Adventures in tween land

Tweenager Stoob has a plan: it’s to grow up and “be a celebrity when not inventing things and saving the world.” When I read that in the latest instalment of The Adventures of Stoob: Mismatch Mayhem , I couldn’t stop chuckling. After all, how many times had my friends’ children voiced the exact same plan of becoming adventurers, inventors, or superheroes (preferably all at the same time), opting for exciting career options over the ones their parents had chosen? Samit Basu’s book series is a running commentary on the everyday life of Subroto Bandhopadhyay, otherwise known as Stoob, where the protagonist is contemporary, very Indian, and very real.

Stoob and his friends Rehan and Ishani don’t have to embark on perilous quests to save a gem that will in turn save all of humankind nor do they have to battle a crowd of meat-chomping zombies. Instead, the series celebrates the ordinary and special moments that childhood is made of. In many ways, Stoob can be (and has been) compared to the Enid Blyton’s school books, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, or Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate series. Yet, it manages to stand out on its own. Mainly because Basu creates characters and narratives that are entirely believable. So, Stoob and his friends worry about exams in Testing Times ; in A Difficult Stage , play rehearsals take precedence over everything else in life; and in the latest instalment Mismatch Mayhem , a classic love triangle threatens a deep friendship.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, the editorial director of Red Turtle, Rupa Books’ children imprint, said, “When Red Turtle started, we wanted to publish a funny, contemporary fiction series that would capture the voice and feelings of the modern Indian tween. Their thoughts and feelings, both profound and banal. There are lots like this in the West, but few Indian ones that work as a series.” And that’s what sets Stoob apart from his Western counterparts, the little details which make him real to the upper/middle class, urban reader. Basu writes convincingly, portraying the awkwardness of being a tween poised at the brink of adolescence. “Writing in different voices is a simple question of seeing the world through what you imagine are another person’s eyes: much like acting, I presume,” said Basu, over email. “So if you can get in character, it hopefully flows quite smoothly. And it’s easier to get in character as Stoob, which is mostly a matter of memory and identification, than it is to the protagonists of any of my previous books, who are mostly able to defy physics but not turn into sociopaths.”

This time around in Mismatch Mayhem , Stoob is “A Man Who Has Seen Life, Its Sorrows and Joys… A Man Whom James Bond and Alex Rider would have Known and Respected.” That’s because he’s dated a girl from another school who seems to prefer earrings over Calvin and Hobbes (like seriously). Things get complicated when best friend Rehan also likes the same girl. What follows is a rollicking adventure, pretty much laugh-out-loud all the way.

Basu said that he has many friends whose kids are the same age as Stoob and their stories were reminiscent of his childhood. “Not that much has changed, except the technology around the kids,” said Basu. To write the series, Basu spoke to many children, learning about their concerns, and hearing anecdotes from their schools.

Basu said, “My favourite reactions are when parents or children come and tell me their own school stories that Stoob reminded them of, because this also doubles up nicely as research. I’ve also been trying out a writing experiment, which is reading out first drafts of Stoob chapters to key readers as I write them. It’s something I would never do with books for adults, because adults would feel compelled to have thoughts: kids just listen and respond without overthinking it, which I enjoy hugely.”

What also makes the books fun are the illustrations by Sunaina Coelho. They have a life of their own, with the characters doing their own thing in the illustrations, almost like doodles in a school notebook. “I write the illustration requests out the way I write out comic scripts: a visual description, text captions. Really good artists are able to take that and then take wing, making illustrations richer and deeper than the text they start out from. They’re on their own trip very deliberately; the idea is to step into Stoob’s imagination and hopefully recreate the kind of effect that a Terry Pratchett footnote does, which also fits in nicely with the kind of hyperlinked thinking that kids do very naturally nowadays. There isn’t much of a process after that because I always just really like Sunaina’s work, so I send a list of illustration-base text, she sends the artwork, and I send a mail telling my editor how much I love them.”

Although irreverent in tone, the series manages to underscore contemporary markers and issues, such as the poor quality of children’s television programming, the stress of exams, the struggle to be perceived as cool and fashionable, and the constant presence of technology in their lives. All of this makes Stoob relevant to a contemporary, urban audience who will easily relate to him and his gang.

If humour was a pre-requisite super hero power, then Stoob would join the legion of fictional caped men, women and beasts. But since it’s not, he will have to settle for the title of one of the funniest and endearing school children in fictional history in children’s literature.

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