Every Saturday in a traditional Newari house on Jochhne, sixty-something Shanta Das Manandhar listens, reads and laughs with 20 schoolchildren who share their poetry, prose and essays. The children take their work home and to various publications, and Shanta Das, writer, translator, illustrator, and publisher of Bal Koseli publications established in 1979, waits for the next weekend. "Nepali kids have been denied both respect and books for long," says Manandhar. "The economy doesn't support children's literature and we lack a reading culture," he says. Even so, he agrees, things are rapidly looking up.
The last few years have seen the demand for children's books grow across the country. Awareness campaigns, the promotion of informal education and teacher training programs have all helped. But the single largest factor have been exhibitions of children's books in 18 towns across Nepal organised by Bal Sansar, a not-for-profit clearinghouse run by the Himal Association. "In most places people had no idea so many books were published for children," recalls Dadin Pandey, marketing manager of Bal Sansar. The organisation says some 70,000 books worth Rs 500 million changed hands as a result of its 2000/2001 exhibitions. "Distributors in places like Dang, Bhairahawa and Surkhet now sell over Rs 8,000 worth children's books a month," says Pandey. Nepal has twelve children's literature publishers and around 170 titles from all these houses are available through Bal Sansar. The organisation has also put together a children's book bank with more than 300 titles-virtually all the children's books published in Nepal in the last ninety years. Govinda Shrestha of Ratna Pustak Bhandar, one of the oldest private publishers in the country says his firm actively reviews books once a year, discarding some, and adding six new titles.
Unsurprisingly, for an industry not known for its production values, straightforward prose is the most common genre. "More than 80 percent of the trade books for children are collections of stories or of poems and songs," says Manesh Shrestha, coordinator of Bal Sansar. Forget about buying your children books with essays or about science, or travel-subjects like these are ignored, with only two travelogues for children written in Nepali. As for illustrated books, a staple of children's publishing in other places, Shiva Shrestha of the Himalayan Book Centre says: "Children love colourful books and comics and that is what I sell most. But all in English or Hindi." Shrestha remembers a pretty popular attempt at producing Nepali illustrated books 15 years ago-the low quality two-colour comic books published on leftover paper from the stock acquired for educational materials by the government-run textbook publisher Janak Sikchhya Samagri Kendra.
Part of the reason the market is so dismal is that writing for children here is generally awash with narrow and outdated portrayals of ethics, morality and beliefs. "We need to produce good writers and illustrators and ensure quality. Most Nepali children's books are sexist, classist and too didactic. Why all the heavy moralising and boring 'messages'?" asks Bimal Nibha, a researcher at Bal Sansar. To this end, Bal Sansar is reviewing its collection to resurrect good titles and banish the bad. And to ensure better books in the future, it organises training, interaction and networking programmes for authors, illustrators and publishers. Other organisations are doing their bit: the Nepal Children's Literature Society (NESCIL) has an annual award for children's writers and illustrators, Akhyan gets children excited about books via performance art, and the Hatemalo Sanchar has built a network of young readers across the country through its magazine. Ram Babu Subedi, a Nepali teacher and poet, has been looking closely at the development of the industry as well as children's reading habits. "I'd guess that around 15 percent of children between standards four and seven are regular readers and purchasers of books directed at them," he says. Subedi adds that increasingly, parents are also encouraging their children to read in Nepali.
General consensus is that a market good for Nepali children will also be good for writers. "We have the latest technology here. There are already benchmarks for quality printing in Nepal. Now we need to develop a culture of books here," says Govinda Shrestha, of Ratna Pustak Bhandar. "And", adds Shiva Shrestha of the Himalayan Book Centre, "to aid in this, publishers must do their bit like is done in India-there you can get quality story books for Rs 25." The way things are going, distributors won't desperately have to wait for books coming in from Banaras anymore.