Children literature Posts

“I’m a REAL Boy” by Clayton Koh

The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.

This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’s I’m a Real Boy are extremely useful.  Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.

Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:

[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.

“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity deve­loped in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.

“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.

He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.

“But in terms of interests or ­certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”

He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.

“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.

Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).

Later Diksha adds:

Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.

Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80

22 June 2018 

Read more on “Literature and inclusiveness” ( Nov 2016)

Sarah Moon’s “Sparrow”

And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take. 

Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrow is about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.

Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going  to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.

Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:

Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression  actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
( In fact Dr Kala is also a debut author with his forthcoming collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness)

In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:

…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back. 

Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fall this is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.

Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.

Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270 

21 June 2018

 

 

 

Eid Stories

Today is Eid-ul-Fitr celebrated after a month of Ramzan. Scholastic India published a slim collection of stories to celebrate the festival called Eid Stories. New stories commissioned by established writers like Paro Anand, Siddhartha Sarma, Adithi Rao, Rukhsana Khan, Shahrukh Husain, Devashish Makhija, Samina Mishra and Lovleen Misra. Every single story is extraordinarily powerful.

Paro Anand’s “After that, in Mumbai” is a devastating story about a young boy Ayub being attacked by his classmates for being a Muslim, a terrorist, who is out to kill everyone. This violence broke out after the Mumbai blasts. His parents are appalled given that his father is the Muslim and his mother is a Christian so brought their son up in a secular environment. So with the willing help of the school administration they speak to the class to sensitize them about Islam and invite everyone home to celebrate Eid.

Adithi Rao’s Sweets for Shankar” is a heartbreaking story about the friendship of twelve-year-olds Munna and Shankar set against the backdrop of Partition. The boys work together as apprentices in a shoe shop but it is all abandoned and Munna is asked to stop working by his master since riots have broken out. Even though it is more than seven decades after Independence these stories are very painful to read as the communal violence persists in India.

Award-winning filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s “Red 17: An Eid Story” is a compelling read about an ex-policeman Nandu who became deaf in a bomb blast. He  lost his wife in the terrorist attack. He now works as an assistant in a laundromat owned by Liayqat as he has to pay for his son’s education. While at work he is asked to return the coat of a customer Feroze Aslam in time for Eid. Unfortunately when he goes to Feroze’s house Nandu discovers that Feroz has died. Shocked he goes home where he decides to keep the smart coat, resize it and gift it to his son, Baiju. Few days later he is stricken by guilt and goes to return it to Feroze’s widow who very calmly asks Nandu to keep the coat. She said it was her husband’s wish. It may have been written years ago but it is a fitting milestone in Devashish Makhija’s oeuvre which consists of short stories, picture books and short films like Agli Baar that have a recurring theme of communal violence.

Inevitably all the stories in Eid Stories celebrate the joyous festival while introducing tough topics for children such as prejudice, and bigotry. These stories were first published in 2010 but nearly a decade later they continue to be relevant, perhaps more today than before. The violence in India is rampant and tearing apart its democratic and secular fabric. Children may as well learn early that ethnic violence is not acceptable; India is to be celebrated for its diversity and inclusiveness!

Perhaps it is fitting on this day that Rahul Pandita posted his grief-stricken message on Eid for journalist Shujat Bukhaari who was slain on the eve of Eid in Srinagar. This message is even more poignant as they belong to different communities in a state that has been ravaged by terrible ethnic violence for decades. Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri Pandit and the late Shujat Bukhaari was a Kashmiri Muslim.

As Badi Ammi wisely advises her grandchildren in Lovleen Misra’s short story that the spirit of Eid is to be applied to life: In giving to others, you give to yourself . . . Keep giving. 

Eid Stories Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2010. Rpt. 2018. Pb. pp. 114 Rs. 195 

16 June 2018 

DK Reference books for children

Quite often adults seek age appropriate non-fiction books for their children/students that will give authentic information. In the information age where plenty of free “content” is to be found online it is not very easy persuading people to buy encyclopaedias for their wards. It is a seemingly expensive proposition when free information is readily available. Yet it is worth considering that little children’s brains are like tabula rasas who could benefit from sponging correct information rather than having to unlearn knowledge later in life. It is far more challenging to forget and start afresh rather than build upon a well-established foundation. Another school of thought claims that there is absolutely no need to give children expensive reference books to browse through. It is best such books are kept in the “ready reference” section of school libraries for them to consult on a need-to basis. I do not agree.

Take for instance Explanatorium Nature which offers a look at how nature works.  It is a scrumptiously produced encyclopaedia with generous double-page spreads explaining basic processes such as how do the stingers of bees work? How do mantis and geckos hunt? How do humming birds hover? How do frogs communicate? How do snakes move? Even the metamorphosis cycle which in earlier textbooks were confined to illustrations is beautifully explained with pictures taken at different stages of a frog’s cycle from that of a tadpole to an adult.  Questions are not confined to the world visible to the naked eye but micro-organisms are also discussed. No expense seems to have been spared in using pictures taken with electron microscopes to show how does algae grow? How does mould work? These are questions about nature that are forever being asked by children and adults alike. To have it produced in such a luscious publication will make a child browse through a book and read it. In all likelihood also shun electronic engagement for it is ultimately a beautiful book to possess too.

A similarly spectacular set of book are the Super series made in collaboration with the Smithsonian — Super Bug, Super Human, Super Nature and Super Shark. Take Super Bug for instance which has the most remarkable photography to discuss a few unusual bugs found on earth. Many of these insects look very menacing when looking at these magnified images published. Every tiny detail down to the tiny hair sensors on their legs, their eyes, antennae, devouring prey and even the spiracles found in a centipede are visible. Horrifyingly accurate photography that are mesmerising to little children. Young readers are absolutely unfazed by the creepy-crawlies magnified so many times to their actual size. It is an incredible way to showcase information and for the child to learn. It has the additional advantage of teaching children to be sensitive to the “invisible” world of living organisms around them as every individual is critical to earth’s biodiversity and important this ecology is preserved.

The physical landscape is equally intriguing for little minds that are just gaining consciousness about the world around them. Children are curious by nature. They also observe sharply and have a million questions. For instance, how are waves formed? Why do earthquakes occur? Why do mountains exist? How do volcanic eruptions happen? Why do different seasons exist? Why do we have day and night? These are complex questions as they delve into physical geography but children have to start somewhere. They may as well begin looking at Geography A Children’s Encyclopedia which has pictures and illustrations showing simply and clearly different physical formations. At the same time without dumbing down information using technically accurate terminology so that the young reader begins  to form a firm foundation of knowledge about the earth.

Designed in similar spirit to educate, inform while being visually accurate is The Complete Human Body: The Definitive Visual GuideFrom the smallest component that of a cell to different body systems are described. The book is divided into five sections — the integrated body which explains evolution and cellular structures, the anatomy with the main body systems described in detail, how the body works goes into greater depth as to how each system such as the nervous system or the reproductive system works, the life cycle, and diseases and disorders. Some adults may not take kindly to such a comprehensive encyclopaedia being recommended for children for its very detailed information about the human body especially the reproductive system. On the contrary such a book is a must in every household and multiple copies of it in school libraries as it is better the next generation is accurately informed rather than misinformed and perpetuate myths about their bodies through gossip and hearsay. Also having such a book within the home or school will hopefully enable honest and frank conversations between adults and children rather than never opening up communication channels for such topics as in many homes subjects about the human body continue to be taboo.

While on the question of mechanics, two other DK publications by David Macaulay, are equally stupendous — How Machines Work and  The Way Things Work Now: From Levers to Lasers, Windmills to Wi-fi, a Visual Guide to the World of MachinesHow Machines Work won the Royal Society’s Young People’s Prize 2016 for it is an interactive book using book production ingenuity of a pop-up book combined with that of encyclopaedic information to explain the basic principle of mechanics. For instance that of levers has a set of levers embedded in the book cover that the child can play with. The concept of a lever and a fulcrum and its applications are not always easily understood by young minds; yet in this incredible spread there are tiny elements tucked into the page which a child can pick up and use to understand how a see-saw functions, how is a balancing act achieved or even how extraordinarily heavy loads are easily picked up using the lever system. Way Things Work is a very popular DK title that has been in existence for many years and has been revised and updated a few times as well, most recently in 2016. It explains simply the principles and working of many machines ranging from screws at work, sewing machines, chain hoists, aqualung, amplifier, solar cells, fingertip input, helicopters, smartphones, wi-fi, satellite navigation, speech recognition etc. It is a reference book that is entertaining, informative while being heavily illustrated it will fascinate any young reader.

Finally a book like the Home Lab: Exciting Experiments for Budding Scientists which won the Royal Society’s Young People’s Award Book Prize 2017 and the best STEM publication of the year is a well-laid out book explaining simply how to conduct basic experiments at home. For instance making rubber band planets, how to make a battery out of a lemon to learn about electrical circuits, how to make invisible ink, how to make a breathing machine, to create stunning stalactites or even how to create a DNA model. Application of encyclopaedic knowledge garnered and learning applications of it using ingredients found mostly at home is a fabulous way of introducing children to experiential learning. It is a form of learning that children are never likely to forget. Also it will teach them mental agility to apply their bookish knowledge.

Increasingly it has become critical in this noisy world that children learn skills and acquire knowledge rather than remain passive recipients of information as many become addicted to electronic engagement. It is this space of being entertaining, informative and offering a deeply immersive experience that these exquisitely produced DK books offer to children. These are definitely expensive books and may not always be easily considered by many parents who are constantly trying to balance household budgets. Yet to buy these titles for the children is undoubtedly a great investment as it is extremely rewarding watching a child get absorbed in the books and later watch in fascination how they regurgitate the knowledge gained. It is a magical transformation and well worth considering!

All these titles are essential go-to reference books meant for children.

All the books mentioned have been published by Dorling Kindersley or DK and are available in bookstores and online retail stores.

15 June 2018 

“Sorry, Best Friend!”

Sorry, Best Friend! is a collection of stories edited by noted writers Githa Hariharan and late Shama Futehally. The stories are about children discovering / encountering friends and neighbours who are different from  us in some way or the other — the way they look, their dress, languages they speak, even the food they eat or even pray to different gods. Ultimately we need to remember that we are all part of one big jigsaw puzzle that is India. According to the editors if we forget that all of us are a part of this puzzle then “very quickly, as if we were never one, we break into a hundred pieces”. The contributors include eminent writers such as Swapna Dutta, Poile Sengupta and Zai Whitaker. Given that this book was published in 1997 they refer to two major incidents of the immediate past when communal violence broke out after the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi (1984) and later destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (1992). Subsequently India has experienced many more and regular instances of communal violence notably the riots that broke out in Gujarat after the burning of the train in Godhra (2002). Now communal intolerance is a regular feature of daily existence with lynchings becoming the horrific new normal.

Sorry, Best Friend! has been published many times over; testament to the frightening relevance of these stories for young children. It is a book that needs to be read widely by children and adults widely.

Githa Hariharan and Shama Futehally (eds.) Sorry, Best Friend! Tulika Publishers, Chennai, 1997, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 70 Rs. 85 

( It is available in English and Hindi )

15 June 2018 

Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs

Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs is a visual delight apart from beingpacked with information. The well-recognised dinosaurs such as Triceratops ( Three-horned face), Mamenchisaurus, Kentrosaurus ( Spiked Lizard) and Tyrannosaurus Rex ( Tyrant Lizard King) are described beautifully. There are full-page colour spreads with exciting information about each highlighted in a comment bubble within the illustration. Alongside it is an illustration in a box comparing the height of a human being to that of the dinosaur. Neatly presented in a panel on the side is the geographical location of the dinosaur, in which year were the fossils first discovered, dimensions of the animal, and its diet. Without it being too much of an information overload, details about the dinosaurs are presented so clearly with simple visual layouts and a clean font used that even I for the first time in years has finally understood in one fell swoop what Trynnosaurus Rex is all about. It is utterly brilliant.

Triceratops

Tyrannosaurus Rex

Titanosaurus Indicus

Dinosaur books exist by truck loads in the market. A significant proportion of storybooks for children particularly for pre-schoolers rely upon dinosaurs. Many times they are anthropomorphised. The dinosaurs often used are Trynnosaurus Rex and Mamenchisaurus, so much so these complicated names come tripping off the tongues of tiddlers. Most of the dinosaurs children are familiar with are found in USA, Europe and China.

Kotasaurus

Laevisuchus Indicus

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where the Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs is exceptional. It has mentioned the few dinosaurs found in India like Titanosaurus Indicus, Kotasaurus, Laevisuchus Indicus, Rajasaurus Narmadensis, and Therizinosaurus. What is truly astonishing is that these dinosaurs were drawn by Krishna Bala Shenoi based on the evidence  available.

Rajasaurus Narmadensis

The editors and illustrator did try and search for illustrations that may have existed based on the skeletal remains discovered except that no satisfactorily clear images were to be found. This is what the illustrator Krishna Bala Shenoi had to say about the process:

Indian dinosaurs haven’t been represented in a plethora of paleoart or scientific reconstructions in the way that most commonly known dinosaurs have been, for a variety of reasons. The references I had to work with (some given to me, some discovered online) were so few in number, so lacking in detail and, most significantly, so contradictory between themselves that I had to do a lot of fairly unscientific guesswork.

Therizinosaurus

My process came down to collecting the images I could, constructing a notion of the dinosaur that sort of fit the multiple references, and then filling in the blanks with details from similar dinosaurs that had richer libraries of visual resources. In one case, I used images of a toy dinosaur (different from the one I was illustrating) as a springboard for the construction of the dinosaur’s body.

I was initially very reluctant with every move I made, fearing I was way off the mark, but later discovered how wrong paleoart has been over the years. That was comforting in a way; it gave me permission to be okay with, essentially, making some details up. So I just had fun with it.

I illustrate digitally, but there’s a misconception that that means it’s not hand drawn. It very much is. I work on a device called a graphic tablet which ports my drawing/painting from the tablet surface onto my computer screen in real time.

This is an extraordinary achievement and is a testament to how much effort the editorial team is willing to put in to make available authentic information in a stunning layout.

This is a book for keeps. To be read. To be shared. To be bought for reference, libraries and school resource materials.

To be gifted liberally simply for the pleasure of holding and reading a beautiful book.

Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Pb. pp. 80. Rs 399

Reading level: 9 – 16 

Amazon

Flipkart 

30 May 2018 

#Horror

#Horror ( Amazon and Flipkart)  is an anthology of horror stories for middle grade.  It consists of various young writers most of whom debut with their stories. Journalist and writer Siddhartha Sarma is the only writer who has previously won a literary prize too — Crossword Prize for his powerful young adult novel The Grasshopper’s Run. It is a pleasure to see his comeback story “Hive” as the opening short story. It sets the right tenor for the volume with its mildly comic plot and an unexpected twist.

The stories are original with familiar themes of zombies, ghosts, school scenarios etc. ( Vampires are missing!) Some of the writers who stand out are Satadru Mukherjee with his magnificently creepy “Wives’ Tale”. It is going to be a while before I can look at a lizard again without freaking out about the ghosts the reptiles may harbour! Anuj Gupta with his freaky “The Smiling Portrait” nudges the perfectly ordinary into a dark, disturbingly sinister space — its very unsettling! Anukta Ghosh ‘s “The Night Bus” may seem to be a predictable ghost story but in her quietly restrained, elegant writing style, she makes the story magical.

#Horror is undoubtedly a sparkling set of stories with a few experiments in formats too — unusual offering in an otherwise predominantly prose collection. For instance C G Salamander and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya’s short story in graphic format “The Textbook” is unforgettable particularly the last frame. “Eterni-tree”, the long poem in rhyming couplets by Kairavi Bharat Ram is astonishing for how it operates at two levels — one of telling a story pleasantly but at another level, the existence of the chilling undercurrent, is fairly mature storytelling for one so young. Kairavi Bharat Ram is a gap-year student with another publication written while she was still in school — Ramayana in Rhyme.

The well-thought out arrangement of the stories is just as it should be. Beginning with the seasoned writer Siddhartha Sarma and slowly introducing new and strong voices, with the subjects ranging from the familiar to the unusual. Thereby ensuring the young readers are not too taken aback by completely unfamiliar themes. An equal amount of care seems to have been taken with the layout and design. There is a crispness with the speckled look for the double page spread between stories, with an illustration to hint at what is to come.

Many of these stories beg to be read over and over again. The stories have the charming, old-fashioned, languid style of storytelling that absorb one completely from the word go. Adults will love the book too!

#Horror is the perfect introduction to horror stories for middle graders. It is also the launch of a fine new generation of young writers who are going to make their mark in years to come.

Grab #Horror asap!

#Horror Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India. Pb. pp. 120 Rs 299

Reading level: 10+ to young adults 

 

29 May 2018 

Fostering a reading culture / Happy Mother’s Day!

(C) Sudhanva Deshpande

(An extended version of this article was published on Bibliobibuli, my blog on Times of India, on Saturday 12 May 2018. Bibliobibuli focuses on publishing and literature.) 

Every Labour Day, the May Day Bookstore & Café holds a big book sale. It consists mostly of second-hand books being sold at reasonable prices and customers flock to the store. This year was no different. Later Sudhanva Deshpande, Managing Editor, LeftWord Books, posted a picture on social media platforms he had taken of a mother holding a tiny pile of books while her daughter stood by watching expectantly. It is a very powerful picture as it works at multiple levels. It is obvious the mother is in charge of her daughter’s education and is keen she learns further. She is the primary force. She is determined to buy the books for her child even though she can ill-afford the small number of books in her hand. The mother had only Rs 10 to pay for the books. She was short of money and unable to pay the billed amount. The unfortunate seemingly admonishing finger in the picture is not really doing what it seems to be doing according to the photographer. The bookshop attendants were telling the mother to take the books away and pay later, whenever she could!

(C) Mayank Austen Soofi

Books are respected all over the world but in India they are revered. Few can afford them and those who can, treasure what they possess. This picture by The Delhi Walla, epitomises it splendidly where the few books owned by the security guard are placed on the same shelf as the portrait of the god. It is understandable that the mother in the picture wishes her daughter to be literate as with it comes respect. For her to be in a bookstore is a path breaking moment. It symbolises the crumbling of a notional barrier of what is traditionally perceived as a popular middle class cultural space — the bookstore. Brick and mortar stores by their very definition tend to be exclusive even if some owners do not desire it to be so. Whereas the reality is that footfalls are restricted to those who are comfortable in these elitist spaces.

This is a sad truth because a thriving reading culture is critical for the well-being of a community and by extension the society. The Scholastic India Kids and Family Reading Report ( KFRR) found that “Parents and children agree by a wide margin that

John Travolta’s house with the airplane parked in it. (Image taken off the internet)

strong reading skills are among the most important skills children should have.” Undoubtedly reading opens a world of possibilities. When Hollywood actor John Travolta gave an interview to magazine editor Priya Kumari Rana ( Outlook Splurge, November 2015, Vol 6) he recalled reading Gordon’s Jet Flight (1961) as a child. It was about a little boy who took his first flight on a 707. At the time the 707 was the last word in aviation. It triggered an ambition and a dream. Today, Travolta not only is a trained pilot but owns a 707!

Buying books continues to be a dream for many individuals and families across the globe. American country singer Dolly Parton likes to give away books with her Imagination Library. In Feb 2018 she crossed the 100 millionth book. Writer Jojo Myes has pledged to save UK Charity Quick Reads ( Reading Agency ) from closure by funding its adult literacy programme for the next three years. Outreach community programmes are critical for fostering a reading culture particularly if access to existing cultural spaces are restricted.

Recently HarperCollins India organised an innovative book launch for children’s author Deepa Agarwal’s Sacked:Folktales You Can Carry Around. It involved a reading for children with hearing loss. So  while the author spoke there was a person standing next to her using sign language to translate what was being said. Recognising this need to foster reading, the nearly 100-year-old firm Scholastic  ran a very successful Twitter campaign in India (Sept 2017) where every retweet ensured a book donation to a community library. The publishing firm donated approximately 2000 books. Now they are running a similar campaign for Mother’s Day 2018 (Sunday, 13 May 2018) where a picture uploaded of a mother and a child reading will get one lucky family a book hamper.

Reading is a social activity. New readers need role models and encouragement. This is captured beautifully in feminist Kamla Bhasin’s nursery rhyme ( available in Hindi and English).

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

 

No mad rush to get to school

No timetable, no strict rule.

Mother’s home and so is father

All of us are here together.

 

Father’s like a busy bee

Making us hot cups of tea.

Mother sits and reads the news

Now and then she gives her views.

 

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

Kamla Bhasin, “It’s Sunday”

Noted Karnatik vocalist T. M Krishna in his book Reshaping Art makes an important point where he argues art has to break its casteist, classist and gender barriers and be welcoming to all particularly if cultural landscape has to expand. He asks for the inner workings of the art form to be infused with social and aesthetic sensitivity.

T. M. Krishna practices what he preaches. In December 2017 he sang a Tamil sufi song of Nagoor Hanifa which T.M. Krishna performed in a British-era Afghan Church in Colaba, Mumbai. He ended his performance with an invocation to allah in the church. Since then he has done other such performances.

Breaking cultural barriers and making books readily accessible and contributing to the growth of readers is exactly what the publishing ecosystem has to strive for. And as Kamla Bhasin rightly says the personal is political. There is nothing purely private or public. Every personal act of ours affects society. The act of reading and encouraging their children to read by mothers is not always welcomed in households, even today. Literacy empowers women with ideas, the ability to think and question for themselves, an act that is most often seen as defiance especially within very strongly patriarchal families. This act was captured beautifully in a wordless poster designed many years ago by a Hyderabad-based NGO, Asmita. It shows a woman with her feet up, reading a book, a television set in front of her and the floor littered with open books. Majority of women who see the poster laugh with happiness at the image for the peace it radiates but also at the impossibility of ever having such a situation at home.

So mothers like the one in the photograph are excellent role models and must be celebrated!

Happy Mother’s Day!

11 May 2018 

“Fooled You!” by Debashish Majumdar

Very early in childhood children are teased lovingly about “April Fool’s Day”. Quite soon tiddlers have a Pavlovian reaction to any incredible news being said with a dismissive wave “Oh! It is an April Fool’s Day trick!” Debashish Majumdar’s utterly splendid picture book Fooled You! is about one such little girl, Rina. Her parents, brother, friends and teachers give her a string of happy news throughout the day but she never believes them since she is convinced they are pulling her leg for it is 1 April. She is determined not to be get April Fooled.

Read this marvellous picture book with your little ones. Great way to read together or read aloud. Easy to read for new readers. Ultimately a lovely story magnificently illustrated by Niloufer Wadia.

Debashish Majumdar Fooled You! ( Illustrated by Niloufer Wadia) Scholastic India, Gurgaon, 2018. Pb. Rs 250 

11 May 2018 

Of ghosts, musicians and children

In an interesting coincidence two stories I read recently — Michael Morpurgo’s beautiful Lucky Button and the short story “They call me Ramatanu” in Subhadra Sengupta’s A Bagful of History — both involved ghosts and eminent musicians. Lucky Button is a haunting tale about the Foundling Hospital which opened in London in 1741. Its patrons included the cartoonist William Hogarth and musician Handel whose Messiah was often sung in the building. One of the foundlings later becomes a friendly ghost who remains in the chapel. Centuries later when young Jonah takes refuge in the building to escape his class bullies, the ghost makes himself visible to the boy and tells him a tale — a tale of his life as an orphan who found happiness for a while as the young prodigy, Mozart’s, companion on his trip to Britain. For Jonah music especially Handel’s music and Mozart’s piano compositions are dear since they remind him of his mother’s fondness for the compositions when she was fit and well and not confined to her wheelchair. It is like all the stories Michael Morpurgo spins — evocative and memorable.

Subhadra Sengupta’s story is about Parvez Khan, son of Ustad Amanullah Khan, the great Dhrupad singer who is visiting his maternal grandparents in Gwalior. One day while visiting the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Sheikh Muhammad Ghaus, an important shrine for Parvez Khan’s family because one of the disciples of Ghaus was the singer Tansen. While at the shrine Parvez meets a stranger and gets into an interesting conversation about music and his desire to give up singing. The stranger gently persuades Parvez to sing him a Raag Todi and is pleasantly surprised to hear that Parvez would soon be graduating to his second Raag Malhar soon. The stranger himself was not permitted to learn the second Raag for at least two years, not till he had mastered Raag Yaman. The stranger as it turns out to be is the ghost of Tansen who had been born as a Ramtanu Pandey but later became a sufi. The Agra gharana of Hindustani classical music traces its lineage to the children of Tansen. “They call me Ramatanu” stands out as one of three good stories in what is an otherwise a problematic collection of twelve “historical” tales. ( The other two good stories are “The young monk” and “Disobedient girl”.)

Michael Morpurgo Lucky Button ( Illustrated by Michael Foreman) Walker Books, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 170 Rs 599 

Subhadra Sen Gupta A Bagful of History ( Illustrated by Tapas Guha) Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2018. Pb. pp. 240 Rs 250

8 May 2018