the organisation trained some mothers in the community to run small libraries from their homes. They gave them books and shared ideas on how to initiate discussions with the children. Crucially, since there was no monetary incentive, every mother who volunteered did so because she felt it was important. Those little home libraries catered to all the children in the vicinity and their mothers, too, got introduced to the joy of reading, many of them for the first time.

At the other end of the spectrum, in Bandra, is a small library called MCubed. The space is open to children of the area to experience the joy of going to a neighbourhood library. They also have programmes inviting authors, dramatists, theatre people, illustrators and many others to come and talk, tell stories and conduct workshops, for children as well as adults.

Parag encourages illustrations that fight gender and caste stereotypes. As an illustrator, how do you feel about this?

My process of illustration is something I call ‘conscious drawing’. I draw the people that I see around me and they are of all sorts, from different communities, engaged in different kinds of jobs, dressed in different ways and such. I don’t only draw people who are like me. It’s tricky because I don’t want to introduce a ‘token’ person from a particular community, somebody with a disability, for instance. They should be a part of the story. If they fall organically into the narrative, then children will accept them.

Is there any character that you have struggled with?

With most of my books, I have written and illustrated them myself. I have also written books that others have illustrated, and vice versa. When writing and illustrating myself, the process is simultaneous as I form pictures in my mind while writing, which complement or extend the story. I let my mind or my pencil draw these characters and then I develop them further.

A lot of authors today are exploring the young adult (YA) literature space. Have you ever considered it?

I basically do picture books, which means the pictures take predominance over the text. Sometimes they could be all pictures without any text. While a lot of YA books have illustrations, the storyline and writing take precedence over the illustrations.

Some 30 years ago, there were hardly any books for young children [written in India]. As a teen you either read school books or graduated to Agatha Christies, Stanley Gardners and the like. Then, about 10-12 years ago, there came the realisation that children need books that address the things they’re interested in — growing up, problems at school, problems with the family — or simply books that would be fun and would encourage them to read later in their lives. That’s when the YA sector started.

YA literature has enabled children to see the world around them reflected in different ways. It has also allowed writers to bring in subjects that were taboo earlier: identity, gender confusion, sexuality, etc. It is now possible to talk to children about all of this through YA books.

How do you navigate being both an author and an illustrator?

First, I think I’m a better writer than an illustrator. There are illustrators whose work I absolutely adore, and I wish I could draw like them. But the thoughts in my books are my own; I draw what I see. I know what I want to depict, so it becomes easier than having to explain it to somebody else.

There are times when I have illustrated somebody else’s book. Usually, when the manuscript is ready and the story has been accepted, the publisher commissions the illustrations. There is no connection between the illustrator and the writer; the editors are the go-betweens. I’ve wondered what pictures were going through the writer’s mind when he or she was writing.

Similarly, when I’ve written something and somebody else is illustrating it, there are times when I’ve been happily surprised. When I’m illustrating my own books, let’s just say that there are no surprises.

[Young adult] literature has enabled children to see the world around them reflected in different ways. It has also allowed writers to bring in subjects that were taboo earlier.”

In these changing times, what elements do you think children’s books should include? Not just for the pleasure of reading, but ideas they will carry with them through their lives?

Of primary importance, especially in these times of growing biases and prejudices, are books that help children think critically and openly, books that reflect the diversity of people around them and open a window, as it were, to different possibilities.

We don’t see the connection between what we’re doing and what is happening around the world. It’s the way we’re taught in school. You never see how history is connected to geography, or mathematics is linked to the way things function in the outside world.

These connections are never made in school, so you grow up compartmentalising your life. You can’t see how cutting down trees is related to increasing temperatures, or how women and men reacting to one another is a result of the history and socioeconomic conditions of a place. Fostering critical thinking and the ability to reason for yourself — that’s what we need more of.