In December 2016, I spent 10 days at the “Children Understand More…” residency organized by the the Goethe-Institut India/Max Mueller Bhavan and Zubaan in Shantiniketan. Seventeen writers and illustrators came together at the idyllic Mitali Homestay in the land of Rabindranath Tagore to brainstorm and work on creating some quality children’s literature. All constraints, perceived or real, were removed, and the participants were free to explore themes and ideas that one customarily baulks from introducting to children. Along with Nadia Budde, Ben Dammers and Devika Rangachari, I was one of the mentors at the residency, tasked with helping the participants tease out workable ideas and shape them into works-in-progess that would eventually—hopefully—end up as published books.
Most of the participants rose to the challenge and a variety of fantastic books-in-the-making resulted. Some new talents were discovered, such as one writer discovering she was an artist too, and another writer finding a superbly edgy YA voice. Divested of the hindrance of thinking about the feasibility of being “publishable” and marketable, it created an atmosphere in which only the stories mattered. Among the themes that were batted around were religion and fear; identity; family, society and relationships; death; body image; mental illness; puberty; and climate change. Some worked individually, others collaborated, and most brainstormed and sought out critiques on their works-in-progress.*
Needless to say, it is impossible to come back from such an experience unmoved. The possibility of some or all of these ideas turning into books in the not-so-far future was exciting enough, but more than that, spending almost two weeks in the company of a group of talented artists, writers and storytellers was super-inspiring. And not insignificant was the fact that being cut off from the mundanities of one’s daily life, talking and thinking only about creating fiction for children, did inject a good dose of reassurance regarding the work one has been doing (or attempting to).
Stories are important, critically important, in our understanding of our world, whether we’re writing them, reading them, watching them, taking part in them. And reading is not the only way in which we engage with stories.
So, strap on your seatbelt.
*To know more about the Children Understand More residency, read Bijal Vachharajani’s write-up.