Radhika Menon is the powerhouse behind Tulika. The creative, inclusive and richly illustrated Tulika books are all testament to her passion for the printed word and developing a whimsical landscape for children's literature.
KitaabWorld spoke to her to learn more about the intersection of knowledge, imagination and the process behind this multilingual undertaking.
What prompted you to start Tulika Books?
As a teacher at the J Krishnamurthi school in Chennai and later Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi, I was always looking to engage children imaginatively and discovered that the best way was through books. There was, however, a dearth of Indian books I could use. My own knowledge was limited as I grew up on a diet of western books in English like many of my generation - and even later.
There was a lack of quality books for children in India. There was no specialised children’s book publishing except what was government supported, and the rest were by and large mass market books with poor content. This gap, and my interest in publishing itself, led to Tulika. The aim was to publish high quality, multilingual books that were culturally rooted and contemporary.
Why was translating and writing in regional languages an important aspect of Tulika?
The way ahead was clear to us - to change prevailing attitudes to children’s books and create books that reflected a contemporary Indian sensibility. For this the books had to be rooted in the Indian multilingual, multicultural context. Several questions confronted us. When the languages children hear all around them are kept out of the books they read, how representative or inclusive can such books be? How could we reflect a multilingual reality in books when we were publishing in only a few languages - it was impossible for one publisher to publish in all the Indian languages.
Translations into several languages was the answer – translations that allowed infusions from the original language so that the stories resonated with the sounds of different languages. Picture books allowed us to do this, bridging, as they do, the gap between the oral and the written. They are a child’s first window to literacy. And we had a great advantage in the audience we were addressing – children. Children have vivid imaginations and embrace new experiences spontaneously, and they are not troubled by boundaries. And so Tulika’s multilingual publishing adventure began with picture books for 3-8 year olds in nine languages – English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Bangla.
What was the response to bilingual books?
We launched our publishing in 1996 with two bilingual books. Strange though it might sound, in our multicultural, multilingual country, the response at that time was very discouraging. But staying with our convictions and continuing to publish bilingual books was a good strategy going by the demand for our bilingual books now!
While the response in India was far from encouraging the first bilingual books did open up unexpected opportunities. In 2003, Tulika’s first and bestselling title Line and Circle was produced in 23 different language combinations (i.e. English and another language) for a UK publisher. The languages included Serbo-Croatian, Kurdish, Arabic, Somali and Chinese. A couple of years later Takdir the Tiger Cub too was published in several languages for UK. More recently Miaow, was published in Nepali and there are plans for more titles in the language.
How has this changed since you started in 1996?
Definitely for the better. The market response is very encouraging. The books are being used in schools as supplementary readers.
Today, we have around 45 bilingual titles, in English-Hindi, -Tamil, -Malayalam, -Kannada, -Telugu, -Marathi-, -Gujarati and -Bangla. Our English-Hindi bilinguals are by far the bestselling language combination. But the English-Kannada, English-Tamil and English-Marathi do quite well too.
Which regional languages did you start with and which languages did you choose to expand to?
We started with Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, and went on to publish in Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. We bring in other languages when we can, and have done books in Odia, Mundari, Khasi and Mishmi, apart from Nepali as mentioned, though these are not on our regular list.
What are the changes you've observed in children's literature in India?
The trend is positive. There are many more publishers today, offering a wider variety of books for children catering to specific age groups. The market has grown and, most significantly, writers and illustrators are exploring a variety of genres and themes and mediums. With changes in technology and innovations, books are getting on digital platforms and this is changing content and access.
How are Tulika books received overseas?
Tulika's books are in great demand among Indians abroad, and orders on our website from overseas customers are steadily growing. We also have a few committed distributors abroad through whom the books reach public libraries – including the New York Public Library – schools and a few independent book stores.
Our books have been winning international awards over the years. To name a few: Outstanding International Book – USBBY; Honour Book – South Asia Book awards; Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, Children’s Book Council, USA; The White Ravens Outstanding International Book, Germany.
We also sell international rights to many of our books, not just to the west where we have sold rights to the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, but to Korea, China, Pakistan. Malaysia and Korea.
There is a move to include more diverse voices in literature abroad, do you see this reflected in the titles that international publishers want?
Unfortunately not enough. International publishers are quite conventional when it comes to buying rights and tend to stick to the tried and tested themes, look and feel, with few exceptions. Western publishers especially can be a bit clichéd in their notions of what will work for children in their countries.
Which part of the process – content creation, editing, distribution excites you the most?
All of it! The creative bit, naturally. But even marketing and distribution has to be innovative for it to succeed, as mainstream distribution is not a viable option for publishers like us.
How do you manage translating into nine languages?
We have, over the years, managed to put together a committed team of translators across the country and evolved a system of picking the translator we think will work best for a particular text. We send it out to them with a clear brief, go through discussion to iron out issues, and get them to closely proof the text. It helps that among us (editors), we are familiar with all the languages. But yes, it is a challenging process - one that involves reading aloud for the right tone even if we don't know the language very well, using another language like Hindi or Tamil to see how it can be said in other languages without something sound 'translated' and awkward, encouraging translators to be creative with the use of language (when it comes to children's books it is amazing how bogged down we get about the 'correct' use of language).
What are the challenges that you face as a publisher?
As all publishers will tell you – marketing and distribution. Multilingual publishing is a challenge every step of the way - from translating, to choosing fonts. laying out (the latest layout software for English dont work for languages ), and getting it printed where problems do come up because of software incompatibilities and then marketing the books in the regional language markets which is another world.
We noticed you had Braille books as well – how did that project come about and are there more Braille books in the offing?
The Chetana Trust took a few books and added tactile elements. They went through a manual process of outlining visuals and pasting Braille text in the books, and found that it would work very well. They chose Line and Circle, My Mother’s Sari and a few other titles. Another NGO took all our titles to create a Braille library but unfortunately closed down. We hope to do more tactile and Braille books when we get the right manuscripts, which are hard to come by. Books for the visually challenged, with Braille as well as tactile elements, are also not easy to produce in economically viable quantities.
What are your models of distribution (eg-bookstores, libraries, schools)?
While the large bookstores are not an option any more for small and medium publishing houses (non-payment being the major issue), smaller, independent bookstores are doing well with the sale of children's books.
Online sales have opened up and there are schools and even booksellers ordering online.
What has been a significant leg up to publishers like us is that government organisations like the CBSE and NCERT are making an effort to select books by appointing expert groups, putting the list online and circulating it to schools. These lists have become very useful for librarians and teachers to start the process of building libraries in schools where it was nonexistent. Unfortunately with the change in government, there is no move to update lists and include new books.
NGOs running reading literacy programmes have created alternative distribution networks for books and also a demand for books in Indian languages. There is now a greater awareness of good children's books being published.
Children's book festivals, book events and author readings in schools are creating a buzz around children's books like never before. The spin-off of this is an opportunity to sell books.
What plans does Tulika have for the future?
We will continue to publish a diverse range of books, explore new genres and new ideas, and discover new talent. We want to continue finding sustainable ways of getting the books in the different languages to their target audience. And we want to explore ways of using the digital medium creatively in the different languages we publish in, and make the content accessible to more children.
Here's wishing Tulika and Ms. Menon many more years of great storytelling!