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2014 AFCC: Indian Focus by John McKenzie

1 Jul 2014 // Filed under Children’s / Literacy

Leading academic in the field of children's literature in New Zealand, John McKenzie attended the 2014 Asian Festival of Children's Content with the goal in mind to take part in as many Country of Focus panels as possible. These are his thoughts.


One of the strengths of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content over the last two years has been, and no doubt will continue to be, the idea of having an Asian country as a significant focus of the programme. In 2012 it was the Philippines, in 2013 it was Malaysia, and this year it was India. In 2015 it will be China. This gives an opportunity for each country to highlight how story in all its guises (from oral story-telling using traditional myths, legends and folktales, to contemporary picture books, poetry, and novels, to an increasing focus on digital technologies) has developed over time, highlighting key authors, illustrators and media specialists. I had the pleasure of being able to attend most of the Indian sessions this year, and in listening to and observing the immense pride that the various contributors had in their respective stories to share (as well as take the time to enjoy a fabulous display in the Plaza space). I began to identify some key issues that were raised by the different contributors and/or the audience. Today, I want to share some of the “big” questions that emerged for me. They were touched on in various contexts and I want to bring them out into the open as focus questions. No doubt there were others that other listeners would have picked up. That is to be expected. These questions that came to my mind are questions to think about when it comes to producing and mediating children’s stories, be you a writer, illustrator, publisher, parent, or educator; questions that may not have easy answers, but nevertheless, are worthy of your thinking. I am going to try and avoid my take on these issues, and leave them for you to think about, and share your thinking!

1. The Representation of Women and Girls in Indian Children’s Stories

One of the first sessions I went to was entitled What Girls are Doing in Our Stories: Gender in Indian Children’s Literature and was led by V. Geetha (editor) and Leila Seth (author). The summary of the session was (to quote the programme) “In older stories for children, girls are usually portrayed in terms of stereotypes and traditional roles. Today, however, because of an emphasis on gender equality in India, the portrayal of girls in contemporary stories is changing. In this session, the speakers will trace this paradigm shift in Indian children’s literature.” It was certainly an honour to hear Leila Smith, who was the first female judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court in India, and also a person committed to children’s education. The book that she wrote was a non-fiction text designed to help children understand the Constitution of India. Her rich experience informed the shift from girl’s role as being docile, lacking aspirations for selfhood, and being responsible for looking after siblings, to a more contemporary empowerment model. V. Geetha, as an editor, drew attention that bias is still evident. For example, the representations of the female in textbooks still teach old stereotypes, the preference for sons is still evident in many texts, and girls are seen as equal if they are doing extreme things. V. Geetha drew particular attention to the problem of mythology as “sacred” texts where older biases are embedded in the text. She asked the question: how are we to respond to this?

This invites a difficult question for us all to think about: is the assertion of modern beliefs about female equality in opposition to traditional cultural/religious group potentially an act of colonisation? Is sustainable change top/down or bottom/up? Is, for example, the rejection of “western education” by what we identify as extremists in Nigeria where the focus is on girls and girls’ schooling, a response to what they perceive as colonisation? I am not in the business of defending this abuse of young people, but I am asking the big question; how can change be managed in a way that is seen as local empowerment rather than national/global colonisation?  Who decides what? Unfortunately, we hear terrible stories in the news of the abuse of some girls in India and elsewhere (based perhaps on a misreading of the caste system or simply it is an example of the monstrous) and so this issue is undeniably important. Perhaps, management of change begins in the local stories that children hear right from a young age, whatever their source. Stories where girls are seen as worthy citizens at the local level, stories where love and compassion, awe and wonder, care and responsibility are writ large. Stories where the voice of girl’s themselves are heard whereby though courage and perseverance in overcoming the odds at the local level, 

they are seen as vital and significant in the health and well-being of a vibrant, good community.

Should for example, the idea of boys as super-heroic agents be equally “deconstructed” in order that boys are comfortable with being relational “servants” for the greater good of the community? The title I’m a Real Boy by Clayton Koh, a Malaysian-born writer and illustrator comes to mind where, in this picture book, male stereotypes are challenged. The image of the superhero boy on the cover is certainly deconstructed by the text. Boy stereotypes, it could be argued, are part of the problem of abuse.

Here’s a thought! Is there a need for an annual national competition for children as writers in every contributing country to AFCC whereby it is guaranteed that a book will be (inter)nationally published, selected at the local level, whereby gender beliefs/actions is the focus theme? What do you think?

2. The Challenge of Representing Diversity and Difference

What makes a top illustrator? For me, an example of a leading illustrator was when I was invited by a speaker to recognize the visual complexity of a wordless picture book that detailed the reality of an Indian market place. Manjula Padmanabuan’s talk, entitled A Brush with Creativity, was described by the programme as a focus that looked at “the creative process and drawing inspiration from the history of Indian illustration, addressing [her] role in the changing face of Indian illustration.” An award-winning writer and illustrator, Manjula focused her talk on her picture book A Visit to the City Market. She described all the decisions that she had to negotiate prior to her drawings. She wanted to create a “slice of life” rather than telling a story and thus had to consider all the complexities that Indian urban life is about. The devil is in the detail as it were, and it is in the detail that the real is portrayed.

The vegetable seller, for example, is based on a real life Mouchawa vegetable seller from Bombay. The man who is on a motor cycle is a representation of her husband.  She wanted to be inclusive and so a Muslim man is shown. There were also ideological decisions to be made including the representation of women. In Bombay, women are the sellers of fish and show considerable “presence”. They are argumentative and independent and she wanted to show this. It is an elder girl who inspires conversation and the boy is a follower. Indeed, there are many stories that can be read into this wordless picture book. This complexity invites the question: to what extent are children exposed to bland images of what it is to be an urban child as opposed to the hustle and bustle, noise and messiness of actual lives lived? With this question in mind, have a look at images of your place/space in your local picture books. For me, I am concerned that Maori and Pasifika urban boys are under-represented in picture books in New Zealand. Is it little wonder then that the under-represented, who do not see themselves in the shared stories of the classroom, view reading and books as belonging to an “other”? Book culture is not their culture. What is the consequence then for reading achievement, educational success and aspirational goals in life?

In another session, entitled Past, Present, Future: Reinventing Indian Publishing for Children, Subir Shukla, who has written a number of books for children and writes regular blogs on education, argued powerfully for all voices in India to be heard. Given that 80% of children’s stories at school are from textbooks, he is concerned that textbooks have “the power to ruin children’s lives.”  He is concerned that the amazing knowledge of rural children in India is marginalised, that girls are visually ignored in maths educational texts and that there are many invisible voices: streetkids, rat-pickers, those who work for a living, traffic-lamp kids, the child as a domestic worker, children living in juvenile homes and shoe polishers.

Seriously, whose “voice” is marginalised in both image and narrative in your place? Children with disabilities? Immigrant children? Children of poverty? Does it matter? He asks the question “Are we murdering our children’s futures?” Visit his blog site to read his perspective. You might also want to locate a copy of his text on what makes quality children’s books in India.

3. The Nature of Truth in Children’s Literature

One of the common errors that teachers make when they distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in their library lessons is to assert that fiction is “not true” and non-fiction is “true”. This is a common distinction. For example, a quick Internet search came up with this definition: “Fiction novels are stories that are not true, that never happened. Non-fiction novels are true stories that happened to real people.” Really? So, when I go to the non-fiction section of the library (298s) and find myth, legend and folktale, I am going to a section about “true stories that happened to real people? Where are drama scripts and poetry texts to be found in the library? Non-fiction! Let’s look again at novels. Are they “not true” because they never happened? Is it the case that though Max in Where the Wild Things Are never happened there is no truth in the story? The idea of a young boy having a temper tantrum with mother because she is both nurturing and a disciplinarian (given an absent father she has to be so) and he is confused (as well as being somewhat ego-centric) has never happened? Really? To put it really crudely, to me the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is really about library classification systems: whether a book is classified by author (fiction) or by topic (initially in terms of non-fiction) in terms of agreed accessibility for the users.

The problem of the nature of truth in children’s literature was implicitly touched on in a session by the storyteller Usha Venkatraman in the session entitled Jungle Chat: Animals and Birds in Indian Children’s Literature.  The official description of the session gives a clue about the main emphasis: folktale as a source of story. To quote:  “Once upon a time, our stories were populated with animals and birds and nature. They not only instilled love and respect in readers but also were subtle lessons on the importance of nature in our lives. This discussion looks at the role and influence of animals play in contemporary children’s literature.” She drew attention to the blending of wisdom and emotion in the act of telling traditional stories when she uses puppets.

According to her, “truth is not because it happened but because of embedded truth.”  I think she hit the nail on the head here. Embedded in the stories we tell children, there are hidden ideologies, worldviews, understandings about identity and the nature of wisdom. Sometimes we can be self-reflective as storytellers and bring into the open these “truths” and sometimes we are not necessarily aware of these ideas because they are naturalised (it needs an “other” to draw attention to them). What do you think?

4. Themes and Topics Produced by Particular Cultures but Have Universal Appeal

The notion of a universal truth causes conniptions for some philosophers who would want to argue that all “truths” are constructed by particular cultures and ideologies, time and place, and therefore, any notion of a universal is “essentialist” and speaks of colonialism.  Whilst there is a good argument that outsiders must always be respectful of difference and be aware of the lenses that they bring when looking at an “other” and not assume that they fully understand what they “see”, there is an argument however, for some degree of commonality across cultures. Folktale is a good place to begin. For example, the story of the abandoned child(ren) defeating an ogre (Type 327 in the Stith/Thomson Index) can be found in not only the European story of “Hansel and Gretel” but also in the Maori story of “Hatu Patu and the Birdwoman”  and the Indonesian story of  “Si Kecil.” There is also a Somalian version of this tale type. The likelihood of a common source story migrating with traders and tellers over time (monogenesis) is problematic: it is more likely that the problem of abandonment (for various reasons) and the consequential fear of monsters is a universal dilemma and so similar stories were constructed (polygenesis).

Dr. Divik Ramesh, who shared with the session with Usha on Jungle Chat: Animals and Birds in Indian Children’s Literature drew attention to the popularity of animal stories across cultures, time and place, even though a particular animal may signify something different. The dog as devil as well as the laughing dog (an object of delight) can be found in different cultures in India. This is important. In a global world, we need to cross boundaries of difference and begin to explore how all cultures negotiate similar problems in different ways. For example, the problem of crime and punishment is a universal. What is a crime and what it is appropriate punishment may well differ. This will be grounded on culture, history, the environment, whatever. For children perhaps, it is through story that an understanding of a shared humanity can be discovered.

This idea of travelling outside the “circle” (which implies our sense of completeness) and instead accept others into our thinking is beautifully portrayed in one of the picture books that was launched at the Festival.

One of the exciting series of events at the AFCC Festival is the launching of books. I was walking by the Plaza at the entrance of the National Library when I came across Ken Spillman, the author of The Circle (illustrated by the Indian artist Manjari Chakravarti) who was heading to the launch of the book. I had to follow him once I heard what the story was about. He recently responded to an interview as follows:

Very excited about this. It’s a picture book forthcoming from Armour Publishing, written for older kids, teens and adults. Called The Circle, it deals with such global issues as diminishing resources, shrinking forests, human displacement, the refugee experience, discrimination and harmony. All in very simple language and very few words! It’s a project that has been more than 5 years in the making, and the artwork is from a wonderful Indian fine artist – very evocative.

In this “parable” he tells the story of a circle of people who live in a tiny sphere in the universe, who also struggle with accepting “others” or outsiders who challenge the attitudes and mores of the insiders. Though difference is accepted in this story, what is important is what needs to be universal: a sense empathy, one-ness and joy into what it is to be a human being. Only when we are less protective of our particularity can this truth be truly understood and lived. A new circle must emerge. Brilliant! The artist, through a form of surreal, abstract impressionism evokes exactly the spirit of the story.  This book, in the context of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content and the idea of a Focus Country, invites us to go beyond our circle and experience how others have responded to the imperative to tell stories of what it is to be and become.

Question: what are the boundaries of your circle that potentially limits “your” children experiencing a range of stories that inhabit this sphere in this universe, be you a parent or a teacher? I have to admit, there are some stories I struggle with! Hmmm!

5. The Necessity for Story to be About Pleasure (Even the Subversive)

One of the themes that have been spoken about in previous Festivals as well as raised by Dr. Divik Ramesh in his talk (noted above), is the necessity of the pleasure of awe and wonder as much as moral instruction. He critiqued the classroom pre-occupation with textbooks and instead noted the role model of the Nobel prize-winner Rabinranath Tagore who, according to Wikipedia sources, loathed formal education and instead believed in the power of curiosity. To quote “Tagore loathed formal education—his scholarly travails at the local Presidency College spanned a single day. Years later he held that proper teaching does not explain things; proper teaching stokes curiosity….“ [It] knock[s] at the doors of the mind. If any boy is asked to give an account of what is awakened in him by such knocking, he will probably say something silly. For what happens within is much bigger than what comes out in words. Those who pin their faith on university examinations as the test of education take no account of this.” 

I recall listening to Rosemarie Somiah, who in 2013 spoke about her book The Never Mind Girl and Other Stories (Singapore: Ethos Books). In this collection of short stories, we experience the clash between family life, coming-of-age and the strictures of a very controlled education system. When I visited the Popular Bookstore next to the National Library in Victoria Street, I saw shelves of practice exam materials for sale designed to prepare youngsters for the big exams that very much determines your “fate”, as it were. The complexities that sit between personal desires and socially-expected behaviours, between agency and subjectivity are very much explored in this book. The following link to a YouTube video gives credence to the tension between “structure” and “anti-structure” that is a central issue for Singaporeans: This is not a criticism of Singaporean educational values: there is no question that Singapore is an economic success story where, rather than the chaos of unmitigated freedom, there is a strong sense of coherence and safety within the community.

But, where does curiosity and creativity, where does student-led inquiry-based learning take place when so much energy is placed on high-stakes testing? These are the attributes that any entrepreneur society needs. This is something we too have to consider in our education system. I have to say I enjoyed Rosemarie’s theatre performance that was (if I recall correctly) at the Indian Night event. Drama is one space where we can be free to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously! How important do you think fun, laughter, creativity and quirkiness should be in our classrooms? How much humour is to be found in children’s favourite stories?

6. Do Visual Images Stultify the Imagination?

There was a lively debate in the session entitled India in Pictures: Comics and Graphic Novels delivered by Nina Sabnani (author, illustrator, filmmaker) and Manas Mohan (Chief Operating Officer, ACK Media).  The official summary of the event was (to quote) “comics throughout the world have had a singular influence of using stories to touch the hearts of both children and adults. This panel looks at the influence of comics and graphic novels such as the Amar Chitra Katha stories in India and discusses its existence as a product of popular culture that affects not only a country’s history and memory but also its cultural moorings.” What then was the nature of the debate? During the question time, an older man stated that pictures stifled the imagination; thus ensued the liveliest debate of the Festival.

This is not a new idea. For example, back in 1978 de Fossard asked the question:

What are children’s books trying to do? Perhaps there are two answers to this question: they try to provide information about the real world. They aim to stimulate the imagination of the young.  And it is to this second point that literature addresses itself, or should address itself. Literature is one of the doorways through which humans can pass. Literature can take us away from that real world which is obvious around us, to that other real world which dwells individually inside each one of us. Literature does not require musical accompaniment because it allows each of us to reach for and re-attune those harmonies which are within us individually. Literature does not require pictorial illustration because the very purpose of literature, its whole thrilling, chilling, exciting raison d’etre is to allow each of us to create in the inner recesses of our minds/souls the pictures that satisfy us most…I am reminding us all that the whole purpose of literature is to use WORDS to create images…Literature then is an art from that uses words to lead us back to our minds and our individual mind images. Literature can be written or it can be spoken. Literature requires two components to make it successful; it requires words and it requires imagination. And the success of literature depends on the degree to which those two attributes have been honed and enhanced. …Literature is not pictures; it is words that evoke pictures. - De Fossard, E. “Children’s Books - Are they killing Literature?” Readings in Children’s Literature. Proceedings of the Second National Seminar on Children’s Literature at Frankston State College, 1978, pp. 87-95.

To me there is some justification for this point of view. Firstly, there is much that is bland and boring in the excessive reliance on Disneyfied cartoons in picture book illustration using computer –based programmes in terms of art style, where any sense of the illustrator’s presence in terms of a unique style has been lost.  Secondly, most of us have experienced a sense of disappointment after watching a film that follows a book whereby the imaginative world that the book created has been undermined by the film that followed.

What counter-arguments are there for asserting the necessity and importance of the visual, especially in graphic novels (a sub-genre of the picture book)? Firstly, one can argue that words alone, appeal to the linguistically-orientated child and marginalises the visual learner (recalling Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences). For my son, to doodle with images and design comic strips was very much his preferred method of communication as a child. In a paper I wrote 12 years ago he stated that, “The book is easy to do, you just motor on through the storyline. More of a storyline than games. You get to use your imagination to create scenes. I get pictures in my mind that are not provided for you. It helps my drawing. I look at the words so I can see what can be added to my picture.” This is a 12-year-old speaking.

Indeed, visualization is very much a reading strategy that is now taught in schools. Secondly, in a digital age, the visual (static and moving images) is a dominant mode of communication. The horse has bolted on this one. Does gaming stifle the imagination? One researcher argues that contemporary gaming (as found in augmented reality) “posits that the ideal entertainment experience comes from the combination of physical experience, virtual content, storytelling, and the imagination of the user. Augmented reality offers both physical and virtual aspects, leaving creative designers to stimulate the imagination.” (Magerkurth, C. et al “Pervasive Games: Bringing Computer Entertainment Back to the Real World.” ACM Computers in Entertainment , Vol. 3, No. 3).

What do you think? What is the nature of the pleasure of graphic novels for you? Words or pictures or both?


In the warp and weave of a Festival like AFCC, there is a huge variety of threads to be followed. My response is in no way a summary or a complete story of my own experience of this event. But, it was a real learning journey for me to focus on the Focus Country of India and begin, yes begin, to understand the power of story in the lives of Indians. I am truly grateful for the generosity of the AFCC staff and their support and kindness, for the National Book Trust of India for their wonderful displays and commitment to their cause, to the Book Trust (New Delhi) for their gift of stories to share here in New Zealand, to the many authors and illustrators who shared their journeys and finally, to the inspiring leaders who make the AFCC event an annual event in Singapore. Long may their vision, energy and kindness continue!


Adan Jimenez wrote on 2 Jul 2014:

This a pretty great round up of the Indian panels at AFCC with a lot of fantastic questions raised, but I do have to quibble about one thing: comics is not a “sub-genre” of anything.

Comics is its own medium with its own language and terminology, its own styles and genres, and its own history; a history that stretches back a long time (some would say to the time of the first cave paintings, where our ancestors used sequential storytelling to leave a record of their great hunts). This is not to say that picture books have never influenced comics (or vice versa, for that matter); in fact, I know there has been influence. Comics have been influenced by film and literature, painting and photography, and yes, by picture books, but the reverse is also true, and comics are not “sub-genres” of these mediums simply for having been influenced by them.

Also, in comics, the interplay of word and image is paramount to the success of the work. Images convey information that the text doesn’t; likewise, the text will convey information that the image doesn’t. A reader cannot get the complete story by only reading the text or only reading the images; both are integral to the telling of the story.

So no, images do not stifle the imagination, but rather enhance it and tell a more cohesive story, at least in comics.

Thank you for a great article otherwise, Mr McKenzie!

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