‘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.

‘The greatest escape is storytelling’


British author Anthony Horowitz talks to Bijal Vachharajani about his lonely childhood, his teenage spy protagonist and how books are actually secret passages

“The worst time to feel alone is when you’re in a crowd,” thinks Alex Rider in Point Blanc, as the teenage spy walks across the playground, “surrounded by hundreds of boys and girls of about his own age.” Rider may be a cool spy with high-tech gadgets and skills at his disposal, but there’s something innately vulnerable about the teen. “I have often felt alone in a crowd,” said Anthony Horowitz, the author of the Alex Rider series, who was in India recently for the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. “And I know that feeling, particularly when you are a child, it’s the worst thing in the world. I remember being in school and all these kids around you. Schools have that pack mentality – you’ve got to know the right people, have the right friends. And I didn’t. I was on my own often. And I still remember that loneliness. There is no worse loneliness [than] when you’re surrounded by people,” said the author.

Photo: Zee Jaipur Lit Fest

It’s perhaps that cutting loneliness, that feeling of not-belonging in a space you inhabit daily, and razor-sharp honesty that young adults are drawn to in his books. Apart from the fact that Horowitz’s books are thrillers – packed with “action, adrenaline, adventure” and lots of suspense.

In fact, think “spy” and “books”, and it’s hard not to think “Anthony Horowitz”. The UK-based writer has written over 40 books – the Alex Rider series has sold 19 million copies across the world. Horowitz has also written TV series, films, and plays. He was commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate to write two Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk and Moriarty as well as by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. In 2014, he was awarded an OBE for his services to literature.

Delving into childhood

Horowitz began his writing career in 1979, with a children’s book, The Sinister Secret of Frederick K Bower. “Writing for children when I was 21 or 22 years old was a very strange thing to do,” recalled the 62-year-old author. “And I still to this day, don’t understand why I wrote a children’s book, or why I wrote Fredrick. I remember it was a wet afternoon and I was bored, I pulled out a piece of paper and I wrote the first paragraph of that book just without thinking about it. Then I liked the idea and I worked on it and then it became a book.” Horowitz points out this was way before the Harry Potter series phenomenon – there was little interest in children’s books back then. “Sometimes I think it maybe because I was unhappy as a child and I needed to write this book,” he added.

He went on to write more children’s books, including the Groosham Grangeseries, about a boy who goes to a sinister school. And then as Horowitz recalled, “J.K. Rowling came and electrified the world of children’s books.” He added, “What I think is that people don’t even realise is that just as Roald Dahl created the modern children’s book, J.K Rowling made children’s books part of everybody’s life. Suddenly publishers were more interested, journalists wrote about children’s authors, bookshops had a whole section dedicated to children’s books. At the same time, I realised that I couldn’t write any more books about children doing magic. It had to be completely different. And I thought, wasn’t there an idea in my head about a spy? A teenage spy?”

The James Bond influence

And that’s how Alex Rider began to be formed in Horowitz’s mind. “Alex” was named after his best friend’s son. “I thought it was a good name because it’s a strong name,” said Horowitz. “It’s got an ‘X’ in it, which is good and it’s four letters, so it’s very easy to read. It’s an international name – Alexandra, Alex, Alexander the Great. So, that was Alex. And then I had to think about the surname. Bond was so much of an inspiration.” So, Horowitz turned to Dr No, in which Ursula Andress played Honey Ryder. “Alex is sort of her son in my head,” he said.

Given that Bond connection, it’s not surprising to read about really cool gadgets in the Alex Rider series. Like the Stingo Mosquito Lotion that instead of repelling bugs, attracts them! Or the expanding bubble gum which can break locks and is aptly named Bubble 0-7. All of this goes into making the books a fun reading experience. So much so that The British Education Secretary has dubbed Horowitz “the not-so-secret weapon” to get boys reading. “I use good language,” he explained. “I don’t write down. I hate the idea that children are stupid or looking down at them. But basically, the way I write is that river is always flowing, that pace is always happening, so that you get an immersion in the story.” Horowitz relies on using show, rather than tell techniques, immersing his reader into the story and what is happening to the character.

Good intentions

Horowitz is very clear that his books are entertainment and are not meant to preach. He tries hard to avoid serious issues in his books. Yet, Crocodile Tears includes genetically modified crops and Oblivion, the final of the Power of the Five series, is set in a world ravaged by climate change. “It’s not my job to force my views to children,” said Horowitz, who has two sons. “But I do have views. I have particularly strong views about the future, because of course, it’s not my future. It’s their future. And so, some messages creep into the books even if I try to stop them. Certainly, the environment is one, and anti-smoking. Basically, I have been very lucky in my work and in my life. I feel a responsibility to try and help other people in a way. This will sound too goodie-goodie and I am not a goodie-goodie, but I do try to do some good things.”

Horowitz often draws from his unhappy (although self-confessedly privileged) childhood to write his books. And one of them, he said is his fascination for secret passages. He recalls that as a child, he once found himself in an old house full of antiques. Bored, he began tapping its walls. “I knew somewhere there was a passage that would open and get me out,” he said. “Books, in a way, are a secret passage that will take you out of life and take you into a more exciting place. So much of life is difficult, repetitive and depressing that you need to find an escape in some ways. Love is one way of escape, sport, religion, there are many ways. But for me the greatest escape is adventure and storytelling. And those are my secret passages.”

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.