I must confess there’s a certain delight in reviewing a book called Clumsy! written by an author whose last name is Spillman! The prolific Australian writer is becoming well-known to Indian audiences, having authored both Radhika Takes the Plunge (Young Zubaan) and Advaita the Writer, also published by Tulika. I’m a fan of both of these chapter books, but Clumsy! is my first encounter with Ken Spillman in the context of a picture book. I must confess I’m equally charmed.
The story is simply narrated, but profound. A small girl finds that she has a tendency to make things “wobble, tumble and shatter”, earning her labels and insults which range from “clumsy” to “butterfingers”. Yet, when she manages to crowd out the negative affirmations, she finds great solace in words which she can use to conjure up pictures and stories. These stories become even more real when she’s given a palette of colours, and can create paintings for herself, proudly signing her name on each.
Perhaps I find this story so moving as it taps into memories of my own schooldays. As a child whose limbs always seemed to be too large for my body, I was no stranger to breaking/spilling/knocking things over. In fact, I vividly remember the mortification of being told by my mother that ballet lessons were stopping, after she saw how much I looked like a ‘baby elephant’ in the annual production. Though haven’t we all experienced the burden of carrying around an unwanted label? And wouldn’t we all hope that our own children could exist without them?
In fact, anyone who has ever found solace in an imaginative word – whether one of words or pictures – should find much to relate to here. Spillman has captured the ability of art to move us and transport us to new places: “She liked to look at pictures for a very long time. They would make her want to sing, sometimes cry.” Also evident is the ability of art to help us visualise alternative realities, and perhaps even help them come true: “With the brush in her hand, she could see herself spinning on the tips of her toes without falling, drinking her milk without spilling…”
The illustrations are an excellent fit. Chakravarti seems to be just the right artist for this story – her watercolours beautifully capture the feelings and expressions of the child, while also managing to evoke a strong sense of place. The design, too, is simple yet effective. Bold typeface accentuates the labels that adults attach to our young protagonist (Slowcoach! Careless! Sloppy! Messy!), while later a stream of positive words flows whimsically across the page.
The book reminds me of something someone rather wise once told me about the dangers of labels. People might do things that are ‘clumsy’ or ‘messy’, but it doesn’t give us the right to define them that way. This seems even more relevant for children, who have the potential to internalise and be stigmatised by the labels we sometimes unknowingly foist upon them. The fact that we never find out the child’s real name (despite me trying to decipher the squiggles which she uses to sign her pictures!) is a powerful reinforcement of this message. I hope this book reaches as many children as it deserves to.
A freelance writer, Maegan came to India from the UK to work with Tara Books in 2010, and never returned. Together with Bijal Vachharajani, she runs the Instagram handle BAM! Books, which curates children’s book recommendations with a South Asian focus. She now lives in Bangalore with her husband and cat, and works part time at Lightroom Bookstore.