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I'd Rather Read

Reviewer: 
Zai Whitaker
Review content: 

Reading this inspiring little book was such a wonderful experience and I’m grateful to the contributors and its editor Sudeshna Shome Ghosh. It was like sitting in a cosy room near a blazing fire listening to like-minded people. Being Chennai of course the fire was replaced by a cyclonic fan, but that didn’t matter because the fourteen book-loving contributors exude their own warmth and comfort. It was so helpful to be reminded that, in this crazy, fast-changing world, book lovers have resisted extinction unlike thousands of other species. These particular ones include my hero Abdul Kalam, heroine Sudha Murty, and many others, such as authors Roopa Pai, Jerry Pinto and Ruskin Bond. Space constraints limit me to the mention of some, but all the pieces are enjoyable and heart-warming. Indeed, I’d say one of the best is the Introduction, which tracks the book-love of the editor. It’s a book that will be enjoyed by a huge age range, all genders, and may even enlist non-readers into the fold when they witness the joy and emotional sustenance that “bookies” are privileged to access.

There’s the interweaving story of the struggle and victory of the reader; battling with economic, social, and homework challenges. Abdul Kalam endearingly says that he was “rather penniless” but managed to access books through his brother-in-law Jalaludin and other benefactors. A kind bookshop owner allowed him to borrow books for a small fee. His list of favourite books includes the Koran, the Gita and the Bible. One of his most endearing lines is: “Till today I read all sorts of books.” Wonderful Kalam, we need a few more of you.

As children, we were all masters of the trick of reading “storybooks” while pretending to be doing something legit, like homework or test prep or talking to guests. Like Subhadra Sen Gupta, I also found atlases very useful because their size effectively hid the smuggled storybook. Some of the contributors to this collection hid under beds, others resorted to pooja rooms, and this successful hiding and fooling adults of course added to the enjoyment of books. I found so many other shared experiences: Anita Nair’s Soviet books; madly copying the current favourite’s style in an attempt to be a “writer”; Jash Sen’s summons to her parents to come home and rescue her from The Hound of the Baskervilles; the friendly torch under the mattress that enabled Ruskin Bond to read old books, new books, classics, thrillers. Nilanjana Roy loved books so much that she ate them, starting with a small bit and finally devouring a whole page. She writes movingly about the feeling of liberation when she learned how to read some words at last; no more begging adults to read to you because the pages were full of black ants which said nothing. But then, that wonderful reward… “It was the sense of power, of owning some words at last after having to beg them from adults for so long. I turned the page and there were no more ants.”

But enough. You can read the rest of the inspiring experiences and memories for yourself.

There is a constant mourning of the fact that there aren’t enough books for Indian children, with Indian contexts. But hey, look at the joy and wealth that these Indian writers gleaned from the Empress of Blandings and Heidi and Katy and Enid Blyton’s humungous output, and William and The Coral Island and all our other favourites. William never tasted rice and dal but boy was he a part of my life! And as for Katy, she was a member of the family even though I called her Katty for a long time, until suitably enlightened by an American school friend. So, let’s not be too exercised about the need for an Indian tapestry; a good book has a universal tapestry that transcends geography. Roopa Pai is perhaps referring to this when she talks about the abiding popularity of Enid Blyton in spite of the politically incorrect gollywogs, sexism and such. After all she did live in a certain era, and that wasn’t her fault. Oh my, how we used to lend, and exchange, and fight over Enid Blytons!

Jerry Pinto says it best. His lovely poem “I’d Rather Read” ends with:

I won’t play in the team you lead.

I know it’s an eleventh man you need

But

I’d rather read.

Parents, take note of Abdul Kalam’s recommendations, and make readers of your children. That’s very different, mind you, from making them read.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Zai Whitaker writes for children and her books include Kali and the Rat Snake, Andamans Boy, and Cobra in My Kitchen. After teaching at the Kodai International School for eighteen years, she has returned to work at the Madras Crocodile Bank, which she helped established in 1976.

Book1: 

I'd Rather Read

Untitled-77.jpg
I'd Rather Read
Author:
Anthology
120 pages
English
Rs 150.00
ISBN: 378-81-291-4206-1
Rupa Publications, 
2016
Story Rating: 
5
Illustrations Rating: 
0
Language Rating: 
5
Design Rating: 
5
Overall Rating: 
10

Oddbird

Reviewer: 
Anil Menon
Review content: 

Oddbird’s heroine Oddy is a miniature human girl who lives in a cupboard and is looked after by a couple of pigeons called Ma and Pikku and a squirrel, Chottu. They bring Oddy things to eat, take her out on trips, protect her from “normal”-sized humans, and help her come to terms with the possibility that she is going to stay tiny.

Fans of fiction with miniature characters will be reminded of novels like The Borrowers and Stuart Little. As in those novels, Oddy’s miniature size has significant consequences, but no one in the story, especially the normal-sized humans who meet her, seem particularly disconcerted by it. Oddy’s daily routine is quite charming but it requires some serious suspension of disbelief. Scaling laws make it impossible to shrink a human to Oddy’s size and have her remain human. Anupa Lal covers up the sheer physical impossibility of a four-inch human quite cleverly by providing more details rather than less on what Oddy wears, eats, her daily ablutions, and so on.

I suspect many young readers will want to know how Oddy got to be so tiny. Did she fall into a vat full of radioactive gloop? Was she bitten by a mutant spider? Is she from another planet? Did she drink some potion labelled “DRINK ME”? But as with other novels in the miniature-character genre, the story sidesteps this “how” question. The kid who wants to know how Oddy is an exception to the laws of physics should be given another book to read.

So, if this story isn’t interested in miniature physics, what is it interested in? Well, Oddy is technically frozen in height, that is, spatially, but she is really frozen in time. She reminded me of Peter Pan. Most children in children's fiction are busy trudging towards various epiphanies and/or happier situations. Peter Pan is a fictional exception to this oppressive pattern. He has no interest in becoming any larger or different or smaller or a Java programmer or anything else for that matter. Peter Pan stays Peter Pan, no matter how the world around him changes. However, he has to pay a price. He is condemned to live in the present. We adults can fork and slither around in time, but unlike us, Peter Pan is innocent and condemned to be free.

Oddy also stays Oddy. At the start of the story, Oddy already has all she needs, so all she really needs to do at the end is to simply step out of the story. Of course, she has a few adventures along the way. These adventures are of the how-will-this-tiny-person-cross-the-road variety, and perhaps a little dull. The characters aren’t particularly memorable. Other than Oddy, they’re all seen from the outside and come across as flat. The plot is mostly a matter of hiding Oddy and her friends in various locations so that they eavesdrop on conversations. The only exceptional feature in this story is Oddy’s size, and unfortunately this feature is so exceptional, the explanations offered by the story don’t really make any sense. If Oddy were normal-sized, the story could just as easily have been that of an orphanage girl trying to figure out who’d left her at the orphanage. Perhaps it would have made for a more poignant tale.

In Barrie's novel, Peter Pan is unable to hold on to his memories. Here, Oddy seems to be luckier. She keeps her friends, her memories, her daily routine. But it is unclear if anything will ever happen again to this little girl, frozen in time. Oddy’s author imagines her happy. I hope she is right.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Anil Menon started out wanting to be an accountant, took a long detour through computer science and ended up a fiction writer. He’s the author of The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Young Zubaan, 2010) and Half Of What I Say (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Book1: 

Oddbird

oddbird.jpg
Oddbird
Author:
Anupa Lal
Illustrator:
Prabha Mallya
162 pages
English
Rs 199.00
ISBN: 978-0143334095
Penguin Books, 
2015
Story Rating: 
2
Illustrations Rating: 
3
Language Rating: 
3
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
6

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Not Yet!

Reviewer: 
Shweta Sharan
Review content: 

Every child is an artful dodger when it comes to delaying sleep time and what better way to explore this universal little bedtime preamble than through a fun children’s book? Every child wishes he or she could squeeze a little extra time into the day and postpone sleep time, which is why Nandana Dev Sen’s Not Yet! hits so close to home. All of us have experienced this, either as parents who have wanted to ship our children off to the land of sweet dreams so that we can enjoy some peace at last, or as children ourselves, breathing down our parents’ necks for that one last story before we were put to bed.

Not Yet! is about a little girl who doesn’t want to go sleep immediately. There are too many things to do – dance with imaginary rhinos, for one. “My hippos in puddles/Want sleepy cuddles,” she says. She also has a dozen questions: “Can a frog stand on its head?” These are important questions for a child, and sometimes, they just cannot sleep until the questions are put to rest in their heads. The mother, meanwhile, is hurrying her to bed, getting her to drink her cup of milk, wash her hands and brush her teeth. All children, blessed as they are with leviathan imaginations, can understand this emotion, this desperate need to live the day to its last breath before it is done. All parents can see themselves in the mother with her eye on the clock, hurrying to get things done.

Not Yet! is written in a simple yet pleasing rhyme scheme. “Monkey needs a squeeze/She sleeps in those trees!” says the little girl, and the illustration shows her swinging across a carousel of branches, with helping hands from a crowd of giggling monkeys who look like they are in on her little secret. The little girl tickles giraffes, races an alligator, snuggles a whale, all before planting a kiss on her smiling mother and cuddling her pup, after which she is tucked into bed.

Dev Sen gets the art of rhyming just right. She deftly combines rhyme and metre, which is a big deal given that many children’s books by Indian authors don’t understand rhyme at all. There is so much more to a rhyme scheme than just the last words of successive sentences rhyming together. Poems should have a certain cadence and a precise tempo when recited. Not Yet! has both, even though it doesn’t come anywhere close to the lyrical genius of a book like The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson. Remember the musicality of “Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow”?

The thing about nostalgia in children’s books is that the author can make it truly personal. There is no sense of that in Not Yet! No doubt it is fun, wittily crafted, puckish and even tender, but it doesn’t lodge in your memory the way The Paper Dolls does, with its tattered little paper dolls, its protagonist’s cruel friend or the mother’s slippers that are shaped like crocodiles. There is a hint of this sense of longing for the past in Wadia’s heartfelt illustrations, especially on the last page when the little girl is asleep and all the animals she met on her imaginary adventure are embroidered on her quilt. The illustrations on this double-spread show the origins of the little girl’s flight of fancy. As do the illustrations of a toothbrush holder with the picture of a whale, a set of fabric birds hanging by the bedside, and pictures of elephants on the bathroom towels.

Not Yet! works really well as a bilingual book, thanks again to its genius refrain. The corresponding verses in Hindi are translated beautifully by Sushmaa Roshan, with a musicality that is every bit a match for the lines in English. In fact, when I read the Hindi verses on their own, my daughter could get a sense of what was being said because of its rhythm. Children can also try guessing the Hindi names for all the animals in the story, which my daughter really enjoyed. Her new favourite word is “jalahastee”, the Hindi word for hippo, which she says with great relish. Books like these are a great way to teach a child a new language – by learning to play it by the ear and not just through grammar. Maybe this is a process that will lodge firmly in one’s memory.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Shweta Sharan has an MA in Literature and writes on education and books for Buzzing Bubs, Mint and Deccan Herald. She is mom to a seven-year-old daughter, who is happily obsessed with books and stories.

Book1: 

Not Yet!

not-yet-english-hindi.jpg
Not Yet!
Author:
Nandana Dev Sen
Illustrator:
Niloufer Wadia
28 pages
English
Rs 150.00
ISBN: 978-9350468418
Tulika Publishers, 
2016
Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
4
Language Rating: 
3
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
6

When Bholu Came Back

Reviewer: 
Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan
Review content: 

Bholu is a camel with heart, energy, ideas, and a never-say-die attitude. When Bholu Came Back is a simple story, simply told, of how the dwindling fortunes of a camel carter, Beni Ram, are restored by his gallant vahana, Bholu, even though no one wants to use a camel cart anymore. While Beni Ram sees the writing on the wall, Bholu sees the potential of the tourist market, and decides to give it his best shot. With his charming leer, he gallops away from camel buyers, throws out lures to tourists, dances for them, and generally makes an exhibition of himself – in the nicest possible way, of course.

Kavitha Punniyamurthi spins a joyful story, lightly sprinkled with friendship and courage. Bholu’s love for his master and his determination to keep him going are heartwarming. Without hammering the point home, the story suggests that there is always a way forward when things look bleak. But one must be prepared to adapt to change and look for new opportunities.

The artwork by Niloufer Wadia is eye-catching and the book design is very attractive, with its predominant palette of reds and yellows and its background of traditional patterns on every page. What’s more, the book’s landscape format makes it just right for little hands to hold. However, on some pages, the background does slightly overpower the printed text, which may make it difficult for very young (or, as in my case, getting on in years) readers to read.

Between the desert folk and the tourists, the illustrations span two very different worlds. In a departure from the usual desi look of most of Tulika’s picture books, the characters and settings here are more reminiscent of the Arabian Nights than of Rajasthan. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it seems to have reduced the characters to caricatures. This is true of the writing as well: the people just don’t come to life. Why, for instance, does the little girl remain nameless? Why does the camel buyer (the one whom Bholu runs away from) look identical to the tour operator, Mr. Taparia? There is nothing distinctive about any of the characters, even Beni Ram. You recognize them by their colourful turbans, and not by what they say or do.

However, these are minor quibbles, and I doubt if any of it will worry your child. With its bright appeal, this is the sort of picture book that one can imagine will become the instant favourite of a five-year-old. One that has to be read aloud ritualistically every night, and then reread and reread till it is in tatters.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan is the author of The Smile of Vanuvati and Gind: The Magical Adventures of a Vanara. She has also written scripts for Amar Chitra Katha. An ardent farmer with not very green thumbs, she now spends much of her time learning how things grow.

Book1: 

When Bholu Came Back

when-bholu-came-back-english.jpg
When Bholu Came Back
Author:
Kavitha Punniyamurthi
Illustrator:
Niloufer Wadia
24 pages
English
Rs 150.00
ISBN: 978-9350467930
Tulika Publishers, 
2016
Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
4
Language Rating: 
4
Design Rating: 
4
Overall Rating: 
8

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