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Charting New Territory

Gender and sexuality have always been taboo subjects in children's books, especially in India. But change is afoot. Here are some recent books have chosen to buck the trend. Originally publishered here.

Children’s Books: A queer mix

Five significant books about the ‘invisible sex’ that make the world a less lonely place

The Seven Hills of Christmas

Reviewer: 
Parinita Shetty
Review content: 

Like many others growing up in the nineties, my staple diet consisted of Enid Blyton tales and Tinkle comic books. While The Seven Hills of Christmas has a faint Blyton-esque whiff, it bears a stronger resemblance to the tales Tinkle adapted. The comics frequently retold fairytales, fables and folktales from all corners of the world. Even when I stumble upon these stories today, I remember being introduced to them by Tinkle. Reading the first few pages of The Seven Hills of Christmas instantly reminded me of those fables of yore.


Sophie lives with her parents and baby brother beside a railroad near a range of seven snowy hills. Rumour has it that the hills are full of magical creatures and the last one is supposed to house Father Christmas. Sophie wonders if the stories are true, but has no time to investigate. Her father’s job shovelling the snow off the railway tracks doesn’t bring in a lot of money, so Sophie is always busy helping her mother with household chores and looking after her baby brother.


Like all fables, there’s a selfless, generous and kind protagonist. All Sophie wants for Christmas is a ride on a train, a warm shawl for her mother, a new shovel for her father and toys for her brother. When she finds a sack full of toys on the railway tracks, Sophie is convinced it belongs to Father Christmas. And like any good fable heroine, her first thought is not to keep the toys for herself but to return them at once so the intended recipients don’t miss out.
Next comes the quest narrative which many fables follow. Sophie decides to trek up the hills herself, a feat nobody seems to have accomplished, so that the toys reach Father Christmas safely. For all her good intentions, Sophie takes a puzzlingly roundabout way to his house, climbing every single hill, rather than directly going up the one he’s rumoured to inhabit. One assumes these are sacrifices to logic made in the name of plot. Along the way, she meets the different anthropomorphic animals who guard the hills. She finds the Keepers of the Hills in various stages of trifling dilemmas, each of whom she’s all too happy to assist, even if it means delaying her own expedition. But she does eventually reach her destination and – here’s the distinctly Blyton-esque part – there’s a feast involved.


The tale is sweet, with language simple enough for an early reader to follow. As a read-aloud, it has the capacity to captivate even the youngest of bookworms. The animal problems and the solutions Sophie comes up with offer room for surprises. But the trouble with fables is their predictability and simplistic nature; everyone knows how they end the moment they begin. The heroine of this fable is helpful and patient, all good qualities to be sure, but I prefer my heroines with an ounce of mischief.


It’s pleasant enough book for fans of fables and Christmas stories. The illustrations match the tale in their sweetness and simplicity, but the black and white images appear faintly yet distractingly pixelated. Also distracting was the wayward punctuation in a few places. All of which I would have forgiven had the story thrown more surprises my way. Perhaps a Tinkle treatment would have left me better disposed.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Parinita Shetty buys more books than she can afford, reads everything she can get her hands (or eyes) on, and writes only when she can think of literally nothing else to do. She has written three books for children, The Monster Hunters, When Santa Went Missing, and The A-Z Djinn Detective Agency.

Book1: 

The Seven Hills of Christmas

The Seven Hills of Christmas.jpg
The Seven Hills of Christmas
Author:
Pooja Lulla
Illustrator:
Nicholas Franco
56 pages
Rs 95.00
ISBN: 978-8129116987
Rupa Publications, 
2010
Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
3
Language Rating: 
4
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
6

Miss Q and Fancy Fullstop: Learning Punctuation through Pictures

Reviewer: 
Deeptha Vivekanand
Review content: 

My first reaction when I pulled the book out of its envelope and examined the cover was, “What fun this looks like!” And my power of assumption was further strengthened when I finished the book. Sometimes you can and should judge a book by its cover. The quirky and playful water-colour images of punctuation marks with human faces and bodies lures you into flipping through the pages immediately. If it’s a picture book, I usually look at all the images first before I get down to reading the story, and with this one, I found myself spending a lot of time simply taking in the details of the artwork. I’m sure children will enjoy seeing funny images of a curvy question mark with a woman’s face, a spectacled full stop and a colon with a head and body detached! Whether it’s the facial features of the characters or the tiny details on a teacup, illustrator Anna Buckner’s love for Sikkim – after graduating with a BFA, Anna moved to the northeastern state, where she completed an apprenticeship in Buddhist Thangka painting – shines right through the book.

And now step two: the story. Miss Q and Fancy Fullstop is a guide to common punctuation marks and how to use them, explained to children through a narrative. I believe it would also work for many adults who use commas only to break the monotony of their own thinking translated into words or generously sprinkle unwanted apostrophes on plurals and pronouns. Is it all that difficult to comprehend the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, I ask? Much like how Indian food is almost always photographed with lashings of green coriander floating on top making you want to bring those forceps out, I always picture myself removing those unnecessary apostrophes!

Maria Denjongpa, an English teacher and one of the founder-members of the Taktse International School in Sikkim, has written this book using witty language that’s peppered with puns and clever wordplay. The storyline follows the lives of two central characters – Ms. Q, who true to her nature, is the perennial questioner of all things and Mr. Fancy Fullstop, whose noble family is known to “put their feet down when sentences get out of control.” The two become friends, fall in love – opposites attract and all that – and decide to get married against their families’ wishes. Ms. Q finds a job with the Sikkim Sun, the local newspaper where she meets the other characters: Ms. Comma, who makes endless lists, Mr. and Mrs. Exclamation, who, yes, you guessed right, exclaim at everything, Major Colon, who always predicts what comes next, Madame Apostrophe, who behaves like she owns everything, and Mr. Marks, a gossip who repeats what other people say. Ms. Q and Fancy Fullstop soon become parents of twins, whom they name Brack and Kitz. The birth of the grandchildren becomes the right occasion for the families to reunite and happiness abounds.

While the simple storyline holds a powerful lesson on punctuation marks for our young readers, I wonder whether the author has overemphasised the marriage-childbirth drill, considering the readers’ profile. Though Q and Fullstop fearlessly exercise their right to marry the person they wish to – which to me is a high-point – there is a part in the story where Q contemplates about whom her twins will wed, while they are still babies! Now, in 2017, do we really need to suggest to impressionable minds that they cannot escape the cycle of marriage and childbirth? Or that a man and a woman cannot remain friends without being married? The author, however, makes an attempt to redeem the story by bringing in a comment about the need to question everything and everyone’s uniqueness in this world.

As an extension to the story, the last few pages contain definitions, fun exercises, and activities for parents and teachers to try out with their children. Doing these should definitely cement the understanding of punctuation marks for life – both for a child and an adult.

To conclude, I have never been more careful with my own punctuation as I have been while writing this review! E.&O.E.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Deeptha Vivekanand is a professional storyteller and educator. She runs a venture called Ever After through which she does storytelling performances and workshops to promote the use of stories in teaching and learning, for children and adults.

Book1: 

Miss Q and Fancy Fullstop: Learning Punctuation through Pictures

Miss Q and Fancy Fullstop Learning Punctuation through Pictures.jpg
Miss Q and Fancy Fullstop: Learning Punctuation through Pictures
Author:
Maria Denjongpa
Illustrator:
Anna Buckner
32 pages
English
Rs 195.00
ISBN: 978-8184778007
Scholastic, 
2016
Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
5
Language Rating: 
5
Design Rating: 
5
Overall Rating: 
10

Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon and Ghond the Hunter

Reviewer: 
Aditi De
Review content: 

As a reader, as a writer, as an editor, it seems difficult to empathetically read a book that is not in sync with our time, our mindset. One that is written with a readership eighty-nine years ago in mind. Yet, I admire the fact that Dhan Gopal Mukerji is the only Indian to have won the John Newbery medal, awarded by the American Library Association, in 1928.

Mukerji, who was initiated as an Indian purohit before he went to the US via Japan, chose an unusual subject in Gay-neck. Written after World War I by this former graduate and lecturer from Stanford University, he said of the book about a carrier pigeon that it is “a record of my experience with about forty pigeons and their leader… I had to go beyond my experiences, and had to draw upon those of the trainers of army pigeons. Anyway, the message implicit in the book is that man and the winged animals are brothers.”

The current volume, which teams Gay-neck with its sequel on Ghond the Hunter, focuses on Mukerji’s passion for wildlife, in which the protagonist meets up with a tiger, a cobra, a python, and other animals. He has referred to Ghond, the Hunter as “the most valuable juvenile book that I have written. … In it, I have sought to render the inmost things of Hindu life into English.”

The problem for today’s reader lies right there. Are these books about interpreting India to the west? A slice of history? An adventure story? A deep glimpse into rustic India? A nature-lover’s interpretation of life ages ago? The writing defies definition.

Not that writing necessarily needs definition by genre or watertight compartmentalization. But the archaic English between these pages, in an age where we have grown accustomed to fine storytelling about nature and more from, say, Ruskin Bond, takes some getting used to. I never quite did get into the right mood for “lanthorn” for a lantern, despite my best efforts.

When I did get past my mental blocks, there were some aspects of Mukerji’s tales that I found riveting. Such as his profound knowledge of birds and natural life. Such as the vignettes the hunter Ghond (who stars in the Gay-neck story as well) shares with the young protagonist as they search for Gay-neck in the shadow of Mt. Kanchenjunga. Such as the cadenced voice of Gay-neck as the narrator. Such as close encounters in the Himalayas with eaglets and tigers, elephants and monkeys. Such as their experience of hospitality in cells cut out of the hillside at the Buddhist lama serai, amidst monks deep in meditation.
Ghond is a stellar character in the story of Gay-neck, who steers the way through unfamiliar terrain while the hunt for the missing pigeon is on. But his story seems rather like an India-for-export narrative: outlining the path of dharma, describing Janmashtami as celebrating the “birth of India’s Christ”, and Ghond’s own education at the hands of the village priest. The only reprieve for the reader is through his journeys with his father’s elderly widowed sister, Kuri – through Agra, Delhi, Kashmir. What I found fascinating was the making of lightweight, extra-warm Tosa shawls from bird feathers; or even the villagers’ search for the were-tiger.

If I was into wandering through long-lost times, either as a nostalgia buff or for socio-anthropological reasons, this would be a perfect read. But since my mindset is rather different, this book left me puzzled, even irritable, as a reader. Maybe the time lapse left me at loggerheads with Mukerji’s achievement of long ago, which is why I am willing to be called out on this one.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Aditi De lives life between imaginary cartwheels ~ whether travelling, blogging, celebrating the arts, or writing across age groups. Her Word Magic workshops have clued her into a secret ~ within each child is a word-gobbler-in-waiting, disguised as an imp.

Book1: 

Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon and Ghond the Hunter

Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon and Ghond the Hunter.jpg
Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon and Ghond the Hunter
Author:
Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Illustrator:
Mistunee Chowdhury
332 pages
English
Rs 399.00
ISBN: 978-9351950844
Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
2
Language Rating: 
2
Design Rating: 
2
Overall Rating: 
4

Cricket for the Crocodile

Reviewer: 
Maegan Dobson Sippy
Review content: 

Cricket for the Crocodile has everything you’d expect from a Ruskin Bond story: endearing characters, first-class storytelling, and a good dollop of nostalgia. The story, though, is not a new one. I’d first come across it as part of Ranji’s Wonderful Bat & Other Stories (Penguin Books, 2015), but a quick glance at the title page shows that it was first published in the UK in 1986 as part of an anthology.

There’s nothing wrong with repackaging and adding longevity to great writing, but I must admit that I was a little disappointed to have already encountered this story in a book published barely a year ago. This initial disappointment, though, was largely mitigated by the fact that this edition is well-produced, with new illustrations by Mihir Joglekar. I’m not usually a massive fan of digital style illustrations, but the toned-down colour palette has been carefully chosen and works well with the text, while the crocodile is wonderfully expressive throughout – interestingly, far more so than the human characters.

The fact that it is now a standalone chapter book will certainly broaden its appeal. I can imagine an early reader who would perhaps struggle with something longer (but is looking for an absorbing tale) getting great satisfaction from the fact that she has ‘read a whole book’, rather than a story in a larger book.

A second problem with republishing older work is that while some aspects are gloriously nostalgic, other things have moved with the times, meaning that certain parts of this story now jar. My biggest problem was in the treatment of the crocodile, and what it might suggest to children about the right way to interact with animals. While the children respectfully address the crocodile as “Nakoo-ji”, they also throw stones (and then a large cricket ball) at it when they find it sunbathing on their wicket. The pinnacle of the story, where the crocodile is left for several weeks with a “cot” attached to his back, also made me slightly uneasy.

That said, there are other aspects of the story that I loved. Characteristically, Ruskin Bond’s characters are both endearing and believable, and the tale is wonderfully child-centric, with the voices of the young boys coming across as entirely believable: “I’m going to be a Test cricketer when I grow up,” Ranji tells his mother on the opening page, when asked to prepare for his exams. “Of what use will maths be to me?” The way that the adults are depicted is also wonderful – the fathers are “terrible” on the cricket pitch, but are tolerated by the children because “they helped to provide bats and balls and pocket money.”

The language is simple, but there are dashes of humour, and the tale builds up to a satisfying crescendo, as the crocodile creeps ever closer to the cricket pitch, before eventually disrupting proceedings. Young fans of the game are also sure to appreciate the level of detail, with the score being meticulously relayed throughout the narrative.

While this is not a new tale and harks back to a different way of life, this series of well-designed, full-colour versions of Ruskin Bond stories are a good way for a new generation of children to discover his writing. For that reason, I’m glad that this story has found a new avatar.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

A freelance writer, Maegan came to India to work with Tara Books in 2010, and has had a soft spot for visual books for children ever since. Together with Bijal Vachharajani she now runs the Instagram handle BAM! Books, which curates children’s book recommendations with a South Asian focus. Her first picture book, Rats Bigger Than Cats, is due to be published by Karadi Tales shortly. She lives in Bangalore with her husband, daughter and cat.

Book1: 

Cricket for the Crocodile

cricket for the crocodile.jpg
Cricket for the Crocodile
Author:
Ruskin Bond
Illustrator:
Mihir Joglekar
48 pages
English
Rs 175.00
ISBN: 978-0143334033
Penguin Books, 
2016
Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
3
Language Rating: 
4
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
6

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