Indian Folktales and British Children’s Books: Reading Children’s Literature with Sridala Swami
By IYWP Intern Camellia Pham
Have you ever wondered, what a children’s writer got to say about literature for children? A prolific writer from India, Sridala Swami herself has written 4 books for children and 2 collections of poetry A Reluctant Survivor (2007) and Escape Artist (2014).
While she used to write short stories, sometimes interwoven with a little surreal and fantastic, Swami is currently engrossed in poetry and children’s books. Growing up as a bibliophile, her love for books and literature stretched out far-flung, from Indian folktales to British children’s literature.
Swami only writes in English as it is the language she grew up reading in, even though she also speaks Hindi, Tamil, Tegulu, and also teaches herself Chinese on the side.
Iowa Youth Writing Project: “What is your favorite children’s book?”
Sridala Swami: “The stories I absorbed were a mix of Indian folktales, tales from the spics retold, but also a lot of 20th-century British children’s books by authors such as Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit. In India of the 70s, there were also a lot of books by Russian writers, children’s stories, available easily, and at cheap prices. I don’t remember these stories in detail, but I remember owning and reading these books.
Of the stories I read and re-read through the ages of 5-10 are the comic books called Amar Chitra Katha. These were stories about India: mythological stories, stories from the epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, classics of literature adapted for children (such as the story of Kannagi, from the Tamil classical text Silappadikaram by Ilango Adigal).But I also loved Enid Blyton, from The Magic Faraway Tree books all the way to the Famous Five series and the boarding school books.
I read widely as a child, and my grandmother was very good at telling us stories, so it’s really hard to pick one book or story. If there is a theme across these stories and books, it is that they come from across cultures – the British children’s literature that is a legacy of colonialism, that I loved for the freedom the children in those stories had, and for the food that they seemed to eat all the time! The stories from India, that covered the epic, the classical but also folk, and stories from many cultures within India. The themes were things that usually attract children: fantastic elements, adventure, independence, animals, the strange and the mundane living happily by each other.
As a writer, I still love imaginative stories. I love the subtle humour that children’s books have that you sometimes don’t catch until you’re older. I love how much can be said simply, how many layers these stories have without using too many words. I take these things into my writing.”
From Swami’s kolams, a geometrical drawing of curved loops usually placed on a doorstep at Sri Lankan and South Indian households, to Amar Chitra Katha comic books, international literature opens a door for youth to connect with other cultural heritages and values that might not be so present in our daily life cycle.
You can find Sridala Swami’s books for children at the Pratham Book Shop and Amar Chitra Katha at www.amarchitrakatha.com. Readers can also purchase or loan Enid Blyton’s The Island of Adventure and Enid Blyton’s books at the Iowa City Public Library. All of the books mentioned above can also be purchased online through Amazon.