October 24, 2018

The Kids Are All Right: An Intergenerational Tale of Living and Loving YA Fiction

Published October 22, 2018 in Torchlight Magazine

Two libraries were a big part of my tween years. The first was tidy, organised, and strictly monitored. It was roomy and bright with short wooden bookshelves, many of which were kept locked due to the apparent inappropriateness of the books they held. I visited it once a week during Library period, and more often than not, got into trouble with the librarian at my convent school in Chennai for talking too loudly and having a good time. The second — Senthil Lending Library near my parent’s home — was quite different. A narrow dark room, it had tall open steel bookshelves flanked by many a swirling dust ball. The stacking of the books was chaotic at best, but the librarian knew his way around. He was a nice sort, never bothered by noise as long as the books were returned on or before the due date.
Despite the many spatial differences, the two libraries had one thing in common — the books in the young adults section.
Classics such as A Tale of Two CitiesThe Count of Monte CristoRebeccaLittle Women; detective stories of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Poirot; mostly abridged but some original Shakespeare; Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys including the somewhat grown-up Case Files versions; and a host of Enid Blyton including Famous Fives and the various school series; Indian and imported comics such as TintinAsterixPhantomChandamamaTinkleAmar Chitra Katha, and my favourite at the time — Archie comics; and some Indian authors like Ruskin Bond and Rudyard Kipling, filled their open and closed shelves. These books were considered mainstream, and my friends and I had access to them all. We read the Classics in the order that our school curriculum demanded, Shakespeare unhappily, the Case Files often, Enid Blyton sparingly, and a Ruskin Bond or a Kipling story whenever we had access to them. The comics, predictably, were the most read as was evinced by their tattered condition.
While we tried to superimpose our own lives on to the larger themes in these books, it wasn’t easy. There was nothing day-to-day about them that would even serve as a conversation starter at home. ‘Can you pack me some tongue for my next picnic,’ I tried saying realising even then how silly it sounded. I didn’t even know what that was! And we always packed puliyogare and lime rice for family picnics, anyway. And the names—Julian, Frederick, Reginald, Georgina, Darrell, Big Moose (what’s a moose!)—felt as far away as the places they were located in. Chores and pocket money, hanging out at mom n’ pop shops drinking soda, going on dates, getting detention, having lockers—none of these themes were relatable, but I loved to read, and I read all that I found. Many of those books still have a place in my parent’s home. They haven’t been given away in case my almost teen daughter, Aditi, is interested in them.
Our bookshelves couldn’t be more different — visually and otherwise. While I type this, I’m telling myself, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ and yet, it’s an important element of the book selection process. All the colours in the rainbow and everything in between adorn her shelf —and those are just the spines! Add to that snappy titles, attractive fonts and beautifully designed covers — these factors have played huge parts in drawing out today’s young reader. But, let’s go back to the adage for a bit in the context of the ‘Young Adult’ genre, specifically, and how I began to re-engage with it.
Aditi, who’s loved books ever since she could hold onto one, stumbled into this genre at the age of 10. She breezed through the Harry Potter series and continued to read a smattering of authors, but appeared disengaged. I often found her re-reading a few books that had caught her interest, but more often than not, she seemed to be searching for something new and interesting and not finding them. The JustBooks library nearby us seemed to me a more modern version of my old Senthil Lending Library. Sure, it was easier to search for titles, but there weren’t too many new publishers and authors they stocked in this category. I found Aditi gravitating towards comics out of sheer boredom. Not having been in touch with this genre for a long time, I thought it best to ask for help to get us through her reader’s block.
A colleague at work who had worked in publishing introduced me to Duckbill. She specifically mentioned the title Talking of Muskaan and went on to tell me what it was about. I was hooked, but decided to read it first because of the themes it addressed—bullying, peer pressure, homosexuality and suicide. While parenting wisdom told me that she may be a bit young for it, my instinct told me otherwise. As usual, it was right.
Muskaan gently eased our family into becoming properly young adult in our day-to-day conversations. Not that much was off the table until then, but now, everything was kosher because such important themes had been articulated into a book written for her age group. My younger son, Yuv, who seemed to have some knowledge (hearsay, obviously) on some of these topics was part of these chats too, and I believe this has impacted my children’s book choices. The genres on their bookshelves (wooden and on the cloud) can be broadly classified into queer lit, detective stories, graphic non-fiction, science and music-related, history, biographies and comics. Harry Potter is a perpetual go-to, and never loses its place by their bedside.
We’ve read many other Young Adult fiction and non-fiction titles including Dear Mrs. Naiduby Young Zubaan,  Invisible People by Duckbill, Mostly Madly Mayil by Tulika, and Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land by Navayana. These books cut across themes including sexual harassment, privilege, caste distinction, and legal issues and rights, and frame discussions for teens in a non-didactic manner. I often wish that I had had access to such titles growing up. I would’ve loved to read books that spoke to the confusion in my mind from the half-baked conversations I had as a teen rather than moving straight up into the Pandora’s box that was adult fiction, or to the then mostly incomprehensible world of adult non-fiction. The young adult genre gently bridges the leap from children’s to adult’s books by introducing themes that might have been found under non-fiction earlier, but in a sensitive and accessible manner. In addition to making for good reading and more informed teens, I believe that they can influence important future decisions related to education and possibly work choices too.
Aditi is now compiling a young reader’s list for the public reference library at my workplace, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru. First on the list were a host of Duckbill titles, but many of the suggestions she has continued to make are based on her own interests which keep varying based on reading circle discussions with friends, internet wisdom, and book reviews she’s recently read. The internet has been a game changer in how we find new authors and publishers, especially international ones such as Haymarket Books and Verso Books. The randomness of retweeting ensures that tweets reach a larger circle of non-followers too. So not only do we find out about new books, but they also come with recommendations of a friend’s friend’s cousin’s relative (who may be a publisher, reviewer or anything else book-related). And of course, the best part about e-books is that there is no import duty and shipping cost, and they go on sale for a dollar at least once a year! So our kindle collection has continued to grow, although we still prefer holding a ‘real’ book for the most part.
On a recent holiday to the US, which included visits to many tourist traps, I was anxious about the possible damage to my wallet at Universal Studios. The 12 dollars spent on Hogwarts’s lapel pins wasn’t a patch on what we collectively spent at bookstores buying graphic non-fiction, Japanese manga, feminist literature for young adults, and biographies of certain musicians. We went to bookstores and discount book shops in every city that we visited, and the public libraries too. The children were wowed by the collections that were housed and the friendly and accessible manner of the librarians and staff. What amazed them the most, however, was that the libraries were spaces of public engagement, where the ‘quiet reading section’ was the only quiet part in the entire large space. There were ongoing exhibitions, planned activities, and throngs of people—many tourists, such as ourselves — who were just walking around, browsing freely and chatting animatedly.
As thrilled as I was with their reactions, I was equally troubled by something. They had never visited any public libraries in India. Although Bengaluru has a few, we had never been inside any other than the library at my workplace. We do go to children’s specific bookstores such as Lightroom for the occasional activity, and a host of others bookstores in Bengaluru such as Blossom Book House, Bookworm, Select Bookstore and Goobe Book Republic which serve as browsing spaces, libraries and more. I suppose having access to a variety of books across genres one floor above where I sit reduces my need to engage with a public library. And for those who don’t have access to a library at their workplace or near their homes, buying books is easier than ever these days, and not that expensive either.
If there is to be a cultural shift in how public libraries are viewed, it requires a shift in mindsets. They need to be seen as important spaces for dialogue and discussion, and equally for activities and classes—for everyone. In order for them to thrive, more people, and a diverse group of people need to use them. Since the access of children and teens is determined by adults, schools could come together to facilitate interactions at public libraries. Rather than ad hoc projects that are part of all curriculums, maybe we should think of unleashing our teens on these spaces so they can think up and design new ways of using them.
I haven’t visited my school library or Senthil Lending Library in nearly 25 years, but writing this piece has left me feeling curious about their current states. Maybe they haven’t changed much at all. Or maybe, just maybe, they have become vibrant spaces with teens hanging around, a wide variety of books, activities and classes, and engaged librarians. As Ron wisely said to Harry about Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ‘When in doubt, go to the library.’
It’s my turn to go now.