Many people didn’t understand what it was, and many thought that you had taken your sadness and loss and made something beautiful out of it. You met artists, scientists, and dreamers, and you engaged in long conevrsations and exchanged fascinating letters with authors and philosophers for years afterward. In a way, I believe it saved your life . . . and if you want to know a secret, that’s why I gave you the dream in the first place.
We had only a tiny fraction of everything he wrote in our possession, but the fragments included references to Greek myths, the origins of the universe, children’s fantasy novels, the quests of King Arthur’s knights, the creation of the periodic table, a man who found the entrance to a buried city behind a wall in his house, spaceships, ancient Egypt, mysterious castles, the invention of the kaleidoscope, and the knitted blankets of his childhood bed.
“Didn’t you have something you wanted to tell me?” “Yes, I’ve been trying all night to tell you,” said the bat. “But you wouldn’t stop fighting me. It was very annoying. And now I have to go.” A sudden, strange kind of shame came over me. “I;m sorry,” I said. “What were you trying to tell me?” The little creature stretched his spiky wings. His eyes sparkled. “I’ve been trying to tell you I love you,” he said, and with a little leap he vanished into the purple Connecticut sky.
In bed as I close my eyes, I wonder if the beginning of time and the end of time are the same thing, and the distance between seconds is really as long as the distance between stars. Maybe this is what it’s like to be inside the mind of God. The past and the future mean nothing, and the time is always now.
Brian Selznick’s latest book, Kaleidoscope, is an extraordinary feat of storytelling (Scholastic). The author calls it a mysteyr that takes place in the space of a day but seems to be spread over two thousand years. It is about two individuals connected to each other across time and space — the narrator and his friend James. Yet, the micro-stories in the volume use a bunch of personal pronouns that can easily replace the characters with the reader/s. The stories shimmer. There are stories about a shipwreck, journeys, libraries, writers, butterflies, artists, magical creatures, angels, guardians, giants, etc. These are magical stories that can possibly be read in any sequence without disrupting the sheer pleasure of the vast imaginative landscape. The New York Times refers to it as a ‘lockdown masterpiece‘ ( 17 Sept 2021). Rightly so. The book provides oodles of hope, joy, and love for the future; it also builds upon a post-Edenic creation of society by its play on the apple — a real fruit and a metaphor. Much like what many are experiencing about a post-pandemic world, life before the covid crisis seemed idyllic, like paradise, and it has been completely disrupted. The collection of stories are a mix of traditions, references, and with it a lot of originality. It is ultimately in the hands of the reader to decide how to approach these stories and tease out the beauty and aestheticism enshrined in them, much like the ordinary pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope become a burst of beautiful, intricate patterns dependant on how the person holding the instrument chooses to move it. As with the stories, life too is about a series of choices and it is upto the individual to make the best of one’s circumstances — to be worried and anxious about the pandemic or live life with joy each day. It is about free will. Accompanying the stories are the gorgeous illustrations in graphite by Brian Selznick. Flipping through the images, they have a parallel story to tell but can also illuminate the text very well too. Every story has a full page illustration but tipped in between the stories are double-page spreads of kaleidoscope patterns.
Kaleidoscope is a stupendous book that is meant not only for teenagers but for everyone. It should be marketed in such a manner. It can easily straddle the genres of fiction, children’s literature, young adult literature and mind, body, spirit books. It is about taking a journey and understanding one’s own free will. It provides hope, succour, companionship and a sense of belonging, especially during the pandemic, when everyone is feeling so adrift and lost.
Kaleidoscope is a masterpiece. Buy it. Treasure it. Gift it.
In December 2018, award-winning New Zealand children’s writer Gavin Bishop was invited to India by the New Zealand High Commission for an author tour. Gavin Bishop is an award winning children’s picture book writer and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. As author and illustrator of nearly 60 books his work ranges from original stories to retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes.
Gavin Bishop participated in the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival as well as travelled with his publisher’s, Scholastic India, to various schools for exciting interactions. I met Mr Bishop and his wife, Vivien, at the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner’s, Suzannah Jessep, residence. It was a lovely evening of freewheeling conversation about books and publishing, children’s literature, creating picture books and the power of stories. Excerpts of an interview are given below.
Here is a picture taken at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence along with Gavin Bishop. It has been uploaded on the Facebook page of the New Zealand High Commission to India
How would you define a children’sbook especially a picture book as you make them the most often?
A children’s book is one that speaks honestly to childrenwithout pretentions. The worst kind of books are those that pretendto be for children but are really aimed at the parent or adult reading the bookto the child.
Apicture-book is one where the pictures and words tell a story, ‘hand-in-hand’.Neither the pictures nor the text are ’top-dog’, neither one is moreimportant than the other. Both parts have separate jobs to do to tell thestory. The picture book is my passion. It offers so many artistic and literarychallenges that I could never exhaust them all in a single lifetime. Manypublishers, mostly in the USA, have said to me that picture-books arequite simply for children who can’t read yet. I can’t think of anything furtherfrom the truth. There are lots of examples of picture books that work at manylevels and can be re-read over and over again by children of all ages. Ithink my version of The House that Jack Built that looks atthe colonisation of New Zealand by the British in the early 19th century, is a picture book that appeals to older children, children who can certainly read. Many New Zealand schools use this book at upper levels to talkabout the history of this country.
2. How do you select the stories you choose to write about? Where did you hear the stories that you write about in your books?
For stories, I constantly revisit all the terrific folktales, myths and legends ofthe New Zealand Maori as well those from Europe. When I rewrite a story, I tryas much as possible not the change the plot or the outcome. If it isa little frightening, I leave it like that. But if I think aparticular story is more suited to adults, as many traditional storiesare, then I don’t choose it. There are lots of adventures for example, that the Maori demi-god Maui has, that I think are extremely interesting but theycontain adult elements that a child does not to be confronted with yet.
My childhood is another very deep pool full of memories and stories that I diveinto from time to time.
Most of my books take a long time to produce. My pictures are often full of detailand are drawn by hand on paper as opposed to beingcomputer-generated. If I am to live with a creation for most of a year, Ihave to be convinced from the start that the story is worthwhile and willadd something to a child’s life. I know that sounds lofty, but I really believe that as a writer for children my obligation is to present a young reader with stories and ideas that they will find interesting and perhaps have not heard of.
Another huge source of inspiration is reading. I try to read a lot of fiction. Movies are a good source of ideas too. In fact a movie is rather like a picture book except instead of text as in a book, you have dialogue. Some of the movies I seen over the years have never left me. I have beenparticularly inspired by movies I saw as a young adult. Films by Fellini, Bergman, Pasolini and Altman showed me how stories can be told using vivid imagery and characters.
3. Did you consciously choose the style of writing for children as you do in your longer pieces of fiction –simple sentences, very short chapters, precise descriptions with few polysyllabic words?
When I write I do keep in mind that I am writing for children. But this is onlyreflected in the style and format. I try not to modify the story or the humour which can result in ‘talking-down’ to the reader. Although I usesimple sentences and short chapters I don’t shy away from difficult words if I think they are the right ones for the job. When I wrote Piano Rock I probably had 7 or 8-year-old readers in mind. I have been heartened by thenumber of young boys who have written to me to say Piano Rock is the first book they have read right through. I would like to think that thiswas because of the content, but I suspect it had something to do with thefact the book is full of short sentences and quite a few pictures. It is very non-threatening to a reluctant reader. No sooner have you started a chapter than you find yourself finishing it.
4. Piano Rock and Teddy One-Eye focus a bit on the stories narrated to you by your mother and grandmother but your repertoire indicates that this love for stories go fardeeper. When did this love for stories begin and do you still collectstories?
These two books are about me. They are my autobiographies, even though the second one waswritten by my 68-year-old teddy bear. I vividly remember sitting with my grandmother by the fire listening to her reading me stories and singing strange little songs that she plucked out of her memories of when she was a child. One I remember more than all the others, and one I included in Piano Rock was – “Old Mrs Bumblebee said to me the other day, comeand have a cup of tea on the back veranda.” That’s all there is to it, but at the age of 3 or 4 I found it for some reason, intriguing. I can remember trying to make sense of it byputting it into the context of our neighbourhood. “Did Mrs McQuirter overthe back fence invite us over for a cup of tea?” I wondered quietly to myself.
This little ditty has been with me all of my life and I have, in my quest to find itsorigin, mentioned it to lots of people. All have replied they had never heardof it until one day at a talk I was giving an Indian woman stood up in theaudience and said she had heard it in India when she was child.Perhaps the word ‘veranda’ is a clue? The mystery deepens……,
5. How would you define a compelling story?
stories are the ones that become part of you for the rest of your
life. I think this happens more often in childhood, therefore it is even
more important for a children’s writer to put everything they have into
producing the best story they can.
6. The imagery in your books is fantastic. It’s almost as if the imagery used complements the illustration. Was that deliberate or an unconscious act?
I am a very visual person and when I’m writing I see everything that is happening in my mind’s eye. I plan my text and illustrations carefully to begin with but after that, when it comes to painting and writing, I rely a great deal on my subconscious. I follow my gut-instinct and often cannot tell whether a picture or a piece of writing has worked until I distance myself from it by leaving itfor some time and not looking at it.
7. How do you conceptualise a book?Is it taking into account the text and the illustration? How does the illustration process evolve?
To beginwith I am directed by format. If it is a picture book, then I know from thebeginning it will most likely have 32 pages. I generally begin with the storyand write it with the length of the book in mind. I have now developed a spare writing style for this sort of book where I deliberately keep description for example, to a minimum so as to allow plenty of room for the illustrations to tell their parts of the story. Sometimes I jot down little ideas for the pictures in the margin as I write. The process at this stage of the book is quite measured. Once the text reaches a stage that I thinkis workable, I draw up a storyboard, a page by page plan from cover to cover ofthe whole book. I usually keep this small, drawing the whole thing onto a single A2 sheet of paper, so that when it comes to putting images into place on the miniature pages I cannot get into too much detail. This results in stronger compositions when these little pictures are increased tofull size later, when I make a dummy. I work in pencil which I go overwith ink. The dummy is based on the page size supplied by the publisher afterreceiving a quote from the printer. I make a dummy with 10 sheets of paperfolded in half. That gives you 32 pages plus endpapers and cover. Next I print off the text and glue it into place throughout the book. This instantly showsme how much space is left for the illustrations. The next couple of months arespent enlarging and drawing the pictures from the storyboard into the dummy. This is really where all the hard work begins. If it is a historical story I do most of my research at this stage.
A completed dummy is useful for showing your publisher what you have in mind for the book it also provides a detailed guide for the next process of producing the finished art work. From the start to publication a picture book usually takes a year.
8. How does your Maori ancestry inform your art of storytelling and fascination of folk tales?
My Maori ancestry tells me who I am and where I belong. Aotearoa/New Zealand is myturangawaewae, my place to stand in the world. I have European ancestry as well and that has given me literature and language but to know that some of my tupuna/ancestors have lived in the South Pacific for thousands of years and I live here now, gives me a great sense of belonging. My mother’s name was Irihapeti Hinepau and her father gave her those names because they areancestral names. I have a large number of relatives in Aotearoa who trace theirancestry back to people in the past who have these names too. Maori myths and legends are as rich and profound as any in the world, yet when I was a child we were told more about the myths and legends from Greece and Rome than the stories from our part of the world. New Zealand has for too long suffered from a cultural cringe, always looking North to the rest of the world for affirmation. As a re-teller of Maori myths for children I want to help the next generation become proud of being part of this country. I want them to know their stories and be made strong by them.
9. How did you get into bookmaking? Have you collaborated with other writers and illustrators?
In the 1960s I went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts and studied painting. While I was there I was fortunate to be taught by Russell Clark, a well-known New Zealand artist with a particular interest inillustration. He saw I was interested in children’s picture books and he encouraged me to pursue that interest. It was not until the late 1970s that I did something about this interest and tried writing my first book, Bidibidi.
My ideal project is one where I write and illustrate my own book, but I have, from time to time, worked with others. Some years ago I wrote about 30 or 40 ‘readers’. Because a lack of time these were illustrated by a series of international artists and published all over the world.
I have also illustrated books for other writers. I have done quite a few with Joy Cowley, the most successful being the Snake and Lizard series. And Margaret Mahy and I worked on what was probably her last book before she died — Mister Whistler.
10. Do your books travel to other book markets in English and have they been translated?
My books have been sold all over the world, particularly in England, Australia and the USA. Some of my books have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Danish and other European languages. Recently my books have become very popular in Asia and several of my recent publications appearin Korean, Mandarin and Japanese editions.
Some ofmy books, such as Kiwi Moon and Hinepau have been adapted for the stage. Kiwi Moon travelled nationally as puppet theatre and the third adaption of Hinepau was performed entirely in Maori.
But oneof my biggest creative challenges was writing the story and designing the sets and costumes for two ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Although they were pitched at an audience of children they were performed by the regular company of dancers with whom I got to work. Original music was composed by a musician friend and the choreography was designed by one of New Zealand’s top dancers. Attending the opening performances of these ballets that were created in consecutive years, were two of the most exciting experiences of my life.
Watch Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India interview Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commission.
Manual scavenging and rubbish pickers are a sad reality of our world. Yet these stories are rarely heard. In India it is only recently these stories have begun to make their way into “mainstream” discourses. Of late the newspapers have been reporting of the horrific deaths young men are facing while cleaning sewers. Or via Dalit Literature, an emerging and distinct form of literature, which mostly consists of testimonies for it is extremely difficult even now to offer an analysis on the demeaning life most Dalits lead. Most of this literature is restricted for adult readers which is a beginning but still insufficient. If the sensitivity towards such social ills and hopefully long term change in attitudes towards marginalised communities are to be wrought in society it is perhaps best to address young readers too. Decades earlier Gandhiji tried by renaming the Dalits as “Harijans” as they were at the time commonly referred to as and treated as “Untouchables”. It is exactly this space that comic journalist and fiction writer CG Salamander and illustrator and animator Samidha Gunjal’s picture book Puu hopes to fill.
In Puu a nameless little girl who is drawn to be similar to other children of her age is shown to be scavenging for “flowers” in garbage dumps, sills and sewers. All the while she dreams of building with her hands recycling waste materials discarded. She is warm and affectionate but her only companions seem to be the pigs living in the garbage. Unfortunately her classmates do not see or are too prejudiced to see this side of her but treat her like a pariah by keeping their distance from her.
Narrated in the first person with minimal text used but laid discreetly within the beautifully designed pages, with a generous profusion of rose pink, does take away from the stinging harshness of the subject. But once immersed in the magical beauty of the book the hard reality of the girl’s circumstances hit the reader. It is immaterial whether this book is used by a primary school reader or older readers, the truth will hit home and it will hit hard. Despite various attempts by civil society groups and the government to encourage inclusive practices, the truth is poverty, economic hardships and social exclusion continue to be a sad fact.
The epigraph encapsulates the authors’ sentiments well:
To all the rationality left in the world.
No one should have to clean, carry or dispose
flowers manually . . .
Not out of homes, not out of streets and not out of sewers.
Especially not children.
Read Puu. Share Puu. Buy and distribute copies of it widely.
To buy Puu ( published by Scholastic India) on Amazon India
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
In an interesting coincidence two stories I read recently — Michael Morpurgo’s beautiful Lucky Buttonand 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
Sylvia Bishop’s The Bookshop Girlis about little Sylvia who was left behind in The White Hart bookstore by her birth family. She was six. She was discoverd by Michael who was The White Hart’s owner, Netty’s, son. Michael had promptly put her into a cupboard from where she was rescued by Netty and adopted. This happy ragtag of a family lived and worked in the inn-converted-bookshop. They were not exactly impoverished but they were definitely not well off. Michael for example wore clothes that were much too small for a thirteen year old. They were a happily content family. Their happiness quotient went through the roof when they realised they had unexpectedly won the raffle to inherit the famous London bookshop — Montgomery Book Emporium. (Judging from the descriptions in the book, Montgomery Book Emporium was probably much like this fantastic four-storey bookstore in Detroit. ) To retain this inheritance the family unexpectedly finds itself in the middle of a book adventure involving forgeries, bibliophiles, book antiquarians and museum officials.
The Bookshop Girl is suitable for readers graduating out of chapter books. Plot apart, it is a lovely way of young readers discovering a cannon of writers who have been influential on modern literature such as Shakespeare, Da Vinci, etc. They story has a crisp pace. It is a delight to read especially along with the wacky illustrations by Ashley King. This incredibly talented duo worked together on Sylvia Bishop’s gorgeous debut novel Erica’s Elephant too.
Buy these books. Read them. Share them.
Sylvia Bishop The Bookshop Girl ( Illustrated by Ashley King) Scholastic Children’s Book, London, 2017. Pb. pp.
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.
This awful book, and it is awful, especially the spelling, will have a very bad influence on young minds. It will give children lots and lots of ideas about how to be even naughtier than they already are, and some of them are already EXTREMELY naughty. It is an outrage and I for one will be calling this book to be banned. Mr Wallybottom ( or whatever his stupid made-up name is) should be ashamed of himself.
( Introduction by Raj, a newsagent)
David Walliam’s The World’s Worst Children is hilarious! It is a collection of ten short stories about ten ghastly children. Brats who pick their noses like Peter Picker, Gruby Gertrude who has a gruby room, Miss Petula Perpetual-Motion who cannot sit still, Dribbling Drew who drools far too much or like Brian Wong, who was never ever wrong. But let me allow my six-year-old daughter comment upon it. She was ecstatic upon seeing the book and after reading a bit shot of a tiny ( and her first book review) to her grandmother via WhatsApp. Here it is:
Do you have the book called the world’s worst children? It’s very funny. If you have it read it. Nani. You will see a girl she fart’s a lot! She carries a trumpet with her but she doesn’t blow it with her mouth. Instead she does it with her bums because she doesn’t like to use her mouth. It’s easy to use her bum. And smell like potty comes out from her bums.
Sarah is thrilled this book has wacky illustrations such as of kids licking bowls of ice cream. “Just like me!” she squeals in excitement. Here is a snippet of a conversation I had with her:
“This book is for six”
“I am six!” I can read it!
Then suddenly sad.
“But when I grow up I want to read it again. Can I?”
And here is an audio clip of Sarah reading the book and cracking up with laughter.
The World’s Worst Children is a truly special book. A fantastic cross born of the literary lineage of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. The layouts are superb. The zany play of fonts and colour with each page designed meticulously. The full-of-light watercolour illustrations by Tony Ross support the text marvellously. It looks like a mad riot of colours and words but is very technically sophisticated. For the pure joy it creates in a young reader is unimaginable. David Walliams is a stand-up comedian but to get the tenor right for children by using words such as “stupid” easily in the text is marvellously liberating! Sarah gurgling with laughter said, “Mummy, ‘stupid’ is a bad word is it not?” and then lapsed into a fit of giggles. I watched my daughter read the lines slowly and blend the words hesitantly to graduate rapidly to reading at a comfortable pace.
The World’s Worst Children I would recommend heartily for everyone. It can easily work for leisure reading to being adopted by schools as supplementary readers.
David Walliams The World’s Worst Children ( Illustrated by Tony Ross) HarperCollins Children’s Books , London, 2016. Pb. pp.270 Rs 599