To mark UNESCO's World Book Day on April 23, Deutsche Welle spoke with Paro Anand about her popular stories for young readers. The Indian author has taken on some themes that don't typically appear in children's books.
Anand says she doesn't necessarily write with children in mind
April 23 marks World Book Day, an event established in 1995 by UNESCO to celebrate and promote literature. The date was chosen for its symbolic significance, since Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega each died on April 23, 1616. Children's literacy is a special focus of the event.
Indian author Paro Anand has written 18 books for young people and taken part in numerous youth outreach projects. Her involvement with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation introduced her to children affected by terrorist violence in the Indian part of the Kashmir region and inspired her acclaimed book "No Guns at My Son's Funeral." Anand spoke with Deutsche Welle about her writing process and some of the troubled boys and girls she has met.
DW: Do you think a lot about children when you're writing and how they might respond to the books?
I'm not sure that I really think too much about the reader. I actually write for myself, and I like to write what I like to read. Even when I'm writing for very young children, I don't think to myself, "Oh, you know, these are very young children, so I shouldn't use this word or shouldn't talk about this topic."
I think each story finds its level - like water.
Let's go back to this age old question then: is there such a thing as a children's book, or is a good book simply a good book?
Yes, I think that's very true - a good book is a good book.
I wanted to ask you about the names of these books because I sense that the name plays an incredibly important role for you. "Elephants Don't Diet," for instance, I love that.
'Elephants Don't Diet' appeared in 2004
Yes! I found that there are really so many young children who are so obsessed with how they look and tease those who are fat. So, I wrote "Elephants Don't Diet," because, of course, an elephant has to be fat and large. And yet, this poor elephant - because of the whole world view of slimness and the notion that fat people are undesirable - decides to go on a diet. Of course, this is a no-win situation for an elephant.
It turned into a picture book intended for a very young child. I think this whole issue of self-image is a very important topic, even for young girls.
Let's talk about the chief protagonist in "No Guns at My Son's Funeral." Tell us more about some of the layers of his story.
You know, this is reality fiction, and a lot of children ask me: "Is it real?" Yes, it is. This particular character called Aftab doesn't really exist, but there are many "Aftabs" that do.
Especially in Kashmir, boys face such a strange situation because they are never left unsupervised or alone. The terrorists are just waiting like vultures to recruit young boys who are alone. Parents are very frightened of this, so women will accompany a boy everywhere he goes. When he goes to school, his sister will accompany him, and even before the bell has rung, the women are waiting outside to pick him up.
As a result, the boys are really stifled. They're desperate to be just regular kids. And it's those who are a little bit outside of the group - maybe those who are teased - who get picked up by the terrorists.
How much of this has come out of your work with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and children that have been impacted by terrorists? You must have had one-to-one contact with a lot of these young boys and girls.
India's Kashmir region has become a hotbed for terrorist violence
Absolutely. I had written an earlier version of the story that got a lot of depth after working with the foundation.
We worked with about 50 children, all of whom had lost their fathers to terrorists. The brief I was given was to just let the kids have fun and forget their sorrows. I tried some of the story games and word games that had never failed me before, but nothing would break the ice in this situation.
Some of them desperately wanted to tell their story, and some of them desperately didn't want to. So, I just gave them the story starter saying "Suddenly in my life…". 48 out of the 50 children wrote about the incidents in which their fathers died - something they had never written about before.
The process of writing was very difficult. It took three hours when I had expected maybe half an hour. Some of the children were crying, tearing up their stories or hiding in bathrooms, and I became very frightened that I had opened up wounds that I wouldn't be able to shut again.
Finally, I said, "All right, let's just sit together in a circle. If you want to read out your story, you can. If you don't want to, don't. But you must listen to the stories being told." Hindu as well as Muslim children were taking part, and they had never met each other before. When they listened to the stories, they were really comforted - first because they had told their stories and also because they had seen that there were others in the same situation.
Children from each side of the conflict realized that the other side had suffered too and that the common enemy was violence.
Interview: Breandain O'Shea (gsw)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn