2018 in Children’s Books


From contemporary tales to fantasy and rebellious girls, here’s how 2018 flew by in wonder for Bijal Vachharajani

As a picture book editor, I spend my working days surrounded by words ranging from zero to 1,200 and a cluster of images that bring them to life. Then I come back home to more books, some for research, and others as the one thing I love to do most – read.

In 2018, I found myself struggling with long form. When you edit picture books, you’re constantly ‘Editor Scissorhands’ (no, you cannot steal that phrase), snipping off extraneous words until you have a core of an emotion. Something that Oliver Jeffers told me in an interview last year and it really stuck with me. His book Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (HarperCollins) is a great example of using few words to tell a story of this spectacular planet we inhabit.

Words of the wise

So, I pushed myself to go back to long form, banning myself from picture book leisurely reading for a month. Also, concerned about the packaging that comes with online buying, I resolved to buy children’s books only from indie bookstores. This meant I waited for ages for Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell’s Art Matters (Headline Review)But it was worth it as my Lightroom bookstore friend gifted me this gorgeous book about art and ideas. It was the same for Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words (Penguin)a spell book about nature words. When it wasn’t available in India, my friend sent me a copy all the way from the U.K. I recently read the book aloud with Sangeeta Bhansali, the owner of Kahani Tree bookstore in Mumbai and remembered again, why it’s so special.

2018 in Children’s Books

To interview Anthony Horowitz, I plunged into his Alex Rider series (Hachette), and found myself surprisingly hooked. I don’t like action books usually, although I enjoy his crime novels for adults, it was my nephew who nudged me to read the series years after I reviewed the first book. I see why the British author has been called “the not-so-secret weapon to get boys reading”.

I was haunted for days by Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (Penguin)Here’s to more powerful voices like Starr Carter in our troubled times. Just like Korok in Year of the Weeds (Duckbill) by Siddhartha Sarma – a powerful YA novel which is a fictional retelling of the Niyamgiri movement in Odisha.

Loud and clear

I found myself looking for more #ownvoices stories – I read Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire (Talking Cub)an adorable novella about a baby dragon in Champakbag; as well as One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. I was pleased as a conservationist who spots a Great Indian Bustard, when we printed one of our attempts at the same – The Very Wiggly Tooth (Pratham Books) by Reshma Thapa Gurung and Canato Jimo, a contemporary tale set in Sikkim. It’s a relief to see narratives moving away from the urban also.

I also read Devashish Makhija and Priya Kuriyan’s When Ali Became Bajrangbali (Tulika)a seven-year-old picture book that I had somehow never got my hands on. When I heard Priya talking about it, I finally got around to read it. A monkey swings into action when his home is threatened, but it’s actually a subversive book about religion and power dynamics.

Future is female

This was truly the year to read girl positive books – Aparna Jain’s Like a Girl (Context), Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History (Ten Speed Press) by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, Katha’s gender series, I Need to Pee (Penguin) by Neha Singh, Meenal Singh and Erik Egerup, Anna’s Extraordinary Experiments with Weather (Pratham Books) by Nandita Jayaraj and Priya Kuriyan, Anita Vachharajani and Kalyani Ganapathy’s Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush (HarperCollins)My friend Shinibali’s daughter adored Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World Paperback (First Second) by Pénélope Bagieu.

2018 in Children’s Books

After all, who can resist a girl who draws trolls or one who has a beard?

But, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, a graphic novel recommended by Aparna, has my heart. Oh, talking of fantasy, do read The Magicians of Madh (Duckbill) by Aditi Krishnakumar as well as Shazaf Fatima Haider’s A Firefly in the Dark (Talking Cub). I found them utterly charming.

This year, I had the privilege of visiting Kashmir twice – once on holiday with friends and the other with Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature. In the evening, as authors and illustrators huddled around the heater, we all felt a deep admiration for the students of DPS Srinagar. Their searing poetry and art reflects how curfew and hartal impacts their day-to-day school life – they want to sit in classes, and hang out with friends, a normalcy not often granted to them.

Which is why perhaps I felt more convinced about our book, Mission Cycle(Pratham Books) by Rohini Mohan and Jayesh Sivan. It’s the story of a girl who is home because of C.U.R.F.E.W and how she copes with it. Talking of war, I also read the stellar When Morning Comes (Duckbill) by Ayushi Raina, Red (Tulika) by Sagar Kolwankar, and Khaled Hosseini and Dan William’s stunning Sea Prayer (Bloomsbury).

Words and pictures

Earlier this year, a friend and I sat in Trilogy by the Eternal Library, when it’s co-owner Ahalya popped in with Aina Bestard’s What’s Hidden in the Sea (Thames and Hudson)We sat for the next several minutes (or was it hours?), using the three-coloured glasses to look at the sea in its pages. Each turn elicited a squeal and a smile, as we found hidden underwater scenes come to life, revealing all sorts of marvelous marine life. We left clutching a copy each.

When Ankit Chadha left us too soon, I reread his book, Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles (Penguin). When I was sent a New Yorker piece, I discovered From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Truly timelines, in this 1967 book, Claudia decides to run away to the MET.

I don’t think I have highlighted as many phrases in a book as in Hello, Universe (Green Willow) by Erin Entrada Kelly – it’s such fabulous writing. Like take this one – “People don’t want to listen to their thoughts, so they fill the world with noise.” That said, I may have done the same thing with Fly by Night by Francis Hardinge – yes, I finally read it, and am enchanted.

2018 in Children’s Books

The book series that made me the happiest was Nevermoor (Hachette). Written by Jessica Townsend, the series is funny and wildly imaginative and fills a Potter-shaped hole for me. Alas, now like those wizardly books, I have to wait for the next in the series.

I got a staggering pile of books from a friend and fell in love with Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit Listened, about loss and empathy; and Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith. I got teary-eyed reading the latter – words and pictures illuminate a child’s beautiful surroundings and the claustrophobia of his father’s work as a miner, shedding light on the things we ignore when it comes to opportunities and work.

I ended 2018 with two books: My first Liz Climo book, Lobster is the Best Medicine. And secondly, and Strange Worlds! Strange Times! Amazing Sci-Fi Stories (Talking Cub). The latter is edited by Vinayak Varma and has some of the coolest names in sci-fi writing and it’s for young adults! 2019 better live up to last year’s reads.

I do read books for adults, a lot of them, in case you were wondering. More recommendations on Instagram at bam_books.

Powered by the people


Siddhartha Sarma’s young adult novel on the Niyamgiri movement as seen through the eyes of two adolescents is a compelling read, says Bijal Vachharajani

Niyamgiri has gone down in world history as one of the biggest land conflicts, as well as a triumphant story about what an indigenous community can achieve when faced with the might of a government and a huge private company. In 2010, a cluster of villages in Odisha came together to vote against a mining project, backed by a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court. Based on that strong people-powered movement, Siddhartha Sarma has written a compelling young adult novel titled Year of the Weeds published by Duckbill.

Building a resistance

In an email interview, Sarma, — a 38-year-old journalist — that he had been following the Niyamgiri agitation for over a decade and felt that a fiction re-telling was needed. “I wanted to tell a story about the systems and processes at work in the country: how government functions; how a large part of India, which has virtually disappeared from the mind space of the other part, survives.”

Told from the point of view of two children — Korok who lives in a village in western Odisha and Anchita who lives in the house where he tends to the garden — Sarma tells the story of the Gond resistance, which begins when the government tells them they will lose their sacred land because of mining. At one point Korok thinks about the inevitable loss, “And besides, when the hill was gone, there would be no more flowers for him to grow.”

As the government’s plans become clearer, Korok finds his village besieged by activists, politicians, journalists, each with their own agenda. Ghosh, one of the characters in the book, puts it succinctly, “It was… ironic… The most valuable resources were usually found under the feet of people who didn’t seem to need them. Even worse, these were usually people who needed the land more than what was inside it… Invisible people who no one was interested in.”

Invisible people

Inequalities too are marked in Year of the Weeds, and Sarma opens a window to an India that is often ignored. For instance, Anchita goes to school but Korok doesn’t — one day the schoolteacher packs up and leaves and no one replaces him. Sarma writes incisively, “So Korok hadn’t left school, if one looked at it. School had left him.” Sarma expands on the character — “Korok is among those young boys and girls in the hinterland or in the margins of urban India who, despite their numerous disadvantages, are talented people who could, under different circumstances, achieve greatness. In Korok’s case, he is fortunate that what gives him joy, what makes him feel love, the craft which he can work on relentlessly day after day happens to be gardening, and he has chanced on it, or been drawn to it.”

Cast of characters

Despite the challenges, Sarma’s writing is heavily laced with humour and insights. It is, ultimately, a story of resilience, resistance and of hope. There’s a cast of memorable characters that range from the aforementioned Ghosh — a “specialist” brought in by the mining company to ‘handle’ the agitation and liaise with the local administration to Sarkari Patnaik, whose word used to be law here but now finds himself watching his police force’s every step. All of them are very real. “A lot of the descriptions are based on what I have seen as a reporter,” explainned Sarma. “These include the structure of the state and its organs, and specifics about their manner of functioning. I kept those elements which were directly relevant for the plot. There were a lot more details which could have gone in, but by keeping only the directly relevant, I could write about the latter in more detail.”

Sarma’s research was based on news reports, public record material, and conversations with journalists and people familiar with such movements. “In the process, I also wanted to include other aspects of India that I have seen and reported on: how politicians and their PR apparatus functions; the police system, prisons and trial courts; the PDS mechanism and district administrations,” said Sarma. “The core of the story is a land rights movement, but it became a tale about other aspects of the country as well.”

Spotlight Northeast

Sarma grew up in Guwahati, Assam, during the high tide of insurgency in the state. He explained that his generation grew up under the shadow of political violence and that’s why he wanted to write on the state and society.

In 2010, his debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic), won the Crossword Award for the best children’s book. “I wanted to tell a story from the Northeast,” said Sarma. “The Second World War seemed a good point in history to base my story in. I researched the China-Burma-India Theatre (1942-45), examined the archives, travelled in East Assam, Nagaland and Myanmar and wrote the story.”

Sarma’s books join a clutch of new titles — including Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire (Speaking Tiger), and Reshma Thapa Gurung and Canato Jimo’s The Very Wiggly Tooth (Pratham Books) — that don’t typecast or stereotype narratives from indigenous and minority communities as folktales or historical re-tellings. “Writing only about folktales from the Northeast is not much different than the government making tribals dance for visiting dignitaries,” said Sarma. “There is more to these societies than just their cultural markers. It is such an undignified approach. The onus is on people familiar with regions like the Northeast, or those who approach rural, Dalit or Adivasi societies with empathy, understanding and objectivity without falling into the trap of exoticising them for narrative purposes…We need good storytellers, that is all. The stories are there, waiting.”

Expanding the discourse

Like his debut novel, Sama deliberately decided to write this book for young adults as well. “I have largely been disappointed with my generation,” explained the author and journalist. “Most of those who subscribe to the kind of bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny and communal ideas you see in public discourse today have no excuse for this. Most educated people have chosen to subscribe to such views, and to believe in propaganda [that is] against peoples’ movements, or movements by the underprivileged, or even feminist movements.”

As Sarma puts it — “his novel will have no impact on them”. “But”, he added, “I have faith in young people, so I have written this novel for them. If they read it, and start asking questions and taking an interest in the people of the margins; if they reach out to these societies and movements; if they bridge the divide; if they examine their own privileges and question their elders’ views; if they become kinder, more empathetic people, I will be content.”

Year of the Weeds by Siddhartha Sarma published by Duckbill is available on Amazon at ₹295.

In Search of the Great Indian YA book

This article appeared in Torchlight’s Libraries and Adolescence issue.


When I started working as the Kids editor at Time Out Mumbai, reviewing children’s books soon became one of the most exciting parts of my job. Suddenly my desk was groaning under copies of picture books, middle grade fiction and non-fiction and YA novels. A steady diet of Enid Blyton, and Archie and Tintin comics, it was like crawling through a musty cupboard and entering into a whole new world of literature.

I quickly became drawn to the Young Adult books, maybe because in some ways it was the easiest to transition to. What really also was interesting was that like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, these books too had a crossover audience – being read by not only teenagers but also adults. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, for instance, sent them in a frenzy of Team Jacob versus Team Edward (duh! Team Wizard always wins).

I devoured everything I could lay my hands on – haunting historical fiction such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Michael Morpurgo’s The Mozart Question, the popular John Green books, all the frothy romances, the works. I re-read the classics, I bought too many books, in a quest to understand this genre. Of course, the horror ones were simply unpalatable to me – I quietly passed them on to my city counterparts in Delhi and Bangalore, citing too many books to read. They were gory and the stuff nightmares are made of.

I still remember reading the first of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I read, equally horrified and fascinated, as Katniss Everdeen volunteered to be a tribute for The Hunger Games, in place of her younger sibling. As the tasks began, the ruthlessness of the narrative leapt out at me as did the tender romance, thoughtful sacrifices. I put the book down, marveling at how the YA genre had changed from Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys to The Hunger Games and 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher’s dark book that looked at suicide and abuse. In fact, after I read Asher’s book, I roamed around the office in a funk, cursing humanity. It helped that I could interview the author who told me how the book actually helped many teenagers who were feeling alone and helpless.

This was about the same time that Indian children’s literature was beginning to evolve rapidly. From mythology and folk tale books, I started getting more contemporary books to review. I couldn’t help but notice that they were mostly picture books and middle grade books (and exciting ones at that, so no complaints at all).

Where, I wondered, were the YA books? After all, India has the world’s largest youthpopulation, a demographic that is so interesting to reach out to.

Which is why in 2013, with great excitement, I interviewed the people behind Inked, Penguin’s new imprint for young adults in India. Sadly, the promise fizzled out (I am not sure if the imprint even exists anymore).

As I read whatever I could find, I realised most were riding on international trends – the idea being that if these books worked there, simply creating Indian spin-offs should work. (It did not)

The books I read kind of fell into these categories:

  • Dear Diary, I don’t really have anything interesting to tell you
  • Wannabe Sarcy but Failing Spectacularly
  • Earnest Hemming and Hawwing Away

It was equally frustrating to see how internationally YA books were being developed into films – for instance, I can’t seem to check Twitter anymore without seeing someone gush over To All the Boys I Loved Before, the Netflix film based on Jenny Han’s book.

Alright, but not all is bleak in the Indian YA-lit world. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed some of the books, especially the ones by indie publishers (Hi Duckbill!) – they are breaking new ground and in some ways, being bolder than even grown-up book counterparts.


So strap on your backpacks, unfurl your maps, as I take you through the Indian YA-lit terrain:

1) The Sea of Sexuality

Take for instance, Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan (Duckbill)one of the first books that, along with Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt (Bloomsbury), put the LGBT movement right in the center of YA books.

2) The Incomprehensible Labyrinth of Socio-Political Issues

Then Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water (Puffin) kind of bridges the tween and teen age group, with its story about female infanticide. A grim subject that Lal tackles deftly, with concern and humour. It made me realise that YA in India is often dark and explores difficult subjects, reflecting in many ways the angst teenagers go through while attempting to hold a mirror to society. Falling in the same theme is Paro Anand’s Weed and No Guns at My Son’s Funeral (India Ink)both books dealing with the hefty subject of terrorism in Kashmir. Taut, compelling and persuasive, these books become great ways to answer questions that teenagers may have about social and political issues.

3) The Climb Every Mountain and Come of Age Terrain

Coming of age stories, in some ways a staple YA theme, is something Rupa Gulab does beautifully – striking the right balance between drama and dry wit. I love everything she has written, whether it’s Hot Chocolate is Thicker than Blood (Duckbill), which talks about adoption from a sister’s point of view or Daddy Come Lately (Duckbill), about a “post-divorce teen” who suddenly finds herself hanging out with her estranged father.

4) The Monumental Museum of Historical Fiction

The one author who I wish would write more is Devika Rangachari – her Queen of Ice (Duckbill) is one of my all-time favourite books. Set in the tenth century, it’s a historical novel about a queen who rules Kashmira and takes on heavy themes of overcoming handicaps and social stigma. More historical fiction for teens? Yes, please.

5) The Frothing Volcano of Crushes

But in all this, I couldn’t help but wonder, where were the frothy romances, the light-hearted stories about crushes and high school? Which is why I cheered when I read Andaleeb Wajid’s Asmara’s Summer (Puffin). It is such a fun frothy read, about a teen who is forced to spend the summer at her grandparents’ frumpy locality but things look up when there enters a hunky neighbour to feast her eyes upon. Plus, lots of lovely things about bonding with the grandparents. Wajid has also written When She Went Away (Duckbill), about a girl whose mother has left the family and all she wants is for her to return.

6) The Land of Intrigue and Sorcery

Combining history with intrigue and romance is Shabnam Minwalla’s What Maya Saw: A Tale of Shadows, Secrets, Clues (HarperCollins), a Mumbai book that’s a historical mystery complete with romance and beautiful and malevolent teens. I read the book in one sitting and since then have made it my go-to gift for all the teens I know.

7) The Poet Plateau

Personally, I do think that Duckbill Books needs to take a bow for getting interesting YA lit to teens (and all of us book-hungry people). They’ve taken risks and experimented with genres, themes, and protagonists. And the result is completely eclectic and delightful. Like The Right Kind of Dog by Adil Jussawalla, a slim book of poems that are truly gorgeous and which anyone who is a word hoarder will devour.

So now I happily put away my YA compass and my trekking boots, caked with the mud from the long winding path of finding these books, and instead put up this Atlas of Young Adult Literature. Know that now there are many young adult books out there (the ones I have listed are just a few): for the geek, for the romantic, for the adventure-seeking, for the shadow-dweller, and for the word hoarder.

‘I write about ideas and characters rather than ideologies and symbols’: Manjula Padmanabhan


An interview with the writer-illustrator-playwright behind the comic strip ‘Suki’ about her newest book and her uncompromising body of work.

The eponymous protagonist of Manjula Padmanabhan’s Shrinking Vanitaloves to eat sugar tikkis. In case you’re wondering what exactly this delicacy is, the author-illustrator explains – “Sugar tikkis are white disks of hard icing sugar, with a very thin wafer embedded inside. Deadly sweet, with a slight crunch when you bite down. Dainty pink decorations. Wholly imaginary.” While the plot of Padmanabhan’s latest middle grade adventure book is wholly imaginary as well, it is rooted in a reality – an exaggerated, consumeristic, over-connected world – that is becoming hard to ignore.

A fiction writer, artist, and playwright, Padmanabhan is known as India’s first woman cartoonist. Her cartoon character, Suki, who was instrumental in making Padmanabhan a beloved figure, began appearing in the Sunday Observer in Bombay in 1982, and later in the Pioneer in New Delhi. Suki retired in 1997 but was revived some 19 years later. The strong-minded character, now with a more pronounced nose and bushier hair, appears in Suki Yaki, her comic strip in The Hindu Business Line. Since her first appearance in the eighties, the character has become more and more vocal about our fractured times. Whether it’s climate change, women’s rights, or intolerance, Suki has lots to say.

Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan
Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan

The evolution of Suki

Apart from her comic, Padmanabhan also writes a weekly column set in a fictional town in the US called Elsewhere. She makes it all sound deceptively easy. “Every week, I draw the strip just hours before deadline,” she said in an email interview with Scroll.in. “I don’t give myself time to think carefully about what I’m going to say in the strip or why or how. In the final moments before I hit send, the words and images have to fall into place.” Padmanabhan takes about three hours from start to finish for each week’s strip and never shows her work-in-progress to anyone before sending.

The result is an enduring and incredibly original comic that speaks of our times. In a haunting and beautiful strip Padmanabhan drew recently, she paid tribute to the eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in Kathua in January. Suki has changed a lot over the years, said Padmanabhan, from the way she dresses to the fact that she has calmed down a lot. “The issues she addresses are broader and less personal,” she explained.

Heroes come in all sizes

Her most recent book, Shrinking Vanita, is the story of a short girl, but it is a variable sort of shortness. “Her height adjusted itself to half the height of any person whose eyes she looked into.” So, if she looks at a foot-long baby, she becomes some six inches high, and if she is faced with a six-foot-tall person, Vanita becomes three feet tall. “The idea was part of a series I was developing in which children overcame physical difficulties while doing something heroic – but I wanted it to be a little funny too,” Padmanabhan said.

Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan
Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan

Vanita doesn’t allow her little problem to dissuade her from becoming a planet saver when a gigantic asteroid is about to end life on Earth. In telling Vanita’s story, the author also sharply critiques sensationalism in news and social media. “We all know what that’s like and why it’s wrong and silly,” said Padmanabhan. She writes at one point in the book: “‘KILLER ROCK ON COLLISION COURSE WITH EARTH!’ screamed a NOW newsreader who had only heard the news seconds before sitting down in front of the studio cameras. ‘WE’RE ALL GONNA DIEEEEEE!’” With tongue-firmly-in-cheek, Padmanabhan draws the ensuing pandemonium – traffic snarls as people panic, menacing riot police, and frazzled parents. Like any sensible super-girl, Vanita hatches a plan (drawn to the minutest detail) and uses her shrinking ability to head off to space for some planet-saving activity.

What Padmanabhan manages to do wonderfully is not explicitly talk about disability while keeping it at the centre of the book. The author-illustrator, who has always managed to push her readers – young and old – to think and ask questions, said her books are a reflection of her world. “I draw and write about the things I notice around me,” she said.

Diverse and inclusive

It’s a trait that is very evident in some of her other recent works. In Pooni at the Taj Mahal, a picture book, Pooni the cat gets lost during a trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra and her family goes looking for her while the readers explore the historical monument as other vacationers take selfies. Of course, since this is Padmanabhan, known for bashing stereotypes in her work, even her children’s books are examples of inclusion and observation. Padmanabhan’s I Am Different! Can You Find Me? is an award-winning, multilingual puzzle book that gets young readers to celebrate diversity and equality. The celebration of diversity is evident in her Pooni book series as well. Her characters come from different parts of India and even the world, with distinct cultures and clothes.

“I write about ideas and characters rather than ideologies and symbols of this-or-that,” said Padmanabhan. “The rising intolerance has meant that it’s become harder to say anything meaningful. I find that the space for open, honest and liberal discussions has shrunk considerably. For instance, I was shocked when a friend, looking at Pooni at the Taj Mahalsaid, ‘You seem to like drawing mostly Muslim people!’ The way she said it suggested that she was disappointed by that choice. I was very saddened. My entire aim had been to showcase the astonishing beauty of the Taj Mahal, but the remark brought down my intentions to the level of communal politics.”

Many hats

Whether it’s her comic strip, plays or books, Padmanabhan’s writing is searing. It often leaves the reader squirming, even while drawing them into a world of fantastic fiction. Her dystopian novel The Island of Lost Girlsa sequel to her 2008 book Escape, is set on an island where wounded girls are, sometimes literally, stitched back together and given a new life. A sucker punch of a read, the book raises uncomfortable and piercing questions about patriarchy, gender violence, and identity. “Island is a sequel to Escape. So it grew out of the ideas and themes set in motion by the first book,” she said. “The saga of Meiji, a girl who is born into a cruel, despotic country in which all women have been destroyed, continues as she escapes into the world where she encounters more complex, more disturbing challenges.” The writer said the character of Youngest, Meji’s “guardian”, was of particular interest to her. “I am very attracted to his dual nature, expressed in this book by his physical body: he’s a man who has been surgically altered to look like a woman. I plan to write a third book in the series in which I will develop those ideas further.”

Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan
Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan

With Shrinking Vanita, the ease with which Padmanabhan juggles her various hats is evident. The book is also science fiction, but a light-hearted, quirky one. With characters to match. Like Jiggs Biggwigg, “the zillionare industrialist owner of Rosy Pellican Spacelines”, who is quick to offer his StratoHopper craft to six passengers who can pay ten trillon rupees for the ticket. No matter that the rupee will crash alongside the asteroid. It’s a mashup of make-believe and the realities around us that has become the writer’s signature.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, those sugar tikkis go best with a big glass of cold milk.


A Touch of Butterfly Magic


In The Ammachi Puchi heavy themes give way to visceral words and illustrations

In Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi’s The Ammachi Puchi, we learn that when Aditya and Anjali were very little, they were a little afraid of their grandmother, Ammuchi. After all, she could kill mosquitoes with a quick slap and her betel nut juice stained mouth looked like she had been drinking blood. But their fear slips away as she becomes the teller of stories, nurturing their imagination and inviting them to step into fantastic worlds.

But then one day, Ammuchi dies, leaving them bereft, their world of stories less alluring. That’s when they see a butterfly — “big and beautiful, just like the brooch Ammuchi had given Anjali for her birthday” — and decide that this must be their Ammachi Puchi.

Drawing grief

A powerful story about grief and loss, the book is a wonderful reminder about the magic of imagination. “I wrote The Ammuchi Puchi in 2010, a couple of years or so after my cherished grandmother passed away,” said Manivannan over email. “I was in my early 20s at this time, but I had been raised by my grandparents and so I grieved deeply. First, I wondered how I would have dealt had this happened when I was growing up, and then I began to wonder how children in general cope with grief. I believe that art has the power to heal, and this led me to try to write a story that could (I really hoped) help kids process the emotions of bereavement.”

Manivannan lives in Chennai, but grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. While this is her first book for children, she’s also written two books of poetry, Witchcraftand The Altar of the Only World and the award-winning short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries. It’s not surprising then that The Ammuchi Puchi is a gorgeous read, despite its length. There’s a point when Amma comes out and looks at the butterfly, and Manivannan writes, “… her face crumpled like a dry flower”. Her writing is visceral — “And Ammuchi opened her red mouth in a laugh so big she could have swallowed any moon at all.”

Planet earth is a mainstay in the book and Manivannan explains, “Nature gives me so much solace, and where there are flowering plants, there are butterflies. The butterfly of course has numerous metaphysical meanings, of transformation especially. But those were not what I held in mind. Instead, there was this: for several weeks after my grandmother’s passing, butterflies found me everywhere [I went] . This was deeply comforting to me, and that is where the touch of magic in the book comes from.”

Worth the wait

Given the weighty theme and length of the book, Manivannan said that she had a hard time finding a publisher. “Because the story is heavy in themes and wordy, it does not fit a traditional picture-book format,” she pointed out. “It was rejected by an Indian publisher at the time and then it just sat idle in my laptop for several years. I met Alice Curry in London in 2015, when I was invited to perform at the Commonwealth Day Observance. She had just set up Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing house which focuses on cultural diversity, and asked me if I ever wrote for children. When I shared The Ammuchi Puchi with her, she decided to take a risk on the unusual format.” The book was published in the UK in October 2016, and has now been released in India by Puffin.

Also unusual is the choice of illustrator for such an Indian story. Nerina Canzi is an award-winning illustrator from Argentina. “From the moment I first saw them, I could no longer imagine The Ammuchi Puchi without Nerina Canzi’s illustrations,” said Manivannan. “I do believe things happen for a reason, and the wait of several years between writing this book and having it published (with some wait even then for the perfect illustrator) was worth it because it meant having Nerina as my collaborator.

She is based in Argentina and we essentially communicated over a Pinterest board, on which I shared landscapes, fabrics, architecture and other things that evoked South India. It was such a marvel to watch her spin the book visually page by page.”

Illustrating wonder

Canzi’s work is luminous, and invites the read to linger on each page, taking in all the details. There’s a point in the story where the children are curled up in a sort of attic. Canzi’s piled that page with boxes, trunks, and knick-knacks, and your hand itches to open each box, letting their contents spill out on the floor. “Images, whether they are illustrations or photographs, have a power of their own,” said Manivannan. “So even when I was writing the story, knowing I wanted it to be a picture book meant that I knew that one day, pictures would expand and complete the story in a way that goes beyond words.” The prose and images come together to make The Ammuchi Puchi a read-aloud that is sure to resonate with children.

That’s something that Manivannan says is already happening. “What really thrills me is that children younger than the recommended age have enjoyed having the book read to them,” says the author. “This proves something which I strongly believe: that children are far more intuitive, perceptive and comprehending than adults credit them for.”

The Ammuchi PuchiIndia Puffin, 199.

Earth Day: Nine Indian books that teach children (and adults) the need to protect the environment


April 22 is celebrated every year as Earth Day to demonstrate support for environmental protection, but as we face what is perhaps our biggest environmental crisis ever, here is a list of books that will have readers – young and old – give careful consideration to the planet we inhabit.

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street

A crotchety crone and a dreadful dragon team up to chop down the Bimbli trees in Cosy Castle. If you think this sounds like a fantasy plot, then think again. Or perhaps don’t think again. Confused? Don’t be – instead, read The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street by Shabnam Minwalla. A delightful modern day Mumbai book, this is the story of Nivi, Venu, and Sarita who need to use all their imagination and wits to stop their beloved trees from being felled and prevent the magic from being leaked from their lovely building garden. Svabhu Kohli’s illustrations are deliciously fable like, in keeping with this fantabulous adventure which celebrates trees but also the power of children who won’t take no for an answer.

Trash: On Ragpicker Children and Recycling

Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar, and Orijit Sen’s book Trash evolved from a series of workshops they conducted with ragpicker children. Set in Chennai, the story starts with Velu arriving in the big, crowded city after running away from his village. He is soon befriended by Jaya, a ragpicker child who takes him under prickly wing. As Velu gets to work, Sen’s illustrations capture the world Velu and his new friends inhabit. Trashbreaks down complex issues of child labour and ragpicking, and gets readers to question their everyday habits and understand what is the invisible, collateral damage of their waste.

Our Toxic World: A Guide to Hazardous Substances in Our Everyday Lives

A project by NGO Toxics Link, Our Toxic World is a graphic novel by Aniruddha Sen Gupta and Priya Kuriyan and a keeper for all green bookshelves. When you meet the Sachdeva family, they seem like just another ordinary family but as readers get a closer look at them, they recognise the cocktail of toxic substances that are a ubiquitous part of their lives. From building construction, automobile and industrial pollution and green laws to chemicals, waste, food toxins, it’s all in there. The book lays out the effects of hazardous substances but more importantly, it suggests alternative routes to minimise their presence.

The Cycle’s Dream

All a little cycle wants is to grow up to be a motorcycle. After all, what a fine life would it lead, vrooming to lands near and far. Until it reaches a point where it cannot go further because all oil in the world is finished. Spoiler alert – the cycle realises that it very much prefers to be a non-fuel guzzling, eco-friendly vehicle, thank you very much. A brown paper book, The Cycle’s Dream is beautifully produced, written by Prabhat and illustrated in bold black art by Bidyut Rai. A scathing critique of wants over needs.

Something to Chew On

Rohan Chakravarty aka Green Humour has that rare ability to elicit a chuckle while getting readers to think about environmental policies, wildlife issues, and their personal role in the ecosystem. He does that very successfully with his illustrations in Something to Chew On, a book that takes a stab at explaining the weighty subject of food security. Created by Sujatha Padmanabhan, Shiba Desor, Sharmila Deo and Tanya Majmudar, this information-packed book takes a look at the history of agriculture, while tackling the complex issues of food miles, trade, and hunger. It introduces readers to the wonderful world of biodiversity through indigenous foods, cuisine and cultures. As our nation continues to be obsessed with food on social media and television, Something to Chew On helps make connections between the farm and the plate.

The Ouch & Moo Books

The Yellow Ouch & Moo Book for young readers and The Red Ouch & Moo Book for older ones look at the omnipresent plastic bag and the way it impacts the environment and animals, using the cow as an example. Written by Trupti Godbole, Govind Mukundan, and Poonam Bir Kasturi, the yellow book is illustrated by Ishan Ghosh and the red one by Girish TS. While the rhymes aren’t fantastic, the back pages are really informative – with fun games that kids can play at home to reduce plastic consumption as well as simple activities they can do to track it as well. The “Know Your Plastic” section explains the different kind of recyclable and non-recyclable plastics and what happens to them once they are binned. A super way to introduce waste and recycling to children and adults. There’s also their Ooze book series that looks at e-waste.

My Big Books

Fresh off the press is the “My Big Book” series which includes My Big Book of Earth and My Big Book of Global Warming, edited by Geeta Dharmarajan. The books are a mash of drawings, stunning illustrations, stories and poems about the planet. My Big Book of Earth comes with a translated poem from Tamil poet Avvaiyar, stories by Vijaya Ghose and M. Mukundan, and illustrations by Murali Nagapuzha, Kalyani Ganapathy, Jemma Jose, Sumati, Asudev, Meena Verma among others. My Big Book of Global Warming is also a mix of fiction and non-fiction, with tips and trivia.

What Happens When A Battery’s Life Is Over? A New Children’s Book Has Answers



By Trupti Godbole, Govind Mukundan, Poonam Bir Kasturi

Batteries are innocuous things. They are ubiquitous in our electronically powered lives. That new toy. The new coffee whisk. The many remote controls. Two for the air-conditioner. Two for the television and two for the cable set top box. Sometimes you feel you’re constantly buying new batteries and chucking dead ones.

But what happens when a battery’s life is over? Most people just toss it into the dustbin and it becomes someone else’s problem. But now a set of two new picture books – Junior Ooze and Senior Ooze – are here to tell you what exactly happens when a battery drains dead.

Published by Daily Dump, a waste solution company based out of Bengaluru, the set of books are written by Trupti Godbole, Govind Mukundan and Poonam Bir Kasturi. The junior book is illustrated by Ishan Ghosh and the senior one by Girish T.S.

Junior Ooze is the story of a pair of siblings – a boy’s little sister is fascinated by his toy robot. She would love to bite it, but he knows better. Because as he explains, batteries ooze harmful chemicals and you can’t reuse them. At the end, his mother puts the batteries into an e-waste bin.

Senior Ooze is about a boy who gets a remote-controlled car on his birthday. To his dismay, his mum confiscates the batteries one day, so he sneaks around the house and gets cells from other gadgets. The ones that don’t work, he throws away. But what happens to those dead cells? That’s when Girish T.S. illustrations bring the story to life – with some really cool illustrations of zombie cells that come alive and “kill through water, land and air”. The book goes on to explain the components of an alkaline battery, the lifecycle of a lithium ion battery, and safe ways to dispose them.

The books are extremely informative and well-intentioned. The rhymes though feel quite unnecessary, the notes sometimes jarring the reading experience. It also would have been great to have had some stronger girl protagonists in the books.

But despite all of that, the pages are power packed with information. Like a spotting game on what household objects need batteries to run and what material is reusable and what isn’t, as well as an experiment that young readers can conduct in their homes. In fact, it’s the back pages that will make children think, ask question, and act. And hopefully it will also get adults to do the same.

The biggest thing the books manage to make you do is to think about the chemicals hidden inside electronic products and toxicity in our daily lives. It makes everyday chemistry much more accessible and helps break down the complex subject of e-waste as well. And what a great title.

Literary polar bears and the refugee crisis


What is your idea of home and identity, when everything familiar is lost? That’s the central theme of Welcome, a picture book by award-winning French illustrator

Barroux. I chanced upon this book a while ago, while browsing in Lightroom Bookstore in Bengaluru. The blurb read, “I am a polar bear. Life is quiet and peaceful on the ice, but wait a minute — what’s that noise? Crack!” Of course, I had to get it.

In Welcome, our literary polar bear is doing bear-y things — paddling in the water with friends — when the ice cracks and they find themselves drifting away. Just three of them, “floating in the middle of the big blue ocean” looking for a new home. Barroux creates a sense of isolation as the bears bob about in the relentless blue ocean. You despair with the bears as they huddle up in a pile on their dwindling slice of ice.

Yet it’s not as simple as “Land Ahoy!” The bears come across many lands — but everywhere they go, the denizens turn them away. For some, they are just too many of them or they are too bear-ish, and the others? They just can’t be bothered. But of course, the book ends with hope and optimism, because what else does humanity have, if not hope?

I am constantly looking for books that explain climate change and environment security in simple ways to young readers, which is why I was thrilled to have stumbled upon this one — Welcome is a triumph of a book. Barroux has previously written the gorgeous Where’s the Elephant? a hide-and-seek book on deforestation.

Welcome cleverly uses polar bears, the poster-animals of climate change, as a metaphor to talk about refugees. And perhaps it’s a smart thing to have anthropomorphised here. In 2013, a study published in The Journal of Environmental Education, by Janis Dickinson and team, suggested that people are more likely to act on climate change if they think that a particular non-human species is at threat.

Apart from that there’s the story of climate change, timely and vital. Earlier this month, scientists revealed that the Arctic permafrost thawing would release powerful greenhouse gases as well as gallons of mercury, a neurotoxin that is a serious health risk to humans. Tom Yulsmun, a professor and environment and science journalist, wrote in Discover – “January’s average ice extent in the Arctic was 525,000 square miles below the 1981-to-2010 average, making it the lowest January extent in the satellite record. This is an astonishingly large loss of ice — equivalent to 80 percent of Alaska.” And this, as he points out, is during winter!

Climate change, empathy, and refugees are difficult topics to talk about with children. There’s so much intangibility in the weather. Further, a lot of this crisis is unfolding in what feels like remote corners of the world. Which is why Welcome is a good way to start a conversation with your child about the refugee crisis we are seeing in India and across the world.

Barroux uses very little text, letting his illustrations do the talking — they are beautiful and funny, eliciting a myriad of emotions in the reader as well. There’s a strong feeling of loss and of danger, and at the same time, it mourns our shared indifference. After all, you can’t help but wonder, that the polar bears were not at fault, and yet they lost their home. The little text he does write is powerful and probing.

The story throws up questions about belonging and differences. And of course, our collective empathy, something that seems to be eroding away, being washed away by rising sea levels and melting away in this ferocious heat.

24 reasons why you should to give kid-lit a chance in 2018


Let’s talk diversity

Earlier this month, Penguin Young Readers announced the launch of Kokila, an imprint that will publish “stories from the margins with books that add nuance and depth to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it”. There has been a lot of chatter about diversity in the kid-lit world, but how much of it has really petered down to our complex country, especially when it comes to English-language books? Most continue to be homogeneous, steeped in mythology and folklore or catering to an urban audience. Further, when it comes to inviting minority voices to write or illustrate, a lot of the books box the creators into folk art. But independent publishing houses are pushing the envelope, creating books that are diverse, nuanced and more inclusive. Tara Books has been paving the way when it comes to collaborating with indigenous artists, like in their latest, Speaking to an Elephant and Other Tales from the Kadars.

Duckbill Books has a slew of books with diverse themes. Whether it’s the winners of their Children First contest with differently-abled characters or Shals Mahajan’s Timmi series – Timmi in Tangles and Timmi and Rizu. Both are wonderful books that weave in complex ideas of gender and class with a light touch.

It’s refreshing to see animals have prominent female voices, like in The Little Ninja Sparrows by Ranjit Lal, published by Talking Cub. It’s a story about a girl and a boy sparrow who run away when bullied by their siblings.

The Neighbourhood series by Madhuri Purandare for Jyotsna Prakashan is a slice-of-life set of picture books. What’s wonderful is the Sahitya Akademi-award winner writer-illustrator’s nuanced depiction of single parenting and single women.

Tulika Books’ I Will Save My Land takes readers into the hinterland where Mati may lose her land to a coal mine. Written by Rinchin and illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar, this picture book is a powerful reminder of how children are the most vulnerable when it comes to environmental conflicts.

Katha’s Gender Series is a set of five books that attempts to get children thinking, discussing, and acting on the rights of girls, education, stereotypical traditional roles, hopes and aspirations. The series includes Sunaina Ali and Debasmita Das Gupta’s Abba’s DayLachmi’s War by Geeta Dharmarajan and Shashi Setty; Meena Kakodkar and Charutha Reghunath’s One’s Own, Yet DifferentChooooomantar by Dharmarajan, Sujasha Das Gupta and Priyanka Pachpande; and Dharmarajan and Atanu Roy’s One Magical Morning.

The Irrelevant Project, a new publisher on the block, tries to tackle stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudices with picture books. Like in Annie and Arjun, written by Varsha Varghese and illustrated by Twisha Maniar, where the two children try to make sense of their gendered household chores. Varghese writes about body positivity in The Curious Case of Mohit and Rumi the Rabbit, which is illustrated by Sonaksha Iyengar.

For the last one year, I have been working with Pratham Books to create a diverse book list. Guest editor Mathangi Subramanian worked with two educators from Sikkim to develop early reader picture books. Dawa Lahmu Yolmo’s delightful Scratch! Scratch! Scratch is about a girl who can’t go out to play because she has chicken pox, and is illustrated by Samidha Gunjal. The Very Wiggly Tooth by Reshma Thapa Gurung is about a child with a wobbly tooth and is stunningly illustrated by Canato Jimo.

For young adults, Zubaan Books brings together 16 comic artists from India and Germany in The Elephant in the Room: Women Draw Their World, Spring Collective. The anthology’s central idea explores what it means to be a woman.

Perhaps one of the most exciting ventures is Adivaani, a publishing house “of adivasi writing for and by adivasis.” Publisher Ruby Hembrom has already written Disaibon Hul, a story of the efforts of the Santal people to free themselves from the oppression of the landlords, moneylenders and the British. The gorgeous, hardbound picture book is illustrated by Saheb Ram Tudu. There’s also the Santal creation stories – We Come from the Geese and Earth Rests on a Tortoise – illustrated by Boski Jain.

Finding wonder in the ordinary: Meet Julia Donaldson, the writer behind the beloved Gruffalo


On a tour of India, the children’s writer opens up about writing, rhyming and why children need to enact the stories they read.

Julia Donaldson’s face lights up when she is on stage, especially when her husband Malcolm joins her. On one Delhi morning, she donned a pair of furry pink mouse ears while he fastened the Gruffalo’s distinctive prickled spine onto his back, and together they sang, danced, and whisked the audience away into their unique world of storytelling.

One of the most popular picture book writers of our time, Donaldson is famous among toddlers and parents as the creator of The Gruffalo, a delightful rhyming book illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The book has sold over 13 million copies since its publication in 1999 and been translated into over seventy languages. At 69, Donaldson’s energy is infectious. While talking about her India tour – she was at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, as well as in Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai this January – she often slipped into song, as did her husband, reciting bits and bobs of poetry and snippets from her books.

The origin of her most popular book is as fascinating as the tale itself, about a tiny mouse who outwits the fearsome Gruffalo in the forest. Donaldson came across a Chinese folk tale about a girl who tricks a hungry tiger and later decided to write a picture book by creating her own monster. “I thought having ‘Grr’ in the name would be a good beginning,” she said. But the name needed to end with an “O” to rhyme with “doesn’t he know”, and thus was born the Gruffalo, with terrible tusks, knobbly knees, and turned-out toes. Ever since, The Gruffalo has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of children across the world.

All about the rhyme

What encourages young readers to read her stories again and again is Donaldson’s delightful rhymes, and that is something the English writer pays a lot of attention to. “Sometimes I think with rhyming books you get some laboured ones, and they have been written very quickly. And the ones that trip off the tongue probably took quite a long time to write,” she said. “I could just talk to you in rhyme, but it would be rubbish. I could just write any old thing in rhyme but it would be ridiculous.”

Not all her books are written in rhyme, but once she decides to, Donaldson works on finding a good chorus that binds the narrative together, such as in her latest book, The Ugly Five, the story of a hilarious safari through South Africa. “With The Ugly Five, I knew it’s going to be a chant – “we are the ugly one, we are the ugly two, and we are the ugly three…”, I have got to make sure there are rhymes for one, two, three, four, five. I couldn’t just write it up to four and then suddenly there’s no rhyme for five. It’s all quite planned, especially the chorus,” said Donaldson.

The Ugly Five, also illustrated by Scheffler, is a wonderful story about parenthood that challenges notions of perfection. Like many of her other books, it roots for the underdog. So, although the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant – often dominate the landscape, this book introduces young readers to the lesser-known and lesser-loved wildebeest, warthog, spotted hyena, lappet-faced vulture and Marabou stork.

Universal themes

Many of Donaldson’s stories explore memory, grief, and death subtly, some of them resonating with her own life – whether it’s the loss of her son or her hearing difficulty. Both What the Jackdaw Saw, illustrated by Nick Sharratt, and Freddie and the Fairy, illustrated by Karen George, feature deafness. Then there’s The Paper Dolls illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, which talks about the fragility of memory and loss.

In her young adult book, Running on the Cracks, Donaldson weaves together threads about mental illness, immigration, and abuse. It features 15-year-old Leonora, who is on the run from a creepy uncle, while attempting to trace the Chinese part of the family in Glasgow, meeting an eclectic set of characters along the way. “My favourite character is the mentally ill woman, Mary, who is very kind and generous,” said Donaldson, talking about the woman who takes in the runaway Leonora. “She is not just schizophrenic and manic depressive, she’s a real person. I enjoyed writing her character a lot.”

Donaldson has also written middle grade fiction (for readers aged between 8 years and 12 years) and plays and says picture books have been excellent training for writing longer stories. With over 60 books under her belt, the key is to plans all her stories carefully before writing them. In fact, on her website, she describes a typical day in her life in rhyme, and ends it by writing, “Story planned! Tomorrow, start writing it – the easy part.”

“Obviously, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in the book but I probably did a little bit more of planning,” she said, talking about Running on the Cracks. “It’s a very different writing procedure – I had to devote days and weeks, come downstairs, sit at my computer, write a thousand words, even if they were rubbish. Then the next day I would review those. And I couldn’t have a gap. With a picture book, I might solidly do it for two weeks, whereas for this, it took probably six months.”

A team of two

Her husband Malcolm said they read many of the drafts together, often out loud to each other. In fact, he looks at the books at each stage, confessing that he is her sounding board – “solid as wood and twice as bright”. When Donaldson jumped in to mention how he encourages her, he laughed and added, “Over nearly 50 years, I must have made the odd helpful suggestion. With the creation of a book I feel like a father being present at the birth of his baby. In other words, very involved, terribly hoping things will go alright, but not much able to do anything.”

Having been together for almost fifty years, the couple have a delightful camaraderie. “We have been together since we have been twenty,” said Malcolm, who is also a governor at a local primary school in West Sussex. “We have been performing and singing together in restaurants, in streets, in parties, long before Julia became a writer. It is part of us really.”

Both of them strongly believe that encouraging children to enact stories improves reading skills. In 2011, Donaldson was appointed Britain’s Children’s Laureate, and she continues to champion public libraries and dramatised readings in a bid to get children to love books and stories. “It’s very good for the confidence of the not-so-good readers when they perform,” she said. “Their reading does improve but also confidence and success in the role, they see,” said Malcolm. “It’s the point of reading.”

With her books only becoming more and more popular, what makes Donaldson’s writing a constant favourite is a wondrous ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Anything is possible if a mouse can imagine a hungry Gruffalo that is very real, if paper dolls can have adventures of their own, and if the unlikeliest of friendships can be forged. In The Snail and the Whale, a snail hitches a ride on the back of a whale to see the world and eventually ends up saving the whale when it gets beached in a bay. “I liked the idea of this very small creature and this very big creature seeing the world in a different way,” said Donaldson. And that’s what Donaldson offers children – a completely different way of seeing their world.