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On Editing Children’s Literature Textbooks

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Deepali Agarwal

Staff Writer

Deepali Agarwal has a Master’s in literary linguistics, which means that every person she’s ever known has, at some point, asked her to ‘edit a thing’ for them-- ‘just see if it reads okay?’ She doesn’t mind, because she believes that the world can be fixed one oxford comma at a time. Deepali lives in Delhi, the capital of India, where cows are sacred, but authors and poets exist and write brilliant things. She works as an editor with OUP India’s School ELT division, where she moves apostrophes, looks up pictures of cats, and talks about children’s books for eight hours. The rest of her day is spent reading, thinking about Parks and Recreation, and wondering if there exist jobs for English majors that pay more than peanuts. Twitter: @DeepaliAgarwal_

This is a guest post from Deepali Agarwal. Deepali edits books for Oxford University Press India. Loves all things meta and watches all the sitcoms. Feels extremely strongly about the Oxford comma, linguistic quirks in books, and Parks and Recreation. Follow her on Twitter @DeepaliAgarwal_.


It’s been six months since I joined my first ever job as an Editorial Assistant with the ELT division of an Indian publishing house. We develop, edit, and illustrate (more on that some other time) manuscripts that go on to become textbooks across Indian schools. Our input, though never considered sacrosanct (that’s the author’s job; they get the name on the cover, after all) are valuable and have the potential to make a difference. This input begins from the first stage (choosing pieces we feel are apt for a particular grade) to the last, wherein we inevitably entangle ourselves into debates over the use of commas.

Regarding this first stage, I’ve learned lessons and have had countless eureka moments about what literature means to different people. Teachers in Indian schools want more “classical” selections in their textbooks; now the term might seem subjective and open to discussion for us, but they’re very clear on what the classics mean to them. They want Austen and Dickens, with a smattering of Shakespeare so that the students are introduced to the greats that represent all “good” literature. And of course, no Indian textbook is complete without a homage to Indian literature– throw in a poem by Sarojini Naidu and a story by Rabindranath Tagore, and we’re all set. Between the teachers’ demands and what’s been “tried and tested” for years, nobody really gives the students what they want and what they need. I’m not saying that texts by the list of authors mentioned above do not have literary merit, but surely these are just a minuscule and one-dimensional part of the reading material out there that is useful.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'EngleAs editors, we’re given bits and pieces of liberties here and there; to suggest an excerpt we feel would add to a student’s reading experience, and to diversify the mix of pieces that will undoubtedly define not only an year of a student’s reading, but their potential worldview. This month, for instance, I’m trying to sneak in an excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle’s brilliant A Wrinkle in Time into a 6th grade textbook that I’m developing and editing. In my mind it has tremendous value, with a determined, spunky female protagonist, and some exceptionally useful embedded narratives about what being different is all about- whether you look, speak, or behave differently than the others students in your classroom, whether you come from a different culture and background, or have different ideas of what is wrong and what is right. I always knew that literature was powerful, but this power is magnified in a country where the consumption of beef was made illegal last year, and religious references are best avoided in textbooks, lest the government charges us for sedition (I wish I were kidding here). Here’s to hoping that reading about Meg Murry makes a child somewhere have faith in herself, and revel in being different.