From pancakes to paneer: New Indian kids’ literature returning to the roots

Its rich variety helps Indian children growing up abroad identify more with their culture

For a long time, for Indian origin beginner readers, reading English literature meant looking at things from American or British cultural perspectives.

Most kids’ books were written by Western authors and even Indian books followed the trend of avoiding any ethnic language or product references.

However, a host of new-age Indian kids’ authors are now proudly bringing back commonly used Hindi phrases, introducing regional dishes such as ‘pakodas’ and ‘kheer’ instead of the ubiquitous pancakes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

As a growing number of authors include popularly used Indian words in their English literature, a Bangalore based, vertical marketplace called The Nestery is helping Indian parents to pick up the right, culturally conscious products for their kids.

Read: Indian American authors featured at Multicultural Children’s Book Day (January 22, 2019)

The brand has been able to bring together the best publishers in Indian children’s literature under one roof in a meaningful manner.

Aparna Vasudevan, co-founder and COO of The Nestery talks to the American Bazaar about the need for inculcating cultural contexts in children during their early years.

AB: Tell us a bit more about The Nestery. Are you only into books or is there an extended portfolio?

Aparna Vasudevan: The Nestery was born out of a personal need to make shopping easier and more intuitive for parents. We focus on selling products that focus on engaging children meaningfully.

So you will see books, toys, learning aids, posters, even furniture if we see that it has potential to engage children – so not just books and toys but think of a DIY “block print your t shirt”.

Or a weaving loom that allows them to try their hands at wefts and warps, an activity book that helps them understand basic concepts like sorting, or a “kitchen tower” – a furniture piece that helps a toddler take more active part in the kitchen!

Now take this one step further, and see them all in an e-commerce website, mapped out in an easy-to-find manner!

AB: A lot of the products in your portfolio seem to be preserving Indian traditional values as well as creating cultural language awareness. Why did you feel there was a need for such products?

AV: We started the Nestery to enable discovery and make shopping more intuitive and easier for parents. Over the last three years, we have been able to build depth into each category that helps a parent find exactly what they are looking for, for every parenting situation.

For example, we have been able to bring together the best publishers in Indian Children’s literature under one roof in a meaningful manner.

Cultural representation builds self-esteem and confidence. We felt this is important because children need to relate with the characters that they see in stories for them to develop a strong sense of identity.

Not just Indian children, even the children growing up abroad will identify with the Indian diaspora abroad when they read the rich variety that Indian children’s literature has to offer today.

With respect to toys, we look for quality, inclusion, diversity and age appropriate engagement opportunities. Think of ‘Pacheesi’ for example, that evokes nostalgia in us adults, excellent for children to learn strategy.

Or neem teethers that are considered anti-bacterial traditionally in India. Each of these represent a dimension of our culture, and helps us support small Indian entrepreneurs, while being able to afford a choice of the best of toys available internationally as well.

AB:  Let us talk about kids and reading. When should it be introduced and how it should be introduced.

AV: Reading should be incorporated as part of their environment and daily routine. Growing up, my child always had books lying around in an easily accessible location, and a daily routine where he was being read to by a parent or caregiver.

A huge part of introducing reading is not to stress on the “reading” as much as the experience of holding a book and trying to take in the pictures and words in the book.

I think we introduced books as early as three months to my now 7-year-old and while he reads now, being read to is something he enjoys even now.

I also think stories in the form of picture books help a lot, because the pictures can carry forward the story better than the words. For example, Tulika has a wonderful book (Let’s Go) on counting that shows children and adults with disabilities without actually carrying any words.

Ditto for Pickle Yolk Books’ Maccher Jhol (not giving away the story in the interest of keeping the plot suspense intact). Books like this actually walk the talk on practicing inclusion and diversity by keeping socio-cultural differences and disabilities as part of the illustrations, and not as the hero of the story.

AB:  While most parents would love for their kids to take up reading, it seems that some kids are naturally inclined while some aren’t. How do you think parents should approach this?

AV: I think children are little individuals and anything you want to “make them do” does not end very well!

I think I would just keep buying them smaller stories which are easier to consume, and those that speak to their interests (Yes, even if it is a Peppa Pig!) and leave it to them to decide if they want to read or not.

Also, having a (physical) book reading parent helps because they see you reading and they are going to want to pick up a book someday (or not!).

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