Long live kid-lit


We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to making children’s stories mainstream, but let’s celebrate all the effort that went down in 2017

Where did 2017 go? It just whooshed past like those deadlines. It felt like it was just January, and we were all wondering if Mumbai would have a winter (ha! ha!) and before we knew it, the new year is upon us. Here are some of the highlights that kept children’s literature fresh and exciting as ever.

Children First:

When it comes to Duckbill, there’s plenty to keep book reviewers happy. The publishing house is constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries when it comes to challenging stereotypes. This year saw the release of the books written by the winners of the Children First contest, organised in association with Parag, a Tata Trust initiative and Vidyasagar School, Chennai. The contest invited entries from authors who wrote stories featuring children with disabilities. Harshikaa Udasi’s Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Dayand Shruthi Rao’s Manya Learns to Roar have already been published and picture books by Lavanya Karthik and R.K. Biswas will be released soon.

Two new imprints:

Going by the adage, the more the merrier, 2017 saw the launch of two more children’s books imprint. Tina Narang moved from Scholastic after 12 years to head HarperCollins Children’s Books in India, while Sudeshna Shome Ghosh moved from Red Turtle to start Talking Cub, an imprint of Speaking Tiger. Expect to see a lot more picture books, exciting fiction and non-fiction from these publishing houses.

Brick and mortar stores:

In the world of e-commerce, stores that focus on children’s books are few and far between. Most airport bookstores are stuffed with international titles, endless retellings of Hindu mythology, and the usual books by Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murthy, and Devdutt Patnaik. But it’s truly a joy to visit places such as Kahani Tree and Trilogy by the Eternal Library in Mumbai; Lightroom and Funky Rainbow in Bengaluru; and Kool Skool, Full Circle, the Bookshop and Book Vook in Delhi. These bookstore owners are truly the champions of kid-lit.

More and more:

This year saw new titles from some of our favourite authors. Priya Kuriyan illustrated the delightful wordless picture book, Ammachi’s Glasses (Tulika Books), while Rajiv Eipe dazzled us with Ammachi’s Amazing Machines (Pratham Books), where a grandmother uses the principles of physics to make coconut barfi. Then there was Ranjit Lal’s The Trees of Medley Gardens (Red Turtle), that brought to the forefront the underground life of trees. Anushka Ravishankar, truly one of India’s finest picture book writers, returned with Hic! (Tara Books), a picture book illustrated by Christiane Pieper; and Majula Padmanabhan came out with two gorgeous books for Tulika – Mama, What is the Night? and Pooni at the Taj Mahal.

Reading Racoons:

If you are on Facebook and are one of those adults who love children’s books, then you can’t have missed the chatter on The Reading Racoons – Discovering Children’s Literature. In the group’s description, the admins write, “We all have spent endless hours browsing for that ‘right book’ for children, painstakingly choosing the ‘best’, and yet having them out rightly rejected! So, it does makes sense to pool the information. List what your child is currently reading, post reviews straight from the horse’s mouth (or shall we say the raccoon’s mouth), and share ideas to get them hooked to books.” The group was started by Dr. Tanu Shree Singh, a professor of psychology and author of Keep Calm and Mommy On. With 16,145 members, The Reading Raccoons is an online space that offers a platform for spirited discussions, recommendations and discovery.

International recognition and festivals:

Kudos to Bookaroo, India’s own festival of children’s literature, for winning the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair International Excellence Award. Fully well deserved! It is truly wonderful to see how festivals such as Kahani Karnival, Chandigarh Children’s Literature Festival as well as Tata Lit Live and Bangalore Literature Festival focus on children’s books authors and illustrators. Of course, we are a long way from seeing most mainstream festival line-ups integrating kid-lit creators on the same platform (unless it’s a celebrity writer).

Girl power:

The book that really sparked conversations across India and the world this year was Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women (Penguin Random House) by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. “To the rebel girls of the world: dream bigger; aim higher; fight harder; And, when in doubt remember, You are right,” writes the authors in the front of the book. The book features a hundred heroes – from scientists and artists to explorers, designers, writers, queens, and activists. In an interview to The Hindu, the authors said, “We had been working in the children’s media space for the past five years and witnessed from the inside how gender stereotypes still permeate books for children of all ages. Parents are offered little resources to counter this trend and they are especially concerned about the lack of strong female role models in children’s media. That’s why we decided to create this book.”


Sh*t people tell children’s books people


If Cinderella was the stepchild of her family, then children’s books are sometimes treated as the step kids of the publishing industry. Whether it’s lit-fests or advances, kid-lit authors, editors and illustrators find themselves lower on the rung, a marked departure from the international scene.

This is why I asked some of India’s best children’s books writers and illustrators about the reactions they get when people find out about their “peculiar” career of choice. Here’s a sampling.

Make pictures? For children’s books? Like A for Apple… then you draw apple?

My child did the funniest thing the other day. I should make a book and of course, you can draw the pictures!

Don’t act so weird or you will find yourself a character in uncle’s next picture book.

Oh, that’s so sweet.

Means you draw for text books aa?

“What?”. When I repeat “Illustrator”, a blank look for a few seconds and then quickly changes topic

How exciting! But how do you get work? How do the authors find out about you?


Best no? You can have lots of free time then!

Ah, that’s brave. Especially if you’re used to being a rich banker type before.

Jab bachhon ke liye chutkule hi likhna tha to itni padhai kyon ki?

(When you writing kids stories why did you need to study so much?)

Oh. You don’t look like an author.

Okay. Published or writing just for fun?

Kids book? Accha, then you do a workshop, okay? Hundred kids possible?

Not bad. The royalties will make you a rich woman!

Miss, you are an author, you must be very rich! Which car do you have?

My daughter has written this most amazing book. I am sure you will publish it right away, it’s that good! She’s only 11.

When I retire, I am also going to write a book on my life story.

So, you work on the computer from home? That gives you some pocket money?

How much do you earn by doing these books?

Ah! Ravi Subramanian is writing a children’s books na? Same thing you do?

Errr…. feminist children’s book? Good luck with that then.

So, when are you planning to move on to real books?

No wonder you write for children! After that PhD in history, you obviously wanted something mindless to do. Something easy that doesn’t tax your mind.

When are you going to going to graduate to real writing? Proper writing? This kids’ stuff isn’t worth your while.

When I grow up, I want to be like you. I want to talk like you, wave my hands like you and smile like you. Because I love your books and I want to write just like you.

Your kids are older now. So, are you planning to write proper books now?

So, this is what the wife of a guy in financial services does now to keep busy!

You know I’ve been thinking of writing a book also. I think I’ll also write something for kids. Will be a change from all this consulting stuff.

Oh, I write real novels. But writing for children sounds easy!

Will you judge my school creative writing contest?

Will you come and tell a story to my students?

But you don’t even like children.

So, you make these stories inside your head? Just like that?

I hate reading. I find it the most boring thing in the world. My kid also doesn’t like reading.

Can you read at my kid’s birthday party?

Oh! You are an author? How cool! What kinds of books do you write? Oh… for kids…

So, you just sit and write? That’s all you do?

We’d like you to come read to the kids. But it cannot be a promotional activity about your books.

You write books for children? Very good. Very good. But kitna market hoga? You know, erotica is the big seller now. I was reading about it in the newspaper. Will you ever consider writing that? After all, it is also writing.

An editor of children’s books? Will you evaluate my 10-year-old’s book?

There is no writing for children in India other than epics and folktales.

So, what do you do exactly? Move commas and correct spellings?

Oh! So, when you give feedback the author listens to you?

I am so tired of writing these long complex books, and when I went out to buy something for my nephew I found nothing in the stores that he could read, so my next book will be for children and finally Indian kids will have something good to read.

What do you mean you manage a children’s imprint? What is there to manage? What is an imprint?

Editor? Means? Newspaper? No, children’s books. Means?

Oh… wow, you do that for a living?

P.S. I got inundated by responses, and am seriously considering a Tumblr for this now.

Colours of the Third Rock

Why Oliver Jeffers wrote a new picture book for his son, and why he doesn’t talk down to children.

Colours of the Third Rock

When the Apollo mission crew took that famous photograph of the earth in its entirety, the planet was dubbed the “Blue Marble”. The earth, as NASA puts it, was “revealed as both a vast planet home to billions of creatures and a beautiful orb capable of fitting into the pocket of the universe.”

Now, decades later, once again we get that sense of preciousness, the sheer weight and the worth of this blue marble, while reading Oliver Jeffers’s latest picture book, Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (HarperCollins).

Jeffers, over a phone call, says that he started writing and drawing Here We Are for his son. In his dedication, he writes, “To my son, Harland. This book was written in the first two months of your life as I tried to make sense of it all for you. These are the things I think you need to know.” The back of the book says it all — an arrow points at the earth and it says “All the people live here”, and then it points at another planet, “No one lives here (yet).” It suddenly hits you — this is it, our one home. By the end of the book, all you want to do is cradle the book (and the planet) and whisper a thank you.

The cover of Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth.

“It’s one of those ideas that kind of hits you over the head like a hammer when it occurs to you,” Jeffers says. “I didn’t start off thinking that, ‘Oh, I have got a book idea to write a guide for my son, let me see what will be in there.’ I was slowly explaining things to him as he walked around, and I was putting out things that he had never seen before … and I was sort of writing and drawing and putting together almost a metaphor for him. It occurred to me that it’s the premise of a picture book. It occurred to me that a brand-new life is a completely blank slate where he was my responsibility as a parent.”

Jeffers explores this “bewildering place” for newborns and the weary of heart with the help of little notes. He begins with a hand-lettered “Well, Hello and Welcome to this planet. We call it Earth.” The journey he takes the readers on is a spectacular one. We travel to land, sky and sea, to cold and hot places, to pointy, bumpy, and flat lands; and are reminded that we share it with others. Each page is more exquisite than the other — purple-pink mountains iced with snow; the velvety depths of the sea, complete with translucent jellyfish, pop-coloured octopus, and shipwrecks; a star-studded quilt of sky turning from day to night. A spectacular tribute to the planet. From there on, we meet a diverse pool of people and animals (one quibble, it’s not the best representation of India with rajas and yogis). But Jeffers underscores that we are all individuals and that “every beating heart is a human being.”

Here We Are is a searing reminder about the most important things on earth. The fact that we may be different, but we are all people. That just because animals don’t speak our language “that’s not reason not to be nice to them”. Most importantly, time is finite and you need to use your time on earth well.

The book is quintessential Jeffers. It’s funny, heart-rending, and very real. There’s something for parents as well, who will smile as they explore the book alongside their children at bedtime. But then, most of his books offer that shared joy of reading experience — whether it’s The Incredible Book Eating Boy (2006), a story that celebrates books, or the extremely imaginative Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (2014), which explores the letters through themes of fear, sadness, friendship, and the likes.

Jeffers with his son.

The latter, said Jeffers, emerged when he was going through his sketchbook. “Some of them were stories. Short stories,” he said. What was missing was a structure. So, he went back and “squeezed them into a letter”. His books are true to the picture book format, distilling an idea down to its most economic form. A writer, artist and illustrator, Jeffers, as he puts it, “makes art and tells stories”. “I try to show something rather than say it,” he says — evident in The Heart and the Bottle, which tells the story of grief and loss with very few words and poignant illustrations.

His debut book, How to Catch a Star (2004), is about a boy who loves stars and decides to catch his own. “I was sitting on the edge of a water pier. And I could have sworn that I could reach this tiny, shimmering object. It was the reflection of a star. It was a funny moment. As a kid, I was perhaps naïve that it was within reach,” he says.

Jeffers has always loved picture books — Eric Carle, Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake — and also collects them. “They are lovely examples of design,” says the 40-year-old. “They are powerful in a very simple way.” Like many other authors and illustrators, Jeffers doesn’t make a distinction between his audience — to him these are picture books, not children or adult books. “I don’t call them children’s books,” he says. “I don’t try to talk down to children or assume what they want to hear. I tell stories that I want to tell. And, luckily, they seem to share my sense of humour.”

Coincidentally, Here We Are releases in the same month that the climate change discussions in Bonn were held. “It’s a pressing issue facing us,” says Jeffers on the global phenomenon. “Just look around us — hurricanes, floods. Of course, climate change is real. ”

Those who follow Jeffers on social media — he is very active on Instagram — know that he often highlights social and political issues on his feed. “Global politics is taking strange turns. Humanity is moving in a dark direction,” says Jeffers, talking about the vitriol that we often see on social media. “We are at a crossroads. We are fully connected, even parts that are very rural and remote. It’s suddenly a global network. And these [social media] are the ways in which people communicate. I am worried that people aren’t looking at the larger picture. It will be a dangerous thing,” he says.

But he is optimistic. “As things are changing, we are learning, almost as fast as the things are changing. I hope it is the dawn of an age of a new enlightenment, one which is more liberal, socially conscious and aware. And we can override this trend of selfishness,” he says. Kindness is the sentiment that echoes throughout Here We Are. As Jeffers writes, “It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us on here (7,327,450,667 and counting) so be kind. There is enough for everyone”.

Ten Indian books featuring disabled children that every child (and parent) should read


It doesn’t matter if a children’s book has twelve pages or two hundred. What does matter is its ability to pack in diversity and uniqueness in those pages. Books for children that truly celebrate differences are few and far between. Writing about disabled characters, without othering them, isn’t something we see often – most books tend to explain the subject condescendingly to the abled reader.

Independent publishers such as Duckbill and Tulika Books have been taking the lead in this area, publishing books laced with empathy and sensitivity. On International Day of Disabled Persons, here are ten children’s books that feature disabled children as the heroes of their own stories.

Abba’s Day

Sunday is Aisha’s favourite day. It’s the day Abba wakes her up and they make masala chai for Ammi. The family spends the day together, running errands and having fun. Written by Sunaina Ali and illustrated by Desbasmita Dasgupta Abba’s Day (Katha) is about the moments that uplift an ordinary day into an extraordinary one. Only towards the end is it revealed that Aisha is on crutches, but the book does not create a fuss about it. It’s just a part of the story.

Catch That Cat

Oh dear! Kaapi the cat is lost and Dip Dip wants to help her friend find it. Off she goes, on her wheelchair looking for Kaapi in Catch That Cat (Tulika Books). Dip Dip looks everywhere until finally she finds Kaapi high up a tree. But it takes more than a naughty cat to outsmart Dip Dip, and no, she’s not going to let the fact that she is in a wheelchair stop her. Written by Tharini Vishwanath and with quirky illustrations by Nancy Raj, the book is quite an adventure.

Flute in the Forest

You can’t help but be enchanted by Atiya, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Flute in the Forest (Puffin) by Leela Gour Broome. Stricken by polio, Atiya finds happiness in the jungle, where she lives with her father who is a forest officer. One day, she hears the notes of a flute and befriends Ogre Uncle and his daughter. She begins to learn the flute, against the wishes of her father. It’s a story about the transformative power of music, how it transcends prejudices and heals.

A Helping Hand

In a letter, the protagonist of A Helping Hand (Pratham Books) writes, “Ma says that it is not good to stare at people, but I can see that everyone stares at you.” A new girl has joined the school and everyone is gawking at her prosthetic hand. Payal Dhar writes an epistolary picture book about friendship and the idea of fitting in, especially when you are different. It is a book about the curiosity of children, their inadvertent cruelty as well as their easy acceptance of differences. Vartika Sharma’s abstract illustration are in sharp contrast to the text, which is frank and candid (just like children tend to be), making it an unusual but poignant read.

Kanna Panna

Kanna’s head is always down. Although he doesn’t speak much, words play inside Kanna’s head – “They roll and tumble and play games”. Even his Amma’s younger sister Chithi struggles to talk to him normally. But when Chithi and her family get stuck inside a dark cave temple, it’s up to Kanna, who is visually-impaired, to save the day. After all, as he says, “Lights on or off, as if it made any difference to me.” Kanna Panna (Tulika Books) is written by Zai Whitaker, while Niloufer Wadia’s illustrations give the book a dream-like feeling. The story takes the idea of normalcy and turns it around, questioning prejudices and preconceived notions. Kanna says, “For once, others were depending on me. It felt good.”

Manya Learns to Roar

Shruthi Rao’s Manya Learns to Roar (Duckbill) is an adorable school story about a girl who wants to be Shere Khan in the school play, The Jungle Book. Her classmate Rajat is going to be playing Mowgli and he torments her about her stammering. Rao describes Manya’s anguish – “tentacles would come snaking out of her stomach and clutch her throat. And trying to get a word out of her mouth would feel like trying to squeeze a hippo through a ring” while Priya Kuriyan adds moments of lightness and depth with her wonderful black-and-white illustrations. A story about self-confidence, friendship, and the relationship between students and teachers.

The book, along with Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Day by Harshikaa Udasi, was one of the winners of the Children First writing competition organised by Duckbill that aims to find more stories about children with disabilities.

Simply Nanju

Zainab Sulaiman’s Simply Nanju (Duckbill) is a triumph of a book not only because it is set in a school for disabled children but because it is a wonderfully warm story with an immensely endearing motley crew of characters. Tanvi Bhat’s loveable cover of Nanju sets the tone for this school story which weaves together themes of social inequalities while evoking the innocence of childhood.

Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand?

“What to say? What to do? I don’t know?” “Don’t be confused. It’s simple, see. You be you and I’ll be me.” People react “in the strangest ways to those with disabilities”, writes Sheila Dhir in her picture book, Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand? (Tulika Books). She counters attitudes of pity, silliness, guilt, fear and hurtful behaviour – by delivering simple home truths. “Just because my legs are wobbly, people think my mind is wobbly too,” she writes. Rendered in a striking white and yellow colour scheme with black line drawings, the picture book reminds children and grown-ups that disability does not define a person.

Wings to Fly

Sowmya Rajendran tells the story of international para athlete Malathi Holla in Wings to Fly (Tulika Books). When Malathi is about a year old, she finds herself confined to a wheelchair. She has to live away from her beloved home (and mangoes) to get treatment in a medical centre in Chennai. Yet, little Malathi is determined to win a race. And she does, many of them. As she realises, “She could win as long as she tried”. Arun Kaushik’s illustrations paint a picture of this brave girl, her grit and determination, hopes and dreams, and her triumphs, complementing Rajendran’s sharp storytelling.


One of the few Indian Young Adult books on the subject, Unbroken (Duckbill) by Nandhika Nambi starts with a promising cover – it’s designed like a fragile package. Akriti despairs that “almost everything was impossible” after an accident which rendered her unable to walk. She finds herself caring less and less about herself, her family and friends, plunging into the depths of gloom and bitterness. She is an unusual protagonist – not really likeable, but then as she comes to accept the permanence of her disability, she also begins to realise that she can change the way she responds to it.

Sea of stories: Children’s books that inspired our wanderlust

Here are some of my favourite fictional islands


As a child, all I wanted was an island of my own. Okay, I also wanted a dog, a dress for my doll, and better marks than my friend, but the island topped that list.

I hadn’t visited any islands. But when my parents refused to get me said dog or my sister and I squabbled, I’d think that it would be rather fine to live on one of those islands out of books, where I would not encounter horridness of any sort. It did not matter that lots of weird and scary things happened to the characters on those islands.

After all, adventure beckons as friends row together, finally pulling the boat on to a rocky beach. Whether it’s the remote isle in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson, or the many islands of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (for some reason, men seem to be taking most of these journeys), these stories have inspired so many of us to take boats to islands around the world. Here are some of my favourite fictional islands.

‘The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island’.

‘The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island’.

Kirrin Island

If you are George from Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island, and someone tells you, “Children don’t usually own islands, even funny little ones…,” you prove them wrong. After all, Kirrin Island is owned by her mother’s family. It is a “curious rocky island with what looked like an old ruined castle on the top of it” and is full of rabbits and gulls. It’s surrounded by rocks and, on a still day, you can even see a bit of a shipwreck in the water. The five proceed to have thumping good picnics there as well as an adventure or two.

A quick online look suggests that Blyton’s inspiration was Corfe Castle in Dorset. However, a letter published in 1962 mentioned that she may have been inspired by one of the smaller Channel Islands, which she visited on her honeymoon.

‘Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island’.

‘Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island’.

Florona or Swapnadwip

The protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s short story, Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island, has been dreaming about Florona or Swapnadip, an island “filled with strange unknown plants and flowers and fruits, but no living creatures. At least no human beings”. When seven famous scholars vanish somewhere in the Philippines, Prof. Trilokeshwar Shonku knows he must investigate. He sets off in his Shankoplane, flies over the Nicobar Islands and Sundarbans, crosses Borneo and the Pacific Ocean, rests at Sumatra, and finally gets to Long. 136 E-Lat. 16N (it’s splat in the middle of the Philippine Sea).

It’s a bewitching island, teeming with colourful, odourless flora. Visitors, if they are not careful, may experience extreme light-heartedness, or be attacked by a flower that sucks away all knowledge and skills. The mysterious business of Florona, as the scientist realizes, will never be solved completely.

‘The Land Of Neverbelieve’.

‘The Land Of Neverbelieve’.

The Land Of Neverbelieve

Norman Messenger’s gorgeous book The Land Of Neverbelieve transports readers to the Magical Lake that teems with the Balloon Frog and the Octofrog. The Giant Dragonfly (it’s a dragon, yes), Double-Cream Cow and Wader Bird can be found on its fringes. As well as the Multi-Winged Parrot that is rather shy, and the Waterfall Tree that makes a pleasant tinkling sound.

Most of all, you must stop by the Book Mountain, which “tells stories at bedtime”. The book-shaped rocks “split open to reveal book pages”, the sound resembling the crack of ice. A triumph of imagination, Messenger’s book is a reminder that plants, animals, insects, birds are all wondrous and deeply magical.

‘Why The Whales Came’.

‘Why The Whales Came’.

Bryher and Samson

Michael Morpurgo’s Why The Whales Came is a story about island life and our fragmented relationship with each other and our environment. It’s set in 1914 on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish Coast, where best friends Gracie and Daniel build toy boats on Bryher, its smallest inhabited island. They know enough to stay away from the cursed island of Samson and the scary Birdman.

One day, Gracie and Daniel get lost in the fog and find themselves on Samson. There they learn (spoiler alert) that Samson’s ancestors woke up one morning to find a narwhal lying on the beach. As the stranded whale cried out, more whales came and the islanders butchered them for their tusks. When another narwhal is beached on Bryher, it’s up to Gracie, Daniel and Birdman to end the curse.

Magic, monsters and mysteries


Publisher Tina Narang on celebrating differences, creating book series with strong brand recall and working with graphic novels in her newly announced list for kids

What do Zippy the Zebra, poet Gulzar, and artists Garima Gupta and Kaveri Gopalakrishnan have in common? They are all part of the new Harper Collins Children’s Books in India list. Spearheaded by Tina Narang, who worked at Scholastic for over 12 years, the publishing house’s children imprint is going to be a mix of picture books, fiction, non-fiction, bilingual books, science and mythology.

The set launches with Meet Zippy, the first in a picture book series by Anitha Balachandran about an eponymous zebra. “The characters are all unique with very different personalities: a zebra, an elephant, a rabbit, a turtle, a leopard and more. So, it is about celebrating differences as well,” said Narang. Apart from that, the Flipped series sounds fun – which Narang said is a book with two covers, with Scary stories at one end and Funny Stories at the other. “The reader needs to simply flip the book over to get to the other side,” she explained. “The idea is to have something there for different tastes, so a child who can’t stomach a scary story, can just go ahead and read a funny one.” In an email interview, Narang outlined her plan for the imprint.

What’s the prime focus of your list?

The prime focus is to find fresh, new ways to engage the reader. There were two factors that I kept in mind when planning the list: Novelty and the Series format. Novelty because you are entering a market that you know is already full of good books from small and big publishers, all of whom acknowledge that this is a growing segment and are competing to be players on this stage. And Series because within this crowded market, where books disappear with alarming regularity, brand recall becomes the next major challenge and establishing a successful series ensures that the books within that series have a longer shelf life. So, I have tried to create a list of books that goes across age groups and is representative of various genres from picture books, to chapter books, to activity books, non-fiction, fiction, biographies and more.

Gulzar’s writing a children’s book, Ek Bar Socha Pustak Ne Aur Anya Kavitayen, after ages.

I am delighted to be working again with some of the authors that I had the pleasure of working with earlier, Gulzar being one of them. He suggested doing a collection of poems for children which I thought was a brilliant idea. The book has some delightful poetry. The book will also include some popular songs that he has written for children which remain unforgettable even years later, such as ‘Lakdi Ki Kathi’ and Mowgli. It will be a collection that fans of Gulzar—both young and old—will enjoy and cherish.

Do you plan to navigate unexplored themes?

This depends very much on discovering a brilliant story that explores a hitherto unexplored theme, or thinking of an innovative idea and commissioning an author to take that forward. This happens more organically. One of my strongest theme-based projects so far has been Paro Anand and Orjan Persson’s graphic novel 2. Brilliantly illustrated by Garima Gupta and Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, this book was a bundling together of two perspectives of the same story: the boy’s from Paro and the girl’s from Orjan.

Does the list include new writers and illustrators as well?

Among the new voices is Nidhi Chanani, whose graphic novel, Pashmina, we will be publishing later this year. There is a refreshingly different Gita retelling by two new UK-based authors, Sonal Patel and Jemma Kattan. Although Damian Ward has illustrated for foreign publishers, this is the first time he will be illustrating in India. Damian will be working on Jane De Suza’s Uncool series.

What are the key highlights, according to you?

Some of the highlights of the list: The M series is an interesting play on the letter M. Some of the popular genres that kids enjoy start with the letter M, such as Mysteries, Magic and Monsters. The first in the series is Magical Tales by Shashi Warrier, two brilliantly-told, charming stories with a dragon called Hot Lips and a bear called Bubba. The Good Indian Child’s Guide series by Natasha Sharma takes things that are intrinsic to India—be they mangoes or cricket—and presents a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the subjects.

There is the Favourite Things series that lists the favourite things of your favourite authors, sportspersons, celebrities and others. Launching the series will be Ruskin Bond’s favourites. Also, coming up is a bitingly funny teen series called Uncool by Jane De Suza, one of India’s leading humour writers, which is a rib-tickling tackling of teen issues. There is also the biography of Amrita Sher-Gil, the fiercely independent and talented artist, in the Timeless Biography series.

‘Resilience is Mumbai’s past, present and future’


Determined to showcase the city for children, two Mumbaikars decide to trace its history and lore in a fun book packed with trivia

Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci’s journal, Manuscript F, has “a mysterious note scribbled in it mentioning a map of Elephanta” or that Mumbai is home to two types of crows, the jungle and the common crow; or that almost 400km of Mumbai’s roads are dug up annually? If you’re looking for a book for children that introduces them to the maximum city, then Totally Mumbai: A City in a Book (Blue Spectacles) may just be right up your galli.

Written by Pereena Lamba and Miel Sahgal, the book traces the city’s history, acquaints children to its landmarks, and shares trivia and lore about Mumbai. And it’s packed with photographs, puns, and lots of information. Sahgal, a director at the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, said that Totally Mumbai was born out of a need to share “the city as a whole, from nature to culture, history to arts” with their children. For Lamba, who has worked in advertisting and is a writer, Mumbai is a city full of her best memories. “It shapes my opinions and view of the world,” she said. Over email, the writers talk about their venture into publishing for children.

Packing Mumbai into 85 pages – how difficult was it?

Pereena Lamba: It was an incredibly hard task to sift through the collection of stories that we discovered. We had debates, discussions and some heated arguments on what to include. In the end, I think we chose the facts and stories that would grab the children’s attention. There were stories that we would have loved to put in, but thought that they appealed more to us as adults and perhaps less to children. Will use them for Volume 2!

What made you decide to self-publish?

Miel Sahgal: We were completely invested in the content and had an exceptionally clear idea of how we wanted it to be communicated. The advice we received is that self-publishing would give us the greatest autonomy over design and production choices, so we took the plunge. Blue Spectacles is a little entity the two of us set up to publish this book. The name came in a flash when were across the table from each other, hammering away on our laptops, coincidentally wearing almost identical blue spectacles.

The book is dedicated to your children and a reminder of the magnificence of the city. How resilient a future do you see for Mumbai?

PL: Mumbai is the ultimate survivor. I think it takes its knocks hard but has the gumption to pick itself up, dust itself off and get going again. We have seen this after many big events – blasts, natural disasters etc. but I think Mumbaikars do it on a daily basis too. Mums come to work even when children are ill, asking neighbours and friends to help out. People go back to business the day after a personal tragedy because they can’t afford not to. Kids finish final exams and perform in concerts the next day… it’s all in a day’s work for Mumbaikars. Resilience is Mumbai’s past, present and future. That is the lesson that I think our children will learn, appreciate and imbibe. I think that because of this, they won’t give up on Mumbai and will help make it a stronger city in the future.

MS: It is so easy to feel hopeless about Mumbai’s future. Heritage buildings are torn down, life-saving mangroves are hacked, the chasms of economic disparity widen, as do the roads… and yet, as you rightly say, all this can’t take away from the magnificence of the city. It’s difficult to imagine a resilient future with the current set of ambitions. But we do have hope that the priorities of our children’s generation will be different. The book is peppered with subtle stories of inclusiveness, of the stupidity of land ‘reclamation’, of how people live or travel, of the non-human inhabitants who share our space. And we believe that today’s kids who value things like clean air, sustainable transport, heritage conservation, rooftop gardening or public art will ensure a better tomorrow for the city when they are in charge. We all know what resilient cities of the future need to be like, and our hope is that the next generation will help Mumbai change course and steer towards that.

It’s not surprising that there’s plenty of wildlife and nature tucked into the book.

MS: It’s so important that children appreciate how lucky they are to be in a city that is home to wild leopards, crocodiles and deer. But more important is that we help enable a connection with nature in an everyday routine. Look skyward to spot a bird, pause for a moment with a butterfly, or even just touch the bark of a tree. In this city, we can all be very disconnected from nature, and this comes with a host of physical, psychological and spiritual consequences. To be able to highlight the existence of nature in the city, and celebrate it, was an important aim for us.

Any memorable moments while researching the book?

PL: Though it was research, we really had a blast doing it. There were so many unforgettable experiences that are going to stay with us forever. Like when we finally met our ‘Decision Devi’ in Worli and she lived up to all our expectations. Or when we went around knocking on strangers’ doors till we found the ‘lady with the key’ who opened the doors to the most stunning Chinese temple in Mazagaon. Or trying to convince our usually feisty sabziwalli to pose for a photo – she suddenly turned coy on us and even asked for a few retakes!

What are your favourite bits in the book?

MS: That’s a tough question – we love most of what we’ve put in there! Perhaps the pages we enjoy the most are those where history comes alive through real, personal stories. Like Fables of Fire about the Great Fire of 1803 and the Dock Explosion of 1944, or Swaraj in the City about the Freedom Movement. I also love the unusual ones, like the ghost stories in Boo!mbay, and the unexpected connections in Space and Time. We couldn’t include everything we wanted to in the book, but one consolation is that some of our favourite left-out facts and stories will still find a place in our upcoming series of talks and workshops with children. And who knows? Maybe an updated second edition!

The escapist pleasure of reading


One of the reasons I rarely introduce myself as a children’s books author to grown-ups is because almost always the next thing they say is:

“My child just doesn’t read. How much I tell him.”

“Oh my child, she has no time to read only.”

“Arre, but who reads now?”

“She used to read, but now she doesn’t. I feel so sad. I mean, I used to read all the time as a child.”

And then I watch their eyes glaze over, right after they ask me for recommendations of books. Earlier, I’d get annoyed. Now I simply suggest they read The Rights of the Reader, a wonderful book by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Originally written in French, the book has been translated by Sarah Ardizzone.

The Rights of the Reader is not a self-help book. Rather, it’s truly about reading being an intrinsic part of our lives – it is but a way of living. Or rather a way of reminding grown-ups that reading is about freedom, joy, and the wonders of a story. Pennac writes, “You can’t make some someone read. Just like you can’t make them fall in love or dream.” As he points out, you can try and push, but nothing will come of it. What he does is reminds us why we read – because it’s joyful.

Pennac makes some keen observations – 57 of them to be precise. In summary, it’s basically that while there may be the lure of the television or screens or consumeristic goodies, but really the reluctance to read happens when it becomes a chore. When as parents, teachers, and well-meaning adults, we constantly say “reading matters”, and then assume that will excite a child to read. When in fact, the exact opposite happens – and the pleasure of reading falls away.

I have seen it happen closer home, the nephew an avid reader, suddenly turned away from his books. It really bothered me – after all, he and I bonded over Harry Potter and the wonders of the wizarding world. The books, not the film, duh. I was also guilty of giving him grown-up tropes of how reading matters, until I realised that’s now how it works.

Instead, we started talking about the books he was reading once again. Like we used to, when we’d read out loud to him, just before his bedtime. I picked up David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, and read out parts to him, describing some of the triumphs of the story. We pored over Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls together, marvelling at the artwork and trying to figure out how many of the inspirational stories we already knew. I told him what Aaron Blabey, the author of The Bad Guys series, said in an email interview for a feature.

I dug out my old Ranjit Lal books and we spoke about the story behind The Battle for No. 19. We argued over whose illustrations we really liked in The Puffin Treasury of Modern Indian Stories. And I shared with him (somewhat reluctantly) some of my first editions.

Slowly, he began picking up those books again. Not all the time, but often enough. Because, as Pennac writes, “This pleasure in reading was always there, hidden away in the attics of their teenage minds because of a secret fear, the (very, very deep-rooted) fear of not understanding. They’d forgotten what a book was, what it could offer.”

If you look online, Blake has illustrated the back of the book into a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ‘The Rights of the Reader’ poster. In that lies the wisdom that any reader will nod at – the right not to read, the right to skip, the right not to finish a book, the right to read it again, the right to read anything, the right to mistake a book for real life, the right to read anywhere, the right to dip in, the right to read out loud, and the right to be quiet. Look it up, you will want to print and frame it.

So the next time, you meet a grown-up moaning over their child not finding the time to read. Quote Pennac. “Time to read is always time stolen. (Like time to write, for that matter, or time to love.) Stolen from what? From the tyranny of living.”

The Rights of the Reader, Walker Books is priced at priced at Rs 474 onwards

The tree whisperer


Trees, writes Peter Wohlleben in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, are social beings. They can defend themselves, share resources, and communicate with each other using “olfactory, visual, and electrical signals”.

In Ranjit Lal’s new book, The Trees of Medley Gardens (Red Turtle), they can talk your ear off. They will gossip, tease, dole out wisdom, and even play pranks on you. When Tadpole and her brother Vishwajit move with their family, they discover that the sacred grove of trees from the neighbouring Medley Gardens can talk to them. Soon they befriend the wise old Banyan Ustadji, the Peepul Princesses, and find out exactly what the Mango trees think of kids scampering up and down their branches, stealing mangoes. But the trees are hiding a secret and it all maybe unearthed if the owners of Medley Gardens decide to sell the place. It all comes down to Tadpole, Vish, and his friend Zafia to figure out what to do.

“The idea came about because I felt that trees were just taken for granted (and cut down at will) and ignored – way out of proportion to their worth, and considering what they do for us – and all of life,” said Lal, over email. Lal’s love for both flora and fauna is well-documented in many of his books, whether it’s The Tigers of Taboo Valley (Red Turtle), The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet and Other Stories (Puffin), or Every Dog has its Tale (Scholastic).

Lal insists that he doesn’t talk to trees in real life and which is why he turned to fiction for that conversation. “Am nuts enough without actually having to go and have conversations with trees (nor do I hug them as some nasty ‘Rottweiler’ of an ant is sure to bite me in the armpits) so I made the kids do that in the story,” he said. “I think the most ‘memorable’ conversation [in the book] has to be the one where it is pointed out to Ustadji, that while he may be the grand old ‘tree of knowledge’ and a ‘keystone’ species blah blah blah, he and his ilk are still dependent for their survival on a minuscule wasp. Something we need to remember otherwise too.”

That is one of the key takeaways from the book – how everyone’s survival on this planet is inextricably linked with each other. “All you have to do is to is to take time out and think a little – and it’ll all become very clear how dependent all life forms are on trees and plants,” Lal explained. The children in the book realise that they can talk to pretty much any tree, flower, or animal. Sometimes it’s annoying because really some of the plants can be a bit of a sap like the hypochondriac Neems that are always whining. It can also be scary when they meet the dreadful Julifloraa that are armed to the teeth with spiked thorns. While at other times, they have some fabulous chats about life on planet Earth, whether it’s seed dispersal or events in history.

Lal manages to do all this without preaching, and at the same time he ensures that the reader is chuckling and guffawing through the book. “If I start yawning or nod off or start fidgeting while writing I know I’m being preachy and also of course totally boring,” said Lal, about his own writing. For instance, at one point, the mischievous (and pompous) grasses burst out in song, praising themselves, “Without us grasses, you won’t have bread! Without us grasses you’ll all be dead!” they then go on to talk about how they, the grasses, have taken over most of the land in the world – “You came, you planted, we conquered!” Food Security lesson 101.

Lal is concerned that children are more and more disconnected with nature today. “Yes, they’re less connected to nature thanks to the Internet, TV, video games, social (or rather anti-social) media etc,” he said. “They need to go out more – and not to malls! What gives one hope is watching kids play on and around trees, whenever they’re presented with the opportunity and their parents/teachers are not hovering around armed with hand sanitizers and having hysterics! I still believe if you leave a kid near a tree – give him/her some time and space and take away the smartphone etc – he/she will be halfway up the tree within the hour!” Honestly, after reading The Trees of Medley Gardens,that just be one side effect your children may end up with – climbing and talking to trees.

In fact, Lal points out that even grown-ups need to do the same. “We stop ‘talking to’ trees as we become adults because we think only kids should do so,” he said. “Actually you don’t have to talk to trees, you just need to sit beneath one, or on one and listen. We do too much talking and too little listening anyway!”

Safaris in a Box


Having worked with a number of animal advocacy and wildlife conservation organisations, most of my friends assume that I know everything there is to know about animals. Especially birds. So, when we hear a bird call on a nature trail, they look at me expectantly. They are waiting for me to name the species, and that too without the help of Google or a Rememberall. Of course, I can name a few– a flash of blue means kingfisher, a flutter of a black and white tail and I can wisely whisper, “tree pie”, or declare with some swagger that the birds circling in the air above are raptors. Try it sometime. It sounds clever and everyone believes you if you say it confidently enough.

Fortunately, help has come to me in the form of wildlife games, which have now become a staple at gatherings and a trusted travel companion. Of course these are actually meant for children, and are fantastic tools that teachers can use in the classroom as well.

Last Wilderness Bingo and Dominoes: When going away on a vacation, card games are an easy travel companion. They are light and easy to slip into any bag. Which is why I was thrilled when I came across the Last Wilderness Foundation’s Wildlife Bingo. The bilingual game’s simple – you have to collect nine stones to begin the game. Each player is given one bingo card which has different trees, animals, birds, and reptiles drawn on them. The stack of individual animal cards go into a bag. To play, you pick out a card from the bag and call out the name of the animal, which is written in English and Hindi. Show the card to players and put it aside. The players that have the particular animal on their bingo cards place a stone on it. The first player to have stones on all nine species yells “Bingo!” and wins.

Of course, I have put a new spin on the game and call it Story Bingo. Each player makes up a story with the bingo card they get; and all the species on the card need to be in their tale. We have come up with tall tales of a Chow-Singha that loves eating and a Barn Owl that has insomnia. The cards are beautifully illustrated and promise hours of fun.

Then there’s the Dominoes game – there are 30 cards divided in half, forming two squares. One square has the name of an animal, and the other a different animal’s name. Players have to find the matching animal and place it next to its correct name. There are lots of possible combinations and it gets harder to place the cards correctly as the game progresses. Available at lastwilderness.org.

Nature Conservation Foundation Bird Flash Cards: These set of 40 flashcards introduce children (and me) to 40 common birds of India. One side has photos of the bird and the other details about its natural history, habitat and food. There’s also a quiz, which I tanked the first time around, but I promise you I am getting better at it.

The cards double up for a memory game, just like the playing cards memory game. And from their website, you can even download a free instruction PDF on how to use the flashcards for different games such as drawing and quizzing.

I also use the cards as writing prompts when conducting workshops with children. The free e-kit comes with a common birds’ sound folder – and you can listen and identify the sounds of the Asian koel, black kite, and white-throated kingfisher, among others. All birds that I can now identify. Mission accomplished! Available at instamojo.com/NCF.

Kaadoo: Kaadoo is a board game, and the makers call “a safari in a box”. What I love about this game is that the pawns are crafted by Channapatna toy makers and the animal sighting cards hand-painted by wildlife artists. The games are available in different versions including the Nilgiri Biosphere, African Savannah, Western India, and Central India editions.

Playing is simple – you roll the dice to move around the “forest” board, and get to collect animal sighting cards. It involved math and natural history both. What is amazing is that the game instructions are available in 17 languages! Their newest game, Jungle Patrol, requires the player to assist forest rangers to outwit notorious brigands from entering the core of the jungle and wreaking havoc. If only real life could be this awesome. Available at kaadoothebiggame.com.

P.S. If I encounter a bird or insect that I can’t identify despite these games, I promptly message my wildlife friend, Radha Rangarajan, and she answers all my queries. But unfortunately not everyone has their own phone-a-friend option, which is why, game on.