Children literature Posts

A. F. Harrold’s “The Song from Somewhere Else”

It was music of a short she’d never heard before.

She was suddenly filled with shoals of fish, darting and moving like one great whole, darting and flowing this way and that, darting and flashing, hundreds and hudnreds of silver fish all moving as if they shared one brain. That was what she saw as she heard this faint, distant music. 

No piece of music she’d ever heard on the radio or in the background of a TV show had ever made her feel so special, had made her feel so cared for, so improved.

The smell of the house, the foresty smell, was stronger now. The air was cool on her face. She heard birdsong, smelt moss, rivers, evening. 

But it was unfair, wasn’t it, keeping such beautiful music, such kind and forgiving music, such perfect and clear and mysterious music, to himself? 

It wasn’t his music now though, was it? It was hers. It was in her ears, in her brain, sparking electricity through synapses in ways that made her unable to resist it. She was hooked like a fish.  

A. F. Harrold’s The Song from Elsewhere is about Francesca Patel or Frank as she is often called and her unlikely friendship with her classmate Nick Underbridge, who is often shunned by others for various reasons, probably because he is a large child, quiet and smells odd.  During the summer break Nick rescues Frank from a bunch of boys who have been bullying her for more than a year now. Afterwards Frank accompanies Nick to his house where she encounters this extraordinarily soothing piece of music.

The Song from Elsewhere may be about fantastical creatures and wormholes or leechways opening a passage to another dimension but is also about friendships, exploring boundaries, relationships and bullies. It is an astonishing novel for young readers with a touch of magic realism. Although having said that the novel is positioned well in that space for impressionable minds for whom imaginary friends, elements of the fantastic and other dimensions run in continuum with their reality. It is beautifullly illustrated by Levi Pinfold.

The longlisting of this book for the CILIP Award 2018 is well deserved.

A. F. Harrold The Song from Somewhere Else ( Illustrated by Levi Pinfold) Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 299

22 February 2018 

 

“Time Shifters” by Chris Grine

Time Shifters by Chris Grine is about young Luke who is devastated after a day in the forest spent with his brother. Due to an unfortunate encounter with a bunch of bullies Luke’s beloved brother drowns. Luke is heartbroken just as is his mother. One day while sitting on the back porch he spots a blue light in the forest behind his home. He ventures closer to take a look and before he knows it he is pulled into an adventure that involves time travel, a bunch of strangers and a dinosaur. When in the forest strangest of devices gets clamped on to his forearm. Apparently it enables time travel through the multiverse. It had been accidentally dropped by an odd bunch consisting of a mummy, a skeleton in a spacesuit, and “vampire Napoleon”. Luke is given chase by this extraordinary team who want the device back otherwise they will incur the wrath of their evil master. Fortunately Luke is rescued by an equally odd team: a robot Abe Lincoln, an Asian-featured ghost named Artemis, a dinosaur named Zinc, and Doc—the white inventor who looks a lot like a caricature of Einstein and as it turns out had invented the device on Luke’s arm. To escape from the clutches of the evil creatures Luke and his new friends shift to an alternate Earth where spiders the size of humans inhabit what looks like the Old West. It is a very engrossing read even though the evil folks come across at times like pantomine characters. A spellbinding adventure that works well for young readers particularly for introducing the concept of time travel. The unexpectedly though-provoking conclusion imaginatively opens many conversation spaces with youngsters and old alike!

Highly recommended!

Chris Grine Time Shifters Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2017. Pb. pp. 270 

19 February 2018 

“The Crystal Ribbon” by Celeste Lim and “Untwine” by Edwidge Danticat

Strength of character is never with those who blindly follow. You need to be able to make your own choices and walk your own path. 

The Crystal Ribbon

Celeste Lim’s The Crystal Ribbon is about Jing who belongs to an extremely poor family. In order to have some food on the table the eleven-year-old Jing is sold for five silver pieces to a wealthy Guo family as a bride to their three-year-old son but her primarily role is to be his nursemaid. It is a cruel life and from this household she is sold to a courtesan.  She slowly with the help of a spider and a nightingale she escapes and returns home to her delighted father. She soon finds happiness in being an apprentice to Shenpopo, the shamaness at the local village shrine.

The Crystal Ribbon is historical fantasy with the characters, incidents, and certain places in the story being purely fictional. The story is set in AD 1102, during the Northern Song dynasty in the Taiyuan province of Medieval China and according to the author’s note in the book “much of the detail in the story, such as the practice of tongyang xi, traditional rituals, and the invention of paper money, are historically accurate”. She adds:

“Although the magical elements in the story are fictional, that isn’t to say that the people in those days didn’t believe in such magical creatures and deities; some of the Chinese beliefs, practices, and rituals mentioned in the novel still exist, and certain characters, such as the huli jing, spide jing, and baigu jing, are drawn from classical Chinese literature and compilations such as the Shanhai Jing, Journey to the West, Soushen Li, and Liaozhai Zhiyi.

What I especially hope to bring to attention is the tradition of the tongyang xi. Although the Chinese Communist Party ( CCP) banned this after its establishment, it is still practiced in rural areas, generally among poorer communities. My ama ( grandmother) used to tell us many such horror stories, including one about how our great-grandmother bravely fled China during the great famine and came to settle in Malaysia.” 

Award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat’s Untwine is another stunning book for middle-graders. It is about sixteen-year-old identical twins Giselle and Isabelle Boyer. They are talented musicians and live life like any other teenager except for the strong bond uniting the sisters. Also their life is a bit topsy-turvy for now as their parents have announced their separation though continue to live under the same roof. En route to a concert the family is involved in a horrific accident that rips their family apart. Just as the girls had to be untwined at birth from each other during the C-section performed on their mother, after the accident, Giselle has to learn to untwine herself in every sense of the word from her sister, Isabelle, who is no more. It is an excrutiating process as Giselle feels the absence of her twin sister very strongly.

“Split in half sometimes, and at other times walking, living, breathing for two. Two hearts are beating in one chest,but it feels like no heart at all.”

It is an extremely moving tale for any reader but if you are a twin ( as I am) the searing pain experienced upon reading the story is unforgettable.

Both the books —The Crystal Ribbon and Untwine –are written for young adult readers expressly but they are both such magnificently exquisite stories told ever so elegantly that they will be forever treasured.

Celeste Lim The Crystal Ribbon Scholastic Press, New York, 2017. Hb. pp.340 

Edwidge Danticat Untwine: A Novel Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. pp. 310

( Both the books are available in India courtesy Scholastic India as well.)

16 February 2018 

Scholastic Corporation Rings the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell

On 14 February 2018 to coincide with the birthday of beloved children’s character Clifford, Scholastic Corporation Rang the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell .

[Here is the text from the press release]

Scholastic Corporation (Nasdaq: SCHL), the global children’s publishing, education and media company, will visit the Nasdaq MarketSite in Times Square on Valentine’s Day in honor of Clifford The Big Red Dog’s birthday.

Dick Robinson, Chairman, President and CEO of Scholastic, will be joined by the beloved literary icon Clifford as well as Scholastic employees with their children to ring the Opening Bell. For more than 55 years, Clifford has added joy to the lives of millions of children and has grown from a bestselling book series by the late, great Norman Bridwell into an iconic global brand. Today, there are more than 130 million Clifford books in print – plus a Clifford television series (currently on Netflix and through iTunes and Google Play), toys, games, ebooks, and interactive products, so that children can interact with Clifford wherever and whenever they like.

****

Scholastic India have a large presence locally too.

15 February 2018 

Bear Grylls Adventures

Given how more and more children are being reared in urban settings it is getting tougher for them to be close to nature. For instance I was very surprised to watch the look of astonishment on a seven-year-old boy’s face when I was explaining crop cycles. Till then he was under the impression that the fresh produce arrived in the shop magically. Well, he was clued in sufficiently to realise people carted it in but was not curious enough to ask where did it actually come from? Where was it grown? So if urbanisation is robbing children of this basic knowledge of farming / nature under normal circumstances. Imagine how challenging it is to explain to the children on how to manage themselves in diverse ecosystems particularly at the time of natural disasters.

There is a paucity of literature on how adults should behave when a natural disaster strikes. What are the immediate responses and how to survive the long haul. ( Within this there are other complications of gendered responses, fragile situations and how to rehabilitate.) There is even less literature available for children on how they should respond in such situations. And if there is, it is mostly confined to Girl Guide or Boy Scout manuals, not necessarily accessible to the majority of children. Also books on disaster management need to be pitch perfect while communicating to the children rather than talking down to them. It will inevitably result in a brain freeze on the part of the kids and builld a resistance. This is where the Bear Grylls Adventures, a series of slim chapter books, created by noted adventurer and survival expert Bear Grylls are a delight to read. Simply told adventure stories in different settings where within the plot the young readers are shown how to respond and behave in different scenarios — earthquakes, blizzards, desert, jungles, sea and river. A pleasure to read these pitch perfect books.

In India the books have been published by Bloomsbury India. They are a set of six books reasonably priced and a must in every school library if not in every child’s personal library. In fact the importance the publishers rightly give to these series was evident at the posters displayed in their world book fair stall held in Delhi.

Bear Grylls Adventures by Bear Grylls. Illustrated by Emma McCann. Bear Grylls is an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, a Bonnier Publishing Company, Great Britain, 2017. ( In India the books are distributed by Bloomsbury India and are priced at Rs 199 each.) 

8 February 2018 

 

Good Night series

Penguin Random House India recently released four titles in the Good Night series — Good Night IndiaGood Night DelhiGood Night Mumbai and Good Night Rajasthan.  These have been released as board books meant for pre-schoolers. They are fascinating little books which primarily highlight the main sights of the particular location. Apparently the Good Night Books are a series launched in USA. According to the website: 

The Good Night Books Series of board books has been designed and developed since 2005 to celebrate special places and themes in a way that young children, ages 0-5, can easily relate to and enjoy with their families. All the books are written and illustrated with a simplicity that captures the “essence” of each subject and place.

Every book is printed in bright colors on high-quality board to endure the attention of young children. All have six-inch by six-inch pages, making for large 12 x 6 open page spreads.

Each title takes its readers through the passage of a day (“good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening,” and “good night”). And most titles, if set in a place with seasonality, also include the seasons of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). Children are further introduced to the practice of using polite salutations and greetings, all while being lulled to a good night’s sleep.

The series is, in part, inspired by Walt Whitman’s poems, such as the classic book Leaves of Grass and the famous poem “Song of Myself,” in which the poet catalogs item after item, in a process whereby the mere naming of each item draws attention to it and thus imbues it with a sense of import. The Good Night Our World Series tries to recognize and celebrate the world in a Whitmanesque spirit.

It is a good idea of PRH India to launch the books in India. There is a lack of board books meant for young Indian readers. Also the four titles selected for the local market would work extremely well with tourists as well.

Good Night Series, PRH India, Board books, Rs 299 each

5 February 2018 

“Amulet” series by Kazu Kibuishi

The Amulet series is about two siblings Emily and Navin who after losing their father in a car accident move into an old house that belonged to their great-grandfather. While browsing through the dusty library of their ancestor the children discover an amulet which Emily promptly puts on. She soon discovers it has magical powers. It is in this house that their adventures begin once their mother is kidnapped by an odd tentacled creature. The set of seven books is about the children giving chase to the creature, coming upon their dying great grandfather, rescuing their mother but also stumbling across a parallel fantasy world which is a cross between steampunk and the fantastic. Classically there is the tussle between the good and the evil that the children have to combat but it is also about the importance of an individual’s will power against external forces. In this case it is Emily not only leading the motley group of creatures and her brother into battle while simultaneously battling the force  of the Amulet which is trying to overpower her and control her.

It is a series of books that will appeal to 8+ readers onwards. The illustrations are complex and crowd every page. At times there are frames that would work ideally as a flip book and not necessarily as a segment of a graphic novel. Kazu Kibuishi is primarily an animator who abandoned the comic form to become a professional animation artist. After a few years he returned to the comic book form — telling stories through words and still pictures on the printed page. It is fascinating to see how the artist/storyteller attempts to bring his experiences on to the page. Undoubtedly it is a long series with the eighth volume expected later in 2018. Yet I could not help but feel that the artist is experimenting by converting his animation skills to a comic strip. At times this works at a disadvantage for the books since the storytelling becomes thin at times in favour of the fancy foot work of the artist.

Having said that the young readers are utterly charmed by the books and this series is a steady seller. It was evident at the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Jan 2018 with youngsters crowding around the graphic novel section. Copies of this particular series were flying off the shelves.

 

Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, Scholastic India, Pb. 

5 February 2018 

World Book Fair, 6-14 January 2018

Ever since the World Book Fair moved to January instead of the second week of February there has been a tremendous growth in the number of visitors. Year-on-year there are long queues of people waiting patiently to enter the enter the fair grounds at Pragati Maidan. This year the fair was held in only a small area of the exhibition grounds as much of Pragati Maidan has been demolished. It will be a few years before the new buildings are built. Meanwhile the publishers were placed in some halls and tents. The visitors to the fair walked alongside workers in hard hats and enormous Caterpillar diggers shovelling earth to create mountains taller than the exhibition halls. There were potholes in the roads and a general mess everywhere. Yet it did not seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm to buy books. As in previous years there were buyers trailing suitcases on wheels to pack in the books they would buy. In fact a senior publisher I met during the fair said that the shift to January has been a boon for them as their sales grow better and better with every year.

The World Book Fair is organised by the National Book Trust. It began in the early 1970s when it was a bi-annual affair before being made an annual feature. It began with the intention of making books accessible and popularising reading. Over the years it has slowly acquired some characteristics of a trade fair with its specific B2B meetings, a Rights Table, panel discussions, an increasing number of international visitors etc. This year the guest of honour was the European Union. The business collaborations that happen unexpectedly at the fair are incredible. Such as this of third-generation publisher Raphael Israel. An Indian Jew who met his Palestinian clients at the fair couple of years. It is now one of the happiest business relationships! 

Yet at the heart of it the book fair remains a B2C fair with visitors coming from around the country to buy books. In India there are bookshops but not enough to cater to the vast multi-lingual population. The presence of online retailers over the past few years has helped foster the reading habit among many especially in tier-2 and tier-3 towns. This was a sentiment expressed by many publishers participating in the fair. This time there were definitely larger number of customers many of whom were browsing through the shelves to discover more for themselves. While browsing online is convenient and helpful, algorithm driven searches do not necessarily help in discovering a variety of books for the readers. This is where the display cases at fairs and bookshops help tremendously.

There were visitors of all ages and even people using walking sticks or in wheel chairs braving the potholes and dust swirling around. It did help greatly that the winter break of schools had been extended due to the excessive chill. So families came to spend their day at the book fair, browsing, buying and having a picnic. Surprisingly the crowds came even during the designated business hours so that by the afternoon it was impossible to walk through the crush of people. Over the weekends the crowds were incredible. Publishers of children’s and young adult literature were delighted with the response. Sales were unprecedented for many whereas others managed to break even. Comments such as this were often overheard: Child telling parent “Don’t say you will buy the book online. Buy it now!” Sales of the trade and academic publishers were brisk as well but some reported poorer sales than last year citing the poor location as the major reason for lack of visitors. The Hindi publishers were satisfied with the response with some saying that the usual growth of sales of 15-20% which is commensurate with the growth of their publishing y-o-y was evident. Interestingly enough this year there was a significant presence of self-publishers. Sadly though this year there was a very low turnout of Indian regional language publishers. Curiously enough the stalls of the few who participated such as the Bengali, Marathi and Urdu publishers, their signboards were written in Hindi!

This was the first time that audio books made their presence felt. For example, the Swedish firm Storytel is partnering with publishers in Hindi, English and Marathi. An audio tower had been placed in the stall of Hindi publishers, Rajkamal Prakashan, where 60 audio books could be sampled. Apart from this there was evidence of newcomers who had put up stalls showcasing their storytelling websites/apps/storycards that had a digital audio version too. These were individual efforts. It was also rumoured that other bigger players could be expected to make an entrance into the Indian publishing ecosystem. Perhaps they will announce their presence at the next world book fair, January 2019?

Undoubtedly the local book market is growing as there are still many first generation buyers of books in India. Despite the vast variety of books on display it was the backlist of most publishers which was moving rapidly. Pan Macmillan India for instance had a corner dedicated to their Macmillan Classics that were very popular. Interestingly the branded authors such as Enid Blyton, Bear Grylls and J. K. Rowling had entire shelves dedicated to their works. At a time when most authors are jostling for space to be seen and heard, these generous displays by publishers for a single author were a testimony to the significance and influence they wield with readers. Obviously the long tail of backlists are good business. Repro is collaborating with Ingram to offer Print On Demand ( POD) services. These work well for those with significant backlists that need to be kept alive for customers but to avoid excessive warehousing costs and tying up cash in stock, it is best to offer POD services to customers. The demand for  a backlist title of a specific publishing house is fulfilled by vendors who use the marketplaces offered by online retailers. The cost of the title purchased is higher than if it had been part of a print run but this arrangement works favourably for everyone concerned.

While browsing through the bookshelves it was not uncommon to notice readers either standing absorbed in reading or sitting peacefully crosslegged on the floor reading through the books they had shortlisted. What was remarkable was how serenely they sat despite the crowds milling around them. If there were displays on tables as at the DK India stall and the regional language stalls, people were standing and reading calmly.

 

Happily a large number of younger customers thronged the fair and buying. Even though some publishers said that few people haggled for discounts the crowds at the secondhand and remaindered stalls had to be seen. There was such a melee. Books were being sold for as little as 3 for Rs 100! While publishers were not amused at the presence of these remaindered stalls doing brisk business, customers were delighted that for a small amount of money they could buy a pile of books.

All said and done it was a satisfying book fair. Hats off to the National Book Trust team for running it so smoothly and efficiently every year!

 

30 January 2018 

 

 

 

Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Mint ( 18 Nov 2017)

My interview with the fabulous Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah was published in The Mint on 18 Nov 2017. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion” that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith”. Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head”.

It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January 2018 by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?

When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?” This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.

It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?

I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age” during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.

How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?

That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!

It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?

It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.

The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?

Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.

Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?

Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.
23 January 2018 

Julia Donaldson in India, Interaction with educators, New Delhi ( 19 January 2018)

Scholastic India organised a FABULOUS interaction led by Julia Donaldson’s with educators,  teachers and  librarians at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. It was a technically perfect  masterclass on how  storytelling and  picturebooks can be employed  imaginatively in classrooms, with minimal or NO props, involving all the children, with a little bit of rhythm, song and dance, opening a world of possibilities!

Neeraj Jain, MD, Scholastic India standing in front of a display of Julia Donaldson’s books

Julia Donaldson spoke of her journey from a musician/songwriter making an unexpected foracy in to the world of books and how very fortuitous it turned out. She spoke of her collaboration with Axel Scheffler and other illustrators. She performed some of her better known stories such as  Gruffalo transforming the room of schoolteachers into little children as they sang along with her! She was accompanied on the guitar by her husband Malcolm and a supporting cast that included her publishers from UK and India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A magical morning!

19 January 2018