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Ravana Refuses to Die

Reviewer: 
Sandhya Rao
Review content: 

Children will enjoy this book, especially those with an above-average vocabulary. It’s obvious the author has had a grand time spinning out the four yarns in this collection featuring four intrepid young adventurers resident in the town of Babubari. He’s freaked out with the language, using it to absurd (happily) dramatic effect and that, undoubtedly, will delight the readers. It’s racy and irreverent and exclamatory.

Muru, Chippa, Jitu and little Chipkili are fast friends and they have pretty awesome fun together. In Ravana Refuses to Die, the eponymous first story in the book, that’s literally what happens at the Ram Leela production: there’s Rama desperately prompting Ravana to die, and to stay dead, and Ravana plain refusing until his long-pending dues are cleared. In A Vimana Lands in Babubari, Muru’s on a mission to build a pushpaka vimana with the somewhat reluctant assistance of his friends, all save Chipkili who cannot keep anything secret and this mission is top secret. Tyres and other stuff go missing from the local shops and there’s consternation all around. In Hanuman’s Army, people don monkey costumes a la Delhi 6 to catch some thieving real-life monkeys. Chipkili is kidnapped by a rather wicked monkey in costume and how she’s rescued is the plot. The last story is On Ravana’s Belly, where the famous four help Bhollu divine water so he can farm and earn his keep. There’s an oily (literally) villain of great girth and no mirth, and an unnecessarily loquacious barber to spills the beans. However, all’s well and everything ends well too.

The illustrations are equally kinky, in true Priya Kuriyan style. In any case, the character of Ravana is a wonderful springboard for storytelling and visual narration. Both author and illustrator make good on this advantage.

However, there are a few false-ish notes that adults would or could stumble over. While the title story, which opens the collection, has a certain sense of completeness to it, the second starts off more tentatively, giving the impression that it should actually have been the first story. There’s a lack of character consistency that can throw the reader off, which leads to the observation that even in a collection of short stories featuring the same characters, the ‘growth’ chart of the characters and their relationship to each other must reveal integrity. The rule doesn’t apply just to novels, but to short stories of this nature too.

Then again, that old bogey, stereotyping. While I do believe that sometimes this PC-thing is taken too far, there’s also a limit to finding fat funny or mean or stupid. There are some bits where the telling palls, or the narrative gets on an information trajectory. This is where the editors needed to have intervened more vigorously. For instance, at the end of Hanuman’s Army, you have SSP Ricky Singh giving a long spiel about the how and why of the stealing of a necklace, which is plain boring to read; it even sounds like the author got bored. It freezes the energy of the storytelling.

Still and all, the book’s a ‘funtastical’ read, even as it makes pertinent points about this, that and some other things.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Sandhya Rao is primarily a reader who can’t thank her stars enough that there are so many stories and so many wonderful writers to bring them home to us. She is also a journalist and writer of children’s books.

Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
4
Language Rating: 
4
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
8

India through Archaeology: Excavating History

Reviewer: 
Devika Rangachari
Review content: 

In a scenario where the word ‘history’ is viewed as largely synonymous with mind-numbing boredom, Devika Cariapa’s labour of love, India Through Archaeology: Excavating History, is a welcome entrant. Foregrounding the archaeologist as a scientist who studies how humans lived, an intrepid adventurer who seeks to uncover lost civilisations, a detective who fills the gaping holes in our collective knowledge and a storyteller who assembles tales from the past, Cariapa surveys Indian history from the prehistoric times to the present, underlining the most exciting and/or spectacular archaeological discoveries over the years. Needless to say, the purported scope and breadth of this work is ambitious and immense but Cariapa shows herself more than equipped for the task.
At the outset, Cariapa provides a useful and comprehensive timeline, pertinent portions of which are repeated at the beginning of every chapter as a sort of ready reckoner. Each chapter is a mélange of interesting facts, illustrations, maps, photographs and stories as the book journeys from the Stone Age to the present. Cariapa manages to include a wide range of information culled from varied historical sources but with a very light touch so that the book never tips over into the realm of boredom. While the work reconstructs myriad aspects of life in the past spanning the political, social, economic and religious realms, care has been taken to make the information as comprehensive as possible. Thus, Cariapa incorporates details of men and women of both the royal and non-royal sections of society, and even extends her survey to animals in the past, providing snippets on them and, in some cases, their memorialisation in stone. Often, she buttresses her narrative with imaginative storylines to convey the immediacy of certain historical events. Additionally, Cariapa provides delightful archaeological vignettes from around the world as parallel tracks to the Indian archaeological landscape and that helps to flesh out the latter.
The book is, in addition, a visual delight. Photographs have been sourced with an eye to profusely illuminate the text. Ranging from the prehistoric cave art at Bhimbetka to Ashoka’s inscribed pillars to archaeological discoveries at Pattanam and Hampi, the visuals form a very important part of this work and highlight crucial moments of the past in a richly emphatic, even dramatic, way. Photographs of historical sources, such as coins, copperplate inscriptions and sculptures, are regularly juxtaposed with the text to enhance readability and comprehension very effectively. It must be noted, though, that when the book is already rife with beautiful visual material, the cartoonish depiction of archaeologists that weaves its way through the pages is an irritant that often detracts from the value of the stunning photographs as well as from Ashok Rajagopalan’s other interesting illustrations that supplement the visuals. The work is clearly not aimed at very young readers who would require this sort of prop to get them through it!
The few limitations of this book seem to be a factor of its self-imposed scope. As noted earlier, Cariapa does try to be as comprehensive as possible but the sheer chronological range involved in delineating the Indian archaeological past inevitably results in certain periods of history, notably the early medieval, being glossed over while inordinate attention is paid to, say, the tale of Muziris or that of Hampi. Caution also needs to be exercised in the casual and repeated use of the term ‘Hindu’, rather than the more appropriate ‘Brahmanical’, to describe early historical texts and while making generalisations, such as the assertion that archaeological material evidence “can hardly ever be matched with what is written down in texts” (p.157), which has been disproved in several cases where there has been a near-perfect conjunction between the two.
One also has to be careful to consciously veer away from stereotypical textbook equations of women with clothes and jewellery that convey this to be their sole preoccupation all through history, notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. As Cariapa does make a clear effort to integrate women into the narrative, certain statements like the one that notes that we get information on “clothes, jewellery, hairstyles…” from pictures of women and their attendants (p.131) appear all the more jarring as, in fact, these very pictures can equally convey other aspects of women’s public presence and role. In a similar vein, there is another statement on coins revealing political history through “the names of kings” (p.74) when there are so many instances of powerful women appearing on them. These errors, however, appear to have been unwitting ones on Cariapa’s part that could have been rectified with more vigilant editing.

Minor quibbles apart (hyphens are sorely needed!), India Through Archaeology: Excavating History is a very important work that will be of great interest to young readers and to those who seek to acquaint themselves with popular archaeological history written in an eminently accessible style. Cariapa deserves credit for pulling off the deceptively simple but enormously difficult task of encapsulating India’s past through the archaeological record with such competence. This book is sure to convert many young ‘history-dislikers’ (if I may be allowed to coin a term!) into enthusiasts of the discipline.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Devika Rangachari is an award-winning children’s writer whose book Queen of Ice (Duckbill) was on the White Raven list in 2015. She is also a historian.

Book1: 

India through Archaeology: Excavating History

india-through-archaeology-excavating-history-english.jpg
India through Archaeology: Excavating History
Author:
Devika Cariapa
Illustrator:
Ashok Rajagopalan
160 pages
English
Rs 625.00
ISBN: 978-93-5046-840-1
Tulika Publishers, 
2017
Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
4
Language Rating: 
4
Design Rating: 
4
Overall Rating: 
8

Strategy versus serendipity

Is serendipity the secret to success? Two decades after the publication of the first Harry Potter, will the next extraordinary bestseller come only when publishers stop looking? Originally published here.

Publishers of children’s books are looking for the next Harry Potter. But should they?

Such extraordinary success doesn’t come through strategy.

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Difficult stories

Writing ‘difficult’ stories for children is what Elizabeth Laird does best. Her latest book Welcome to Nowhere is based in Syria, all about where to go when you can’t go home. Originally published here.

A window to the world

The Adventures of Stoob: Mismatch Mayhem

Reviewer: 
Lubaina Bandukwala
Review content: 

“Her name was—well still is, I suppose—Mala Kapoor, which is like an aunty type name but all aunties start young, according to Science. And there is nothing aunty-like in the way she dropped into my life and captured my heart.”

It is lines like this that should warn you not to read this book in public spaces. You are quite likely to attract alien-alert-type looks when you make snorting sounds or exhibit shaking shoulders. It is just not possible to go through this book without laughing out loud.

Twelve-year old Stoob is not enjoying his holiday in Thailand. And that’s because a series of unfortunate events related to his first love has made him Cynical and Hardened to the Joys of Life.

Stoob’s first ever crush has caused havoc in his life. He’s suddenly trying to be someone he’s not in the desperate attempt to Impress the One. His close circle of friends is asunder—his best friend Rehan is suddenly his rival, and Ishani refuses to take sides. And, worst of all, he’s gone and done the silliest thing, the consequences of which could be so bad that just thinking about it is ruining his holiday.

Basu’s account of an almost-teenager at a milestone moment in his life is an insightful look at growing up and becoming who you are. The wry humour skilfully conveys the angst of trying to fit into someone else’s notion of cool and the vulnerability that comes with it. Who am I really? How well do I know my friends? How well do they know me? What is real? What is made up in my head? Such are the concerns of personality trying to come into its own. And, in today’s world, this is a concern amplified by the ease with which misleading digital personas can be created. “Maybe it’s a good thing that Mala doesn’t know me that well yet. Seriously, our romance, which will be an all-time-legendary romance, would be doomed without the Internet,” quips our wise twelve-year-old hero.

Stoob’s voice is authentic and will surely connect with ten- to twelve-year-olds. Especially since this first-person narrative is a very enjoyable read. Sunaina Coelho’s illustrations are wonderfully imaginative and exaggerated, mirroring the extremes of a tween’s imagination.

A fun read, best as I mentioned, not read in public.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Lubaina Bandukwala is a writer, editor and creator of children’s literature events. She curates Children’s Literature at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai, and has founded Peek a Book, a children’s literature festival in Hyderabad.

Book1: 

The Adventures of Stoob: Mismatch Mayhem

51lLZXqRb8L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
The Adventures of Stoob: Mismatch Mayhem
Author:
Samit Basu
Illustrator:
Sunaina Coelho
120 pages
English
Rs 195.00
ISBN: 978-8129135919
Rupa Publications, 
2016
Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
4
Language Rating: 
4
Design Rating: 
4
Overall Rating: 
8

Gone Grandmother

Reviewer: 
Usha Mukunda
Review content: 

A very welcome change in children’s books in recent times is the emergence of themes like loss, death, separation, disability, and parental discord. These are situations that many if not all children experience at some point or the other and it is right that the books they read should engage with such realities.

Gone Grandmother is a story that talks about the loss of a dearly loved grandmother. The grandchild is never directly told that this sad event has happened. Little things she sees makes her wonder and ask questions. The answers she gets from her mother and how she processes them bring in lightness and humour to the story.

Chatura Rao has captured the nuances of a young child’s puzzlement and the questions that keep coming when no one seems able to give her a clear response. “‘Ma, where has Nani gone?’ Nina asked that evening, as she rocked her doll in her grandmother’s empty chair. Ma was folding Nani’s clothes and putting them away into a suitcase. ‘To the stars,’ she replied, without looking up.” The illustration for this exchange is literally a depiction of the words, but Krishna Bala Shenoi has also breathed life into it and we can feel both the mother’s sadness as well as the child’s incomprehension. The attention to detail is sharply poignant showing the grandmother’s room, reflecting her interests and persona.

Nina then ponders over all the ways in which her grandmother could reach the stars. “1. Hang onto a hundred gas balloons. Go to a windy place and fly up with the balloons. 2. Get some eagles to carry you up, up, up. 3. Swing off a trapeze, and grab onto a passing rocket.” Each of these ridiculous options is comically illustrated and adds to the feeling, which is like a gentle pendulum swing between sadness and humour.

A group of twelve-year-olds ‘reviewed’ the book for me and shared how much they related to it. They felt that whenever they have lost an older family member or a pet, everyone around looks sad but no one has the time to sit and talk with them about it. Usually they try to forget about it and carry on, but in this story, though normal life goes on – the sun shines, birds chirp and Nina fights with her playmates – she keeps returning to her grandmother’s room, seeing her empty rocking chair and smelling the familiar fragrance of the talcum powder she used. The illustration showing Nina’s supporting hand on her Nani’s back as they both climb the stairs is brilliant in its subtlety.

The story moves into an interesting scenario where Nina’s persistent questions actually help her mother come to terms with the situation. Using a good synergy between words and art, Chatura Rao and Krishna Bala Shenoi create a beautiful closure to this sensitively told story.

After we had read the book together, one young girl asked if she could stay back and look at the book. She sat quietly, read through it and then returned it to me. This is a clue for parents, teachers and other adults in the child’s life to create a space for talking about difficult things and helping the child open up to her feelings. Not all children may be able to persist in the way Nina does. Stories of this kind provide us with opportunities to make a start!

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Usha Mukunda has read children’s literature with great enjoyment for more than 30 years. In the process, she has resorted to many stratagems, games and ideas to bring children and books into joyous communion with each other. Reading books, sharing them with children, teachers and other librarians to elicit their responses has always been her approach to writing reviews.

Book1: 

Gone Grandmother

gone-grandmother-english.jpg
Gone Grandmother
Author:
Chatura Rao
Illustrator:
Krishna Bala Shenoi
28 pages
English
Rs 150.00
ISBN: 978-93-5046-813-5
Tulika Publishers, 
2016
Story Rating: 
5
Illustrations Rating: 
5
Language Rating: 
5
Design Rating: 
5
Overall Rating: 
10

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