What are you reading this Earth Day?


11 delightful children’s books on nature and environment

Here’s a list of books that are must-haves on your children’s bookshelves. And we wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up borrowing them to read as well.

 The Honey Hunter

Karthika Naïr and Joëlle Jolivet

Young Zubaan

This marvellous book done in pop colours takes you to the Sundarbans, introducing children to mangroves, the honey hunters, and the tiger. Karthika Naïr’s prose is eloquent, while Joëlle Jolivet’s illustrations will make you want to linger over each lavishly produced page.



Baaware Beej

Vishakha Chanchani

Tulika Books

Tree babies, as a friend calls seeds, are magical things. And if there was a book that would make you love Hindi and prose, it’s Baawre Beej (roughly translates to wild and mad seeds). This picture book by Vishaka Chanchani is about farmer Beeju Bhaiya and talks about seeds, earth and soil. The tempo of the prose makes it a perfect read aloud story – at the end of which you will be giddy with joy and itching to go and plant some seeds.

Talking of seeds, also check out Deepa Balsavar’s The Seed (Tulika Books), a wonderful bilingual book which will make the young ones toddle off to garden.



Nature and Environment STEM Books


Pratham Books StoryWeaver

For the last couple of years, the Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver platform has been creating STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – books. I got the opportunity to edit a set of books on nature and environment for them. There are books on a range of subjects, including climate change, littering, green heroes, environment and migration, seeds, seasonal foods, and canopy forests. Many of these books are also available in multiple languages! You can read about them here: http://blog.prathambooks.org/2017/04/have-you-seen-all-our-latest-green-books.html.



When I grow up I want to be a Tiger

Prerna Singh Bindra and Maya Ramaswamy

Speaking Tiger

Meet T-Cubs, a darling little tiger cub who does what tiger cubs do. He plays, he frolics, and he learns to hunt alongside his mother. All is well in his forest, until one day his Ma disappears. Suddenly the threats that face T-Cub become alarmingly real. Will T-Cub get to grow up to be a tiger? Maya Ramaswamy’s gorgeous illustrations plunge you into the marvellous forests of India. And it’s a joy to learn about the tiger’s characteristics through Prerna Singh Bindra’s writings.


Birds from my Window and the Antics they get up to

Ranjit Lal


When it comes to nature writing for children, Ranjit Lal’s books are a wonderful gateway into that world. He writes with his characteristic dry wit and astute understanding of animals. In Birds from My Window, he writes about the everyday feathered friends he observes – from the little brown sparrow to the jungle babblers. Budding ornithologists will love this book. Also, check out The Tigers of Taboo Valley (Red Turtle) by Lal. It’s the story of a Rana Shaan-Bahadur, the alpha-male tiger of Sher-Kila National Park, who finds himself lumped with the care of four tiger cubs. It’s a hilarious story with some hard truths about the perils our forests face today.


The Sea in a Bucket

Deepa Balsavar and Priti Rajwade


In just ten pages, The Sea in a Bucket tells the story of the water cycle. Sonu is heading to the community tap to fill up a bucket of water, but he ends up learning about its journey from the sea to his bucket. Deepa Balsavar’s illustrations make for a lovely pullout poster at the end of the book with the entire ecosystem on it.


Trash! On Ragpicker Children and Recycling

Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar and Orijit Sen

Tara Books

In the note to Parents and Educators, the authors explain that the book “evolved from a series of workshops” that were conducted with rag picker children. “We decided to write this book on the complex issues of child labour and the environment because we believe that problematic themes have a place in children’s literature. Books can deal openly and honestly with the harsher realities of life, which children see around them every day”. Trash! tells the story of Velu, who runs away from his home and comes to Chennai, a city in South India. Here he is befriended by Jaya, a ragpicker. The book is peppered with exercises such as Houses from Trash – where readers have to observe a slum settlement and think “what some people throw away as waste is valuable to others”. They then also have to identify the waste that often goes into the making of slums.


Our Toxic World: A guide to hazardous substances in our everyday lives

Aniruddha Sen Gupta and Priya Kurian

Sage Publications and Toxics Link.

Our Toxic World is a graphic novel co-published by Delhi-based NGO Toxic Link. The book is divided into 12 parts that look at Construction, Automobile pollution, Environmental laws, Industrial pollution, chemicals, Electronic waste, Plastics, Heavy metals, Food, Household waste, Recycling, and Festivals.

The story is told through the eyes of a family and in the form of a graphic novel. The comic form works very well, making a complex subject easy to understand and accept. Further, panel pages alternate with fact sheets that talk about hazardous substances and also offer solutions for non-toxic everyday products.


Alphabet Books


You are never too old for alphabet books, especially for fun ones like these books. Prabha Mallya looks at collective nouns in The Alphabet of Animals and Birds (Red Turtle). Learn about a pride of lions as well that a group of owls is called a parliament! There’s also the wonderful Book of Beasts (Duckbill) by M Krishnan, with some beautiful illustrations by one of the country’s most beloved naturalists.


The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street

Shabnam Minwalla

Hachette India.

Journalist Shabnam Minwalla’s charming book is based in Mumbai. Nivi and Nikhil move to the city with their parents and quickly befriend other children who live in Cosy Castle on Dorabji Street. However, Nivi and her new best friend Sarita find that their lovely hideout, a gigantic tree in the community garden, is going to be felled by two evil neighbours. Using their wit and with a little bit of magic, they set about foiling their plans and saving their beloved tree.

Farmer Falgu series

Chitra Soundar and Kanika Nair

Karadi Tales

If you’re looking for a book where a farmer is the protagonist, then turn to Chitra Soundar’s Farmer Falgu series. In Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market, the farmer must get his produce to the market. Off he goes on his cart, but the journey is filled with lots of disasters! Will he get to the market in time? In Farmer Falgu Takes a Trip, the farmer takes a holiday from his farm and heads off on his cart. Does he find the solace he wants? Farmer Falgu Goes Kite Flying is also part of the series.



Ten ways to observe World Earth Day


Happy Earth Day everyone! April 22 is celebrated across the world to remember the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Over time, it has become one of the many green days, on which we are besieged with pleas to save the planet and sharing breathtakingly beautiful photos of flora and fauna and talking about how there’s only one planet, yada yada yada. In keeping with the spirit of things, I just wanted to start off the celebrations with a checklist for our children. Here’s a list of things that our kids can definitely use for Earth Day.

1. Long walks in the park, when we can find them. Stopping frequently – not to check our mobile phones – but to examine a seed pod or a fascinating bug.

2. Stories that inspire and tales that remind us about the gorgeous planet we live in. And storytellers to write and draw them.

3. Clean-up drives, but ones attended by grown-ups as well. Why do children keep having to pick up their trash?

4. Broadcasts from Slooh, the online astronomy service, where NASA astronauts Stanley Love and Tracy Caldwell Dyson will share “what they missed most about Earth when they went into space, and how they felt to be looking down on our “pale blue dot.”

5. Clean, fresh air, water, food, soil, and you know, essential stuff like that.

6. A nature journal, and access to nature to observe and record it.

7. Logging on to NASA’s Adopt the Planet website and virtually adopting a piece of Earth as seen from space. They will even get an adoption certificate and get to mine Earth science data. More exciting, inclusive science.

8. Introduce them to a tree – let them befriend it, adopt it, even write a thank you card to it.

9. David Attenborough, Arati Kumar-Rao, Bittu Sahgal, Rachel Carson, Claude and Norma Alvares, Prerna Singh Bindra, Jane Goodall, Vidya Athreya, Ullas Karanth, Rohan Chakravarty, and many more inspiring people. Media outlets that give them space to be heard.

10. Climate-literate parents and peers.

And then, here’s a list of things our kids don’t need for Earth Day.

1. Policies that greenlight forest clearances and then speeches on going green, along with coffee table book launches on the many splendours of the planet.

2. Realms of newsprint dedicated to the colour green. Everything green – from the font to the masthead. But little coverage on environmental matters.

3. Advertisements that jump up and down and clamour to be heard because, well, their agency gave them a green makeover for the day. Especially for that day. You know, to win awards later in the day as well.

4. Brown paper packages and plastic bags (from all that shopping) that clog up our landfills. And all their contents, which scientists believe, may become technofossils (technology that will fossilize), and add a distinct geological layer upon the Earth.

5. RJ/ Broadcaster/Listicle-writer speak on how green is the new black.

6. Bleached coral reefs and species extinction.

7. Boring environmental education text books.

8. ‘Meri Desh ki Dharti’ on loop. No thanks.

9. Hyper-processed foods concocted in labs or ingredients flown half-way across the planet, racking up food miles. Local produce does very nicely.

10. Never-ending talks to children, as to how it’s their responsibility to save the planet. No, it’s not. They have lots of homework to do. It’s the grown-ups’ responsibility, and we are failing miserably. In fact, if we were in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we’d get a T for Troll.

The curious case of children’s literature


Why don’t international book lists really get Indian kid-lit? A question I have often pondered, and am sure others in the industry have as well.

Two years ago, The Guardian, which has excellent recommendation for kid-lit and YA Books, published an article titled, “What are the best children’s books about India?” The list included some outstanding books, but most weren’t really representative of the country’s diverse kid-lit. Especially if you’re looking for slice-of-life stories. Two of the selections, for instance, were folk tales. Another pick, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, isn’t really the best example, when there’s an entire fleet of publishers creating some fantastic new children’s literature in English in our country. The more updated list actually comes from Duckbill’s Sayoni Basu in the comments section of the piece.

Where are the books?

More recently, website Book Riot did a list of “Young Adult/Crossover Titles from India”. The writer bemoans how hard is it “to find the casual inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters in YA”. But then the list doesn’t even include Slightly Burnt by Payal Dhar or Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar, two tremendous examples of LGBT books for young adults.

Let’s accept it — international writers aren’t really culpable here. The fact is that it’s hard for even Indian children, teens, and parents to find good literature — and that’s not because it isn’t being published. Children’s publishing in India is evolving in leaps and bounds — we are seeing an upsurge of powerful storytelling, writers breaking traditional moulds, and publishers bashing stereotypes. And when done right, those books are fun and fabulous.

By now many of our writers should have become household names, much like J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan or Enid Blyton. Yet, we still haven’t seen the kind of national or international recognition that they deserve. Of course, Tara Books, as well as Tulika Books and Karadi Tales have an international presence and as does the Pratham Books StoryWeaver platform (disclosure: I consult with Pratham Books). In fact, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings often features Tara Books in her list of must-read books, giving realms of virtual space to their gorgeous illustrations.

The year 2017 is turning out to be promising for children’s publishing in India. Bookaroo, India’s own festival of children’s literature, aptly won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair International Excellence Award. Young Zubaan’s Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, a feminist anthology, edited by Payal Dhar and Anita Roy from India and Kirsty Murray from Australia, was published in the U.S.

Discovering fresh talent

But it’s really “discovery” that continues to be a big problem. How do you find out that these books are in the market? Bestselling lists are packed with international books, mythology and folk tales. That is when you can find a physical bookstore. When you do, Ruskin Bond, Abdul Kalam, Rudyard Kipling dominate bookshelves, and few publishing houses flex their marketing muscle for other books.

If then, you’re buying books online, how do you know which titles to buy? Stories about children’s books and their authors are few and far between in the media. Websites like Good Books or Saffron Tree are excellent resources for book reviews, but we need to find other ways of sending traffic their way. Bookstores such as Trilogy by the Eternal Library and Kitab Khana in Mumbai or Lightroom in Bengaluru are incredibly rare and precious. Once you step into them, a veritable trove of kid-lit is in front of you. Then there’s Reading Raccoons on Facebook, which has interesting discussions on children’s books fuelled by parents, educators, editors and authors.

Making a start

Last year, I started BAM Books on Instagram with a friend, Maegan Dobson Sippy, to create a visual space to talk about diverse books, and the response has been phenomenal. We are finding interesting books, having some fantastic conversations, and learning so much about our classic and contemporary stories.

To add to the first question, what if you were looking for a list of must-read YA books from the U.S. or say, the best children’s books about the U.K.? Imagine a list that mostly included YA books such as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot? Or was dominated by Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton? It wouldn’t ring true, would it? We feel the same.

Make way for an equal turf


Here are three beloved literary characters from children’s books. Give yourself a cookie if you can figure out the two things they have in common.

“On Tuesday, he ate through two pears. But he was still hungry!” – The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

“Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path…” – The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think.” – Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne.

Well, for one, they are all animals. And two, they are all male!

It’s really not a coincidence that many of our cherished literary animals are male. Let’s see now, there’s The Jungle Book motley crew of Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, and Shere Khan the tiger; then there’s Clifford the big red dog, gentle Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, Pete the Cat, the Very Hungry Caterpillar — it’s a really, really long list, when you think about it.

This was one of the topics of conversation a couple of weeks ago on Genderlog India, a Twitter-based crowdsourced hub that invites guest curators to talk about gender. As tweets flew across the virtual universe, we talked about the accepted fact that while girls will read books with either girl or boy protagonists, boys will mostly choose those with boy heroes. That aside, gender biases creep up in innocuous ways in storytelling, often manifesting in the form of a predominant male voice in children’s literature.

You’d think that adding anthropomorphised animals in a storyline would contribute to defying gender stereotypes, but it turns out, they often reinforce them. These social constructs run deep, and it’s not surprising then that they crop up in storybooks as well.

In an analysis of the Caldecott award-winning books, a 2011 study titled Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books, found: “Books with male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals.” In fact, from the North American books, only Have You Seen My Duckling? had a distinct female lead. “Together with research on reader interpretations, our findings regarding imbalanced representations among animal characters suggest that these characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages. The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery,” wrote the authors.

Of course, there are distinct female voices in the literary animal kingdom. The most evocative among them being the eponymous spider from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. During the Genderlog India Twitter chat, writer Nilanjana Roy also recommended Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs, in which a female wolf cub lives alongside other baby animals including a fox-cub, a baby donkey, and humans. Yasmeen Ismail’s I’m A Girl has a little girl-donkey who keeps getting mistaken for a boy because she is messy, loves to win, and is fast as the wind. The picture book is a celebration of childhood and being who you want to be.

The popularity of the Olivia book series by Ian Falconer shows that many of the gender biases don’t hold for younger children. An anthropomorphic piglet, Olivia is a feisty bundle of energy; she is constantly up to something or the other. In a 1996 paper titled Children’s assignment of gender to animal characters in pictures, the researchers found that the younger children — aged four to five years — “assigned their own gender to the characters”, but the older ones — seven to eight and 10 to 11 — were impacted by gender stereotypes, with boys in the oldest age groups most influenced by them.

Closer home, there’s Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, which has been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Prabha Mallya’s illustrations conjure up the majestic Beraal, “the most fierce of the queens” among cats in Nizamuddin. Then there’s Mahasweta Devi’s Our Incredible Cow and Our Non-Veg Cow and Other Stories, featuring Nyadosh the cow with an insatiable appetite, who will not turn up her nose at any food, be it books or clothes or inanimate objects. Padmaparna Ghosh’s Up World, Down World features Gopa the dormouse who takes young readers on a tour of canopy forests.

There may be more feminine voices in the animal kingdom, but they are still very much in the minority. And this not for a dearth of inspiration. While we hear real-life stories of Tilikum the SeaWorld Orca, and Suraj the one-eared elephant who was rescued by Wildlife SOS, we are equally fascinated by Elsa the lion cub raised by Joy and George Adamson in Kenya or Tara the tigress that Billy Arjan Singh attempted to reintroduce into the wild, or even Tardar Sauce, who’s better known virtually as Grumpy Cat.

More recently, The Washington Post reported that Wikipedia had placed the Garfield page on lockdown, after an argument broke out over the character’s gender. Garfield’s creator Jim Davis later stepped in to clarify that Garfield is male, but added, “I’ve always said that I wanted to work with animals because they’re not perceived as being any particular gender, race, age or ethnicity.”

The bottom line is that literary animals are memorable. Even as adults, we remember many of them with fondness. It’s imperative then to bridge the gap for more gender-neutral and female representations in the animal kingdom in books.

Tigers are people too


All T-Cub wants to do is grow up to be a tiger. And really, it shouldn’t be this hard — he is a tiger cub already. And that’s when we meet him, in When I Grow Up I Want to be a Tiger, a picture book by Prerna Singh Bindra and Maya Ramaswamy, where he is splashing about in water, jumping at his copy-cat tiger reflection, learning to hunt through play. Life’s good for T-Cub, until one day, his mother vanishes, and the cub and his sibling are left to fend for themselves. Which makes you wonder, with all the threats that the species faces, will T-Cub grow up to be a tiger?

Joys of childhood

Published by Speaking Tiger, the picture book brings together the wonders of the forest and the magnificence of the tiger, along with the many threats this animal faces today. At the same time, it’s a book about the joys of childhood, and the wonderful bond between parents and their children. Beautifully produced, When I Grow Up is designed by Pranav Capila, editor of Second Skin Media, an editorial and design agency focused on wildlife conservation.

As a journalist, Bindra has written over 1,500 articles on nature and wildlife, and authored The King and I: Travels in Tigerland and Voices in the Wilderness for adults. When I Grow Up is her first book for children. “I ran a nature column for children for maybe a year. I did it for The Asian Age,” said Bindra, who has also worked with Sanctuary Asia. “See, the world of conservation is a grim one. Full of ‘bad’ stories of forests being destroyed, elephants being crushed by trains, tigers and pangolins being poached, leopards being beaten to death, rivers being dammed and polluted… you get the drift? It’s a constant battle, and the despair hits you. So, I sat back, and thought, why do I do this? And the answer is: Because I care! Because nature is magical, mysterious, it inspires wonder, and awe. I decided to pen this book… to revive that little bit of magic.”

And the book inspires wonder, more so because of Ramaswamy’s illustrations — they are lush and awe-inspiring. A hornbill flies out of one page, and on another, a tiger’s tail disappears around a verdant corner. Ramaswamy, who is known for her wildlife art, conjures up a forest with her brush, the animals and birds rendered with painstaking detail. “Maya got the pulse of the story,” said Bindra, “and she has made T-Cub and his ma, and his sister come alive… the illustrations are gorgeous, and I fell in love with T-Cub all over again.”

T-Cub is the amalgamation of the many tiger cubs that Bindra has met over time, during her trips to the forests of India. Snippets from fellow conservationist and forest staff have gone into the book, making it a veritable trove of information about tigers. “I remember when I went to Bandhavgarh, I saw a tigress sleeping with her three cubs. One of them, the forest guard told me, was a male and a curious kid. And bold. The cub got up to take a closer look. As her got a little too close, the mamma got up in a second, snarled, and gave him a sound whack which had him scurrying back to her! She was disciplining him, just like our mothers do!

Wildlife faces a crisis

There’s a sense of beauty, followed by a feeling of urgency in the story. Bindra’s work — she has been a member of India’s National Board for Wildlife and its Standing Committee from 2010 to 2013 — has always fuelled the discussion around wildlife conservation. “There is a sense of urgency in the wildlife scenario today,” said Bindra. “Wildlife is facing its worst crisis ever; we are in the age of the sixth extinction. How can one ignore that, or not care? It’s intrinsic to the work I do, it is why I do what I do. And yes, the sense of urgency, or the conservation message does weave in my writing, whether it be travelogues or for children. The sense of beauty moves you to care for the tiger, the forest and what you care for, you fight for.”

But mostly for Bindra, this book is important because she feels the need to share the tiger’s story with children. “It is also because I find children increasingly very removed from nature, the outdoors, these days,” she said. “I hope it will bring tigers alive for them, show them that tigers are people too (only better!), that animals, even tigers have personalities.”

The power of persuasion


Right outside the Monteverde cloud forest reserve in Costa Rica is a sign that proudly proclaims: “The Children’s Eternal Rainforest is conserved with the help from children and adults around the world”. In 1987, Swedish school children kicked off a global effort to send money to purchase rainforest land to protect this Costa Rican forest patch. Since then, children and grown-ups from 44 countries have pitched in to support the fragile ecosystem here. One such child, Jonathan McGalliard, has written a letter to the rainforest. “The rainforest is interesting because you can’t see the sky in the middle,” he writes in his letter, which is pinned up next to the sign. “I love animals. Why save it (sic) because I don’t want animals to lose their children and have no place to live.”

When it comes to driving social change, children are often an integral part of the constituency. Kids are inherently compassionate, and concerned about the world around them. Of course, they also have a fair bit of persuasive power, a fact that brands and advertising agencies clocked into much earlier — a reason why so many ad campaigns, from insurance schemes to cars, feature children prominently. It’s not surprising then that many not-for-profits have school contact programmes where they engage children on human rights, environment conservation, and animal welfare.

At a time when we are all trying to make sense of the social and political chaos around us, we can take a leaf from our children’s books. In 2015, 21 youths, between the ages of nine and 20, in the U.S.A. filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The premise of the case is that climate change threatens their fundamental constitutional right to life and liberty.

Similarly, in New Delhi last year, six children, represented by their legal guardians, filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to curb pollution and create green spaces in Mundka and Kirari areas. The NGT has sent notices to the Ministries of Environment and Urban Development, Delhi government, Delhi Development Authority and Central Pollution Control Board asking them to respond to the petition.

Have a conversation with children about social change, and they will most probably knock your socks off with what they know. Bengaluru-based website Nature inFocus invites a child to take over as guest editor as part of their Young Tusks section every month. The young guest editor assigns the team three stories about nature and writes a short editor’s note as well. “When we started it, it was for the sole purpose to educate; we didn’t anticipate the tremendous learning that would come our way through these inquisitive and startlingly intuitive minds,” said Sejal Mehta, editor-in-chief at Nature inFocus. “They’ve made us want to stop talking to adults entirely, really.”

Eight-year-old Sachit Anand wrote about a trip to Coorg that got him looking at bugs and insects more closely. “I loved this trip because there was so much fascinating wildlife everywhere,” he wrote. “I’ve never seen this much wildlife and greenery in my life. It made me think if I learned more about nature, I could become a nature expert and be famous one day.”

Tamanna M. Atreya, 10, wrote about observing the Indian Roller in a forest, and Vivaan Anand, 8, wrote about sharks. “We should protect sharks from the pollution and plastic in the ocean,” he wrote. “For that, we have to learn more about them, and how we can stop from dirtying our oceans.”

In my work with kids, I have met children who have declared their schools as plastic-free zones, fined their parents for carrying those offending plastic bags, written letters to ministers about captive animals, and got hundreds and thousands of signatures for a save the tiger petition. This is the vast reserve of optimism that we as adults can tap into: the power of kids.

Bittu Sahgal, the founder-editor of Sanctuary Asia, has a way of reminding children about their inherent kid power. He stands in a classroom, an auditorium, or a forest and points at his salt-and-pepper hair. For him, he says, there are only two parties in the world: the Bachha (children’s) Party and the Buddha (elders) Party. He then reminds the children that they can change the world. On one Facebook post this month he wrote, “I look forward to the day when the priorities of the Bachha Party over-ride the false ambition of the Buddha Party.”


Get yourself a bookish makeover


Last week, the nephew put on a blonde wig and denim jacket to dress up as Alex Rider, the teenage spy from the book series by British author Anthony Horowitz. The year before that, his grandmother crafted a paper pulp cartoon mask for him so he could be Greg Heffley of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame.

It got me thinking, that children dress up as international book characters all the time — I am happy to don the garb of a Gryffindor on most occasions — but how about Indian ones? So here’s my list of characters that I think would set the tone of any fancy dress-slash-book day.

Mithyakins: In Roopa Pai’s eight-part Taranauts fantasy series (Hachette), Mithya’s eight worlds are plunged into darkness when the evil Shaap Azur steals all their 32 stars. Enter three Mithyakins who are on a quest to solve 32 riddles to set each star free. When it comes to dressing up, children can look at Priya Kuriyan’s black-and-white illustrations for cues. There’s Zvala the child of fire, the brainiac of the team who loves to dress up. Add some shimmering nail paint, glowing ribbons or colourful leaves in the hair and let out an occasional “Eeeee!” to suddenly be Zvala. Team up jeans with a graphic-printed tee to transform into the athletic Zarpa, child of the super serpent Shay Sha, and of course break out into sudden stretches — after all she can twist her body into all shapes and stretch herself like rope. Or put on a bandana to become Tufan the child of wind, and whistle a tune and pet some animals while at it. Both Zarpa and Tufan would wear their graphic-printed tees over a snug, full-sleeved plain jersey.

The Monster: There are few monsters as adorable as the one in Anushka Ravishankar’s fabulous book Moin and the Monster (Duckbill). To draw out the monster from under his bed, Moin has to draw the fearsome beast who has “nose like pails, ears like horns, and teeth like nails”. Unfortunately, Moin’s drawings skills are not quite up to scratch. So instead of becoming a purple scary creature, the monster is pink, and has drumstick-like legs and flippers for feet. Anitha Balachandran’s rendering of the monster is adorable and will give you some fun costume tips.

Historical characters, with a twist: Head over to the pages of the History Mystery series by Natasha Sharma (Duckbill) for some ideas. Why not be Razia Sultan, who keeps getting pesky, rude presents, or emperor Ashoka with muddled messages inscribed on pebbles or Raja Raja Chola with a pepper mill (which may just be goat droppings). Check out Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari, and think of how to be the regal Didda.

Rusty: Ruskin Bond’s boy from the hill, Rusty, is perhaps one of his most memorable characters. Dress up in a checked shirt and jeans with a pair of boots. Be ready with some tales like a monkey travelling in a bag in a train or an encounter with a leopard. Don’t forget to pack in some spirit of adventure, because that’s what really Rusty is all about.

Princess Easy Pleasy: There’s nothing like a bratty princess, especially Princess Easy Pleasy (Karadi Tales), who wears a crown on her head along with a case of really bad attitude. Natasha Sharma’s princess is hard to please, but recreating the character rendered by Priya Kuriyan is easy pleasy. A crown, faux gold jewellery, royal robes, along with a temper tantrum and you’re good to go. After all, who said princesses must be all things nice?

Feluda: Pradosh Chandra Mitra a.k.a. Feluda, the fictional private detective created by Satyajit Ray, is quite a dapper one. And if, like Feluda, you put your magajastra (brain weapon) to use, you can come up with a fabulous look. Kurta, shawl and bell-bottomed trousers, with a hint of swag is perfect Feluda wear. Tapesh, Dr. Watson to Feluda, has it easier with jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and a jacket. Of course, even better if you can go as a trio of Feluda, Tapesh, and thriller writer Jatayu/ Lalmohan Ganguli. Jatayu can be dressed in a white kurta, jacket, and loose pajamas or dhoti. Don’t forget to draw a moustache and spout poetry at the drop of a hat.

Making sense of violent times


As a journalist living in Srinagar, Majid Maqbool is no stranger to violent conflict. But he was caught by surprise when his three-year-old daughter saw a newspaper with photos of children blinded by injuries and asked, “Isko eyes main pellet aaya hai?” “She had picked up the word from the afternoon news my parents watch,” speculated Maqbool, who until then thought his daughter was insulated from the events around them. Noorain is only a toddler, but she is increasingly curious about why her school is shut for long periods because of curfews and is familiar with words such as tear gas and how to cover her face and hide in a corner to avoid the smoke from tear gas shells.

We live in a time when we are witness to terrible occurrences across the world, whether it’s the situation in Kashmir, Bastar, or Syria. Even our cities are no strangers to violent conflicts — whether it’s the Babri Masjid communal riots of 1992, the siege of Mumbai on 26/11, or conflicts sparking over water issues like in Bengaluru. Children are particularly vulnerable and susceptible to what is happening around them or even far away from them. It can cause extreme trauma and stress.

“Children are not adults-in-waiting,” says Shreya Jani, managing trustee at Standing Together to Enable Peace Trust. Jani says, “They see the world and sense it pretty deeply in my experience. When exploring any idea with children, or adults for that matter, one needs to inculcate a scientific temper along with compassion. Ask them questions about what they think they are hearing or seeing. How does it make them feel? Why is it happening, according to them? Push them to seek their own answers and guide them through this inquiry though compassion.”

As a child, it’s often hard to make sense of what is happening. The television is always on at home, newspapers, websites and radio bear graphic images and videos of violence. Last year, when Bengaluru erupted into violence to protest against the Cauvery judgement in September, a friend narrated an incident — a child, as she was being ushered home from school, asked her mother the purpose behind actions like burning buses or harming public property. Given the easy access to media, most children can easily find answers in one quick Google search, but they may not always be the most appropriate ones.

According to clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta, if your child asks about a particular conflict, it’s crucial to have a conversation, because otherwise they may end up building their own narratives in their head. “Even if you’ve not spoken about it to your children, they have may have heard about it from other children, or at school,” says Gupta, who is a practising therapist and has worked with clients from Afghanistan who were exposed to conflict.

Gupta’s daughter, who is now seven years old, heard about the 2015 Paris attacks in school during the morning prayer and later, she heard versions from older students in the school bus. “She came home and said I want to read about it,” recounts Gupta. Instead of handing over a newspaper or turning on the news, Gupta encouraged her daughter to ask questions and she tackled them. “First, find out how much they know about it,” she recommends. “Once you know, have a conversation about it. Explain to them in a very fact-based manner. And allow them to share their feelings about it.”

For Maqbool too, it’s crucial to explain to his daughter what is happening in Kashmir. “I think as a parent I would want her to understand what is happening around her,” he says. “As children ask questions and then maybe get answers to their questions in bits and pieces, they understand. I would be uncomfortable telling such a young child everything since it can be confusing. But at the same time, I find that they are often quick in finding out when some harm happens,” adds Maqbool. Gupta says that in cases where a child is not aware of the conflict situation happening in remote place at all it’s okay not to talk about it. However, parents need to foster spaces where children can feel comfortable talking and sharing.

Peace education in schools is one way of helping children navigate the world they live in. “Peace education is very important as the world has becoming more apparently interconnected,” says Jani, who has a Masters in the subject from University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Gupta adds that it’s crucial to inject hope into the conversation with your child. “There is violence, yes, but talk about non-violence and compassion,” she says adding, “How there’s hope. Talk about community building efforts, for one, how the law works, and how the situation can be resolved eventually.” Jani agrees. “Engage children,” she stresses, “Make them think at the same time feel and share these feelings. Always channelise it towards a positive action response that they can take to overcome these negative emotions and foster compassion and reflection and inquiry.”

Good Fellas


A wolf, a shark, a snake, and a piranha don suits and begin The Good Guys Club. No, that’s not the start of a joke, but the premise of Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series published by Scholastic. The books are about a quartet who really really look like Bad Guys, in fact, everyone thinks they are terribly Bad Guys, scary and dangerous. But what they really really want is to be heroes, especially Mr. Wolf. Unfortunately, everyone keeps judging the Samaritans on how frightening they look, even the dapper suits don’t seem to help their image.


“I wanted to make something that my overly-sophisticated eight and 10-year-olds would think was cool,” said Blabey over email. “It was also a reaction to seeing a lot of deeply boring Early Reader books being brought home from school. Some books seem to have been designed to discourage children from ever wanting to read again. It was my hope to provide an antidote to that.”

Written and illustrated by Blabey, the comic chapter books are fully fun. Each page elicits a few chuckles, and some are simply laugh out loud. No surprise then that The Bad Guys has been extremely successful in Australia and is now available in India as well. “Kids really seem to love it,” said Blabey. “And kids who don’t like to read books are loving it too. THAT is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I’m immensely proud of that: kids who consider books to be Kryptonite are queuing up for the next instalment.”

But they are more than just funny stories. In Episode 1, The Good Guys Club sets off to rescue 200 puppies locked up in a maximum security city dog pound (their hopes and dreams are trapped behind walls of stone and bars of steel) and in Episode 2 – Mission Unpluckable, their daring plan is to rescue 10,000 chickens from a high-security cage farm (never mind that one of their members is a notorious chicken swallower). These are narratives that will be loved by animal advocacy champions. “It’s more about characters who’ve simply been judged their whole lives because of the way they look,” said the Australia-based Blabey. “The fact that they’re animals is inconsequential. One of them — Wolf — wants to transcend his situation. His counterpart — Snake — is resigned to it. Their polar approaches to handling this dilemma is the engine of the series.”

The Bad Guys explores attitudes and discrimination at the same time, using humour deftly to present the issues. “I find Wolf heart breaking,” said the bestselling author. “He can’t understand why no one can see how nice he is. The world’s preconceived notions of what the boys are is a rich and satisfying seam of material to mine and for the record, I love making this series more than I can say.”

Blabey effortlessly switches between writing and illustrating comic chapter books and picture books, including the adorable Pig the Pug series and Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas. Blabey said that his approach to the books is completely different. “I walk when I write picture books. The rhythm of walking helps me write in verse. I walk until I have a book,” he said. “The Bad Guys, on the other hand, is written like a screenplay, sitting at a desk, on a Mac. The process of switching between them is like crop rotation (Joni Mitchell famously referred to moving between song writing and painting in the same way. I’ve stolen that from her.)”

As he walks about the Blue Mountains thinking up his stories, Blabey pens them down on phones and other such entities. “I like mediums of impermanence, like phones, white-boards and napkins, because they encourage naughtiness,” he said. “Handsome notebooks demand reverence. Every mark seems to diminish their beauty. My notes app, on the other hand, feels utterly transient, so I tend to be more relaxed and playful when I write on it. I love white-board too. Nothing is at stake, so I feel free to play.”

Spinning a different yarn


In an interview, Maurice Sendak said, “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Ask most writers, and they will say that as a child, they pretty much read whatever they could lay their hands on, as long as it held their interest. Children enjoy reading all sorts of books. Yes, they read the ones about schools and diaries in school, adventures and misadventures, but they also savour those that traverse the darker side of life that adults often shield them from. It’s a subject that has been the focus of my multifarious conversations over ten days at Children Understand More…!, a workshop-cum-residency organised by The Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan and Zubaan in Santiniketan.

Seventeen writers and illustrators from different parts of the country have been intensely talking, writing, drawing, debating, discussing, and listening everything kid-lit at the workshop. Mentors — writers Payal Dhar and Devika Rangachari from India, and illustrators Ben Dammers and Nadia Budde from Germany — have been sculpting away at the ideas and stories along with the participants, helping shape them into works that engage with the many difficulties of reality. “We have learned a lot as well,” said Budde. “About how people think differently, how they develop ideas.” All these interactions have been bolstered with superlative meals and mishti at the Mitali Home Stay, where we are staying.

Death, climate change, single parenting, religion, family structures, individuality and gender, body image, growing up in a conflict zone, social stigmas and identity are just some of the subjects that are being written about and illustrated at this workshop. “It’s nice to have the chance to move out of thinking about what can I write, will it be published,” said Dhar, the author of Slightly Burnt, a young adult book that explores queerness. “And to be able to give free rein to what you really want to write or illustrate. The constraints have been removed; the participants have carte blanche with a theme, without bothering how adults will react. It’s liberating. It’s almost like taking off your clothes and running down the beach, removing every covering that is there.” Rangachari agreed, adding, “Maybe we will don the covering when we return, but this has been a breather.”

Instead of using images, Bengaluru-based book designer Nia Thandapani is experimenting with typography and lettering to explore identity and how people are given labels by others. “It’s made me question and refresh my practice, and I can see myself taking forward the many conversations and work that’s been going on,” said Thandapani.

Novelist C.G. Salamander and illustrator Sahitya Rani are questioning the academic system through a graphic novel, while Meenal Singh is exploring grief and loss in her story. “It’s been great to see how visual and verbal language works together,” said Dammers. “Writers have seen how text can be represented visually and illustrators are working with the text in an involved manner.”

Samidha Gunjal, an assistant professor at the Symbiosis Institute of Design in Pune, said she had previously attended a similar workshop conducted by Max Mueller and Zubaan, which culminated in the graphic anthology Drawing the Line. “Such workshops provide a platform to share our stories and tell the truth about the current situations to children,” said Gunjal, who is working on two stories, one on manual scavenging with Salamander, and the other on domestic violence.

Karthika Gopalakrishnan, a writer who works for MsMoochie Books in Chennai, has teamed up with Kolkata-based illustrator Shreya Sen to develop a picture book. “Ministry of No is about an eight-year-old girl who is very good at saying no,” said Gopalakrishnan. “The picture book really deals with resilience and family dynamics.”

But what’s truly rare is being able to spend an uninterrupted amount of time in the company of those who care about writing and illustrating for children. “We all work in isolation in this field and as it is, children’s publishing is under-recognised and under-developed here,” said Rangachari, who wrote the historical fiction Queen of Ice. “So it’s a real luxury to have this time and space.”

Shals Mahajan, a Mumbai-based writer-activist, has teamed up with illustrator Tanvi Bhat for a story about Kittu, a child with a peculiarity around his food, and how his family is trying to figure it out. “It’s been a fantastic experience of being in a very peaceful, gorgeous place with a bunch of committed and creative writers and illustrators,” said Mahajan, who wrote the award-winning book, Timmi in Tangles. “It has also been surprisingly very comfortable, and the interaction has been full of camaraderie, which I did not expect. I am really enjoying working with so many people and seeing how they work. I am doing small creative projects with some, with the knowledge that there will be long-term interactions with many.”

Often, in the frenzy of lit-fests, kid-lit is relegated to an inconspicuous corner in the form of workshops or book sales. But now, festivals such as Kahani Karnival, Bookaroo, Peek-a-Book, the Chandigarh Children’s Literature Festival have been offering more curated spaces of storytelling for younger audiences. Then there’s Jumpstart by the German Book Office, which brings together creators of children’s contents in Delhi and Bengaluru for discussions and master classes.

In India, a number of books that explore difficult themes, including sexuality, class, same-sex love, body image, disabilities, and grief, are published, but they are few and far between. The majority continue to be stories about mythology, folk tales, and urban adventure stories. With dwindling brick-and-mortar bookstores, it’s often hard for parents, educators and children to find books with more slice-of-life narratives. But then again, it’s not always easy to find publishers who are willing to back the more difficult themes. Which is why as writers and illustrators of children’s books, it’s sheer joy to be able to step back for a few days, unhindered and uninhibited, to just follow what Dr. Seuss said, “Oh, the thinks you can think!”