In this month’s installment of Meet the Publisher, World Kid Lit Co-editor Claire Storey caught up with Richa Jha, founder and publisher of Pickle Yolk Books…
World Kid Lit: Hello Richa and welcome to the World Kid Lit Blog. We’re thrilled to be speaking to you today. Could you start by introducing us to your publishing house.
Richa Jha: Hello Claire and team World Kid Lit. Thank you for having me over on your blog. I love what you do with translated children’s literature from around the world.
Pickle Yolk Books is an independent publishing house for picture books in English based in New Delhi, India. Our titles are bold, beautiful, thought-provoking conversation starters, each remaining true to our aim of creating books that empower the readers to discover themselves between the covers.
It began when I decided to self-publish two picture books in 2014. The Susu Pals was a breezy urban-y tale with a real take on some universal friendship challenges; The Unboy Boy was a sensitive, contemplative questioning of gender norms. While there were books that addressed the problems around the way gender norms for girls/ females get perpetuated and reinforced in society, this was among the first picture books in the country to look at stereotypes for young boys and males. Both these titles would end up being celebrated as being trailblazing in their own ways.
I was already a keenly-followed picturebook reviewer and critic in India by then, a decade old journalist, and was also armed with a few years of solid grounding and experience in children’s publishing during my editorial stint at Wisdom Tree, a New Delhi based publisher. It was their founder (and my mentor) Shobit Arya who, seeing my irrepressible passion for picture books, began encouraging me to publish the books on my own.
And so came the first two titles from an imprint which would a year later get relabelled as Pickle Yolk Books (so named to capture the beautiful blend of the wholesome and the fun that our titles are). Buoyed with their success (both critical and popular), I decided to make that initial toe-dipping a deep plunge for good. And with every passing year, I feel ever more grateful to my mentor for having pushed me towards following my madness.
The first few titles continued to be authored by me, but soon, I was to invite the very best of children’s authors in. And as Pickle Yolk Books turns eight this year, I look back at this journey thus far with great satisfaction. We publish two titles a year, each created with extraordinary love and fuss. Our small list of 15 titles carries an eclectic array of ideas, narratives and art styles. With each, we strive to excel in textual, visual content and the production aspects. Our books have won some of the most prestigious awards, nominations and finalist-mentions in India and internationally, including the White Ravens (twice), the South Asia Book Awards, the Nami Concours, the Golden Pinwheel, BRAW Amazing Bookshelf, and the Chen Bochui Recommended List, alongside the Indian Crossword, Publishing Next, Comic Con, Neev, Parag Honour List and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), among others.
2022 was a milestone year for us because we received our first nomination for the BOP Bologna Prize Best Children’s Publishers of the Year from Asia. We hope to keep creating books that leave their distinctive Pickle Yolk mark on readers both within India and outside, the way they have done so far.
Pickle Yolk Books continues to be run as a one-woman army, but the family continues to grow and become both expansive and inclusive, and the love from readers continues to get more heart-warming. It gives me immense joy also to find many of our books as prescribed classroom reading in several schools in the country. Given our limited marketing budget and reach, our growth has been largely word-of-mouth led. A firm commitment to an undeniable and unquestionable honesty of intent and authenticity (and if I may add, brilliance) of execution is what defines our publishing ethos.
WKL: What is India’s children’s publishing scene like? How is it faring following the pandemic and how does Pickle Yolk fit within that landscape?
RJ: India is a peculiar market – and I have a tough time explaining this to the editors and publishers I meet at the international book fairs! Anybody sitting outside of India would imagine a massive population of 1.3 billion to have a gargantuan children’s book publishing industry. In reality, it’s still a tiny one, given the nascency of this segment; the way academic publishing (and by extension, activity-led books for children of all ages) holds the mainstay as far what children are ‘expected’ to be digging into; the unfortunately huge percentage of the population that still doesn’t have access to basic literacy, or that lacks a strong education-base, and faces massive challenges in accessing books in any form; and the complexities that come with the multitude of Indian languages coexisting with English and Hindi. So it is important to look at the children’s publishing scene (the way it usually gets talked about) in India today against this backdrop for a deeper, more thorough perspective.
The children’s publishing landscape that the publishing fraternity outside of India would be interested in is therefore a limited one, but its vibrancy, range and extensiveness in terms of the astoundingly diverse subjects and approaches it takes up, is perhaps unmatched. And it isn’t misleading to say that we are going through a glorious phase in our growth-cycle. What we lose out on by being a young industry, we are more than making up for by being accepting of the many kinds of books that wouldn’t easily find a place in even the most developed of children’s book markets. Our books are a happy mix of being culturally-rooted as well as telling universal stories. We are observing, learning, experimenting, creating with abandon, and making mistakes too (of course), unlearning, re-learning, and going back to creating with more abandon! It’s something that many of us within the industry (especially the independent publishers) are proud of and hope to keep building on because there obviously is so much more that we need to be bringing out for our young readers.
Our children’s publishing recovered early – and well – from the initial pandemic-led hit, and going by the way the readers poured into the bookstalls at the New Delhi World Book Fair held a month ago, we know that the spring is nicely back in the industry’s sure-footed feet.
The journey of Pickle Yolk Books hasn’t been any different in the ways it finds itself operating in the overall market dynamic. However, it isn’t misplaced to add that we are, perhaps, most uniquely placed to be the fearless flag-bearers of publishing books that do not have to follow trends or a set ‘agenda’ or be crowd-pleasers. It is satisfying to see that our titles resonate deeply with the Indian readers and at the same time travel across borders (through language rights sale) with equal panache. We have been doing this since we began our journey, and are keen on strengthening it as we march on. To my mind, Pickle Yolk’s lean structure with fewer operational liabilities makes us more open to taking publishing risks that the larger publishers would be shy of. But then, I’d also like to pin some of it down to the unbridled passion that’s fuelling it all!
WKL: Which markets do you serve? How do India’s many languages fit into the books you publish?
RJ: We publish and market only in India. However, our titles are available in several languages around the world through the sale of translation rights. As we do books only in English, our titles have also been acquired by publishers of different Indian languages. While only the ones in Hindi are out in the market now, our titles will soon be read by children in Marathi, Bangla, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu; some due for release in the coming months, some, by the end of the year.
WKL: Do you have any particular specialisms or age groups that you cater for?
RJ: I’ll start off by saying what we definitely don’t do: non-fiction, mythology and folk tales. Which leaves pretty much the entire fiction canvas open for stories set in a contemporary milieu.
PYB has consistently created books that display an eclectic array of ideas, narratives and art styles. While most of our picture books will fall under the 3-7 years category, we do not allow ourselves to get constrained by the limitations of creating ‘age appropriate’ books. And as an extension of that, we don’t shy away from making picture books that straddle across the readership spectrum: for young children to those who are older, and yes, for adults, too. The Middle and My Upside Down World both have a distinctly cross-over appeal. In fact, one of the most heartening things has been to see adults picking these up for themselves, or as gifts for their friends.
We have come to be known and celebrated for stories that are not afraid of tackling difficult subjects without sugar coating them. Dance of the Wild (Richa Jha, Ruchi Mhsane) is on childhood nudity in a culture where nudity is almost a taboo subject; Boo! When My Sister Died (Richa Jha, Gautam Benegal) is on coping with a sibling’s passing; Aai and I (Mamta Nainy, Sanket Pethkar) is about the child exploring her identity against the backdrop of cancer; The Tree Boy (Srividya Venkat, Nayantara Surendranath) pivots around loneliness and friendlessness; Machher Jhol’s (Richa Jha, Sumanta Dey) is a refreshingly subtle but sensitive look at physical disability.
Our publishing plan for the next few years, however, is a decided shift to creating narratives that carry themselves forward through the elements of wonder and fun, and some magic realism too (!), with self-discovery at its core. What will not change is that each of the stories is a reflection of the internal worlds of the characters, and how they choose to navigate the challenges that brew, first and foremost, in their minds.
WKL: How do you discover the books you publish? Do you go looking for something specific or do you come across new authors and books by accident?
RL: So far, it’s been a happy mix of everything. While in a couple of instances initially, we did reach out to some fabulous authors, of late, we rely on submissions. Our submissions inbox attracts a range of manuscripts and we find that to be the most fertile place for spotting great fresh talent. Even if a particular story shared may not be something that we might consider at this point in time, a well-crafted manuscript always makes us jump with joy! And we immediately invite the author to keep in touch.
WKL: Do you publish books in translation? If not, do you have any plans to do so in the future?
RJ: We haven’t done it so far, but we are now keenly looking at bringing some home from other languages. Even though I’ve been reading translated books for decades now, it is my sheepish admission that I have only recently come to understand the growing relevance of how even small, independent publishers can play an invaluable role in this ever-growing fractured world of bringing literature from other cultures. (I have the World Kid Lit to thank for this in a big way!).
I would, however, like to add that we do collaborate with some of the finest illustrators from around the world, and we do see that as inviting and assimilating aesthetic and cultural sensitivities that could be different from ours in India.
WKL: What are the main challenges in Indian children’s publishing?
RJ: We are riddled with challenges! But if I were to mention the biggest three, they would be:
- The lack of an efficient and streamlined distribution network. We find it most challenging to make our books available at the physical points of sale in a planned, structured manner.
- Complete lack of state support in terms of either a direct uptake of books in big numbers for public libraries (which mostly haven’t been up and running in decades) or through fellowships and grants to publishers and creators.
- Extremely price-sensitive market. Most readers, schools included, (who fall into the small category that can afford books for leisure reading) are not willing to go beyond the USD2-3 price points making it difficult for children’s publishers to create books of a better quality.
WKL: Our paths very nearly crossed at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair last year. How was your experience of the Fair in 2023? What were any standout moments for you?
RJ: The most delightful thing was to see the publishing world leaving behind the difficult memories of the pandemic years and getting back together with sparkling energy and gusto. Bologna holds a much-treasured place in my heart. I attended my first ever in 2014 with those two initial titles in tow, and have been going there since.
Thanks to the support of the Italian Trade Agency and the BCBF, Pickle Yolk Books was invited this year again to be a part of the World Lounge and I therefore had a brilliantly-located display-desk. And with every passing year, I am recognising more and more the importance of attending as an exhibitor (as opposed to floating around the halls as a visitor – as I did for the first few years). It offers visibility and by extension, the scope to get ‘discovered’. This year too, I had several beautiful serendipitous meet-ups with publishers who happened to be passing-by but suddenly stopped to check out our titles. Each of these connections ended up becoming a Bologna highlight for me!
WKL: Several of your books have gained prizes and recognition. Could you introduce us to one of your award-winners or to a book that wins your personal favourite?
RJ: I’d love to talk about My Upside Down World because it’s a good example of Pickle Yolk Books’ risk-taking appetite as we do not shy away from doing unconventional stories that we believe in.
Written by the prolific Australian author Ken Spillman and illustrated by the talented debut Colombian illustrator Silvana Giraldo (pub, 2021), this made it to the 2022 BRAW Amazing Bookshelves at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and the 2022 Chen Bochui Recommended Books of the Year at the CCBF, Shanghai. This title has Ken’s masterful play with words and situations both believable and unbelievable, and Silvana’s splendidly broken-but-beautiful world that she has brought alive using collage and mixed media, making this a picture book I am proud to have published. It’s about a girl who wakes up one morning to find her world has been turned upside down by her brother (and somewhere along the way, the mother’s head literally explodes!).
Barely a page into the book and the reader is sucked into the parallel worlds with their upside-downness and downside-upness weaving a fantastic, troubled, creased co-existence, both exasperating and reassuring. I love this book because it’s a story that works on multiple levels: read it as a quirky story of squabbling siblings, or of something more global, more sinister; each page leaves the reader peeling layers upon layers. Coming out as it did, bang in the middle of the pandemic which saw the world turned upside down, it took on even stronger relevance because the family became the focal point of our home-bound existence, frustrating for some, reassuring for others, or both for most.
WKL: Many thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today and we wish you much success in the future.
RJ: It’s been a delight sharing the Pickle Yolk story here; thank you! But a bigger thank you to the WKL team for being the untiring champions of children’s literature; the kidlit space is richer for it.
Richa Jha writes fiction for children and social observations for adults. She is the founder and publisher of Pickle Yolk Books, and a passionate believer in the power of picture books. While her stories are for children, she hopes that adults read them too. Books written and published by her have won awards and recognition across Indian and international platforms. She hopes she never gets disillusioned by the magic she sees in picture books.