Away from the glare, there are rumblings of a positive nature going on in the world of children's literature. New initiatives, themes and efforts are being made to popularise this genre.

Perhaps the most important aspect that is underway is the digression from offering stories with morals to the children. The emphasis now is to let the reader derive what he or she understands after reading the book with no one preaching to them. Or maybe just let the reader simply enjoy what has been read.

In the same way there is another important digression in terms of themes being offered. The premise is that children have an understanding of sensitive issues, and at times respond to them far better than adults, with much greater sensitivity. So now there are stories targeting very young readers on themes such as environment and autism.

An interesting compilation of three stories 'Your Seasons My Seasons' on environment written by Dr Vidyanidhi Chhabra and Late Dr Rama Sohonee was released in Shimla last Sunday. The book's preface explains, "Well, the cliché is that these are stories for children. But what are stories for children? They are the stories that take us to the magical lands to hear the deep and dense heartbeats of nature. They are stories for all of us — children, teenagers, the young, adults; cousins, aunts, nieces and nephews, friends, and their friends, mothers, sisters, grandfathers, grandmothers. They are the endless inheritance of our eternal relationships. Certainly, especially for those who have grown old, but still feel young and child-like, still full of wonder and curiosity, for them, these stories are a trip down their lovely memory lane."

"The debate around what makes children's literature continues. Is it what adults write about and for children or is it what the children express themselves? But even adults have to keep themselves in place of children to write these stories," Chhabra told The Citizen.

Talking about the digression from moralistic stories, she said that these were stories where everything was pre-decided and a moral was given in the end. "The challenge is that no one wants 'updesh' (sermons). Young readers want what appeals to them and updesh is certainly not appealing. They do not want preaching or propaganda. They want something to read and if they can imbibe something from it, they will. They are not foolish not to grasp the meaning. They have their own interpretations, that at times even we have not imagined. The purpose should be to ignite their thoughts and this should not be restricted," she said.

The book's preface adds, "these stories are driven by the desire to go closer to nature, to all living and nonliving beings, to understand them, to speak to them and hear their language and silences, to accept their freedom and the right to live in peace in their own domain. These stories are a bitter reminder that human beings these days get their happiness by torturing other creatures. It is inconceivable, why this brutality gives them a toxic enjoyment? Perhaps they feel insecure and incomplete! Perhaps they feel weak and worthless!"

The book has some amazing illustrations by a local youth Dinesh Bharti and is being translated into Marathi by Neera Deshpande. In fact, Chhabra plans to come out with another set of stories for children based on Indian idioms. Titled 'Michiko ke Muhavare' she had written the book years ago. "Michiko is my nickname given by my father as I was born on the day the Japanese Princess Michiko was on a visit to India," she recalled.

Another book that needs to be mentioned here is 'Not That Different' written by Archana Mohan who is a partner in a Bangalore based startup publishing children's literature. It is the first ever comic to welcome neurodiversity. It follows 10-year-old Sara as she meets a new friend Madhav who is on the autism spectrum.

"The stories for children have moved from mythological ones, to plenty of other issues. There are themes like mental health where it is OK not to be OK. These are stories where the protagonists are not perfect and deal with characters that have issues related to mobility, verbal disability and autism," Mohan told The Citizen.

She added that there is a shift from the parents buying what they wanted their children to read to the latter choosing what they want to read. "The challenge of course remains on getting more people to read. Then there is the issue of difficulties faced by small publications to hit big bookstores. In the process a lot of good literature goes under the radar. More awareness about such literature is needed. The ever increasing printing cost is another issue besides the big challenge posed by mobile phones in the hands of the children," Mohan said.

An interesting initiative in this domain has been made by Keekli Trust in Shimla that has been using this genre as a major tool in educating children. Its journey started almost a decade ago, as a children's portal that gradually evolved into a bilingual newspaper, a book club and a non-governmental organisation.

"It's been a fulfilling journey. We make them read and then make them understand. Then they come out writing and this is how they get educated. The children are always eager to learn. They enjoy learning from things other than bookish," said Vandana Bhagra of Keekli Trust.

There is a lot going on in the Hindi and vernacular domains as well. Mannan Kumar who has been associated with efforts in promoting children's literature in Punjabi pointed out, "there are new writers emerging in this genre. Another interesting aspect is that some of the leading vernacular publishing houses are diversifying towards bringing out children's magazines and books in regional languages. The outreach is definitely increasing."

He is of the opinion that if children's literature gets a breakthrough on the over the top (OTT) media platforms, it will be a game changer. "This would mean the writers getting good remuneration and a lot of fresh creative material coming before the audience," he added.