Colours of the Third Rock

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

Colours of the Third Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffers with his son.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Abba’s Day

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

Catch That Cat

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

Flute in the Forest

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

A Helping Hand

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

Kanna Panna

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

Manya Learns to Roar

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

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

Simply Nanju

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

Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand?

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

Wings to Fly

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


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

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

Here are some of my favourite fictional islands

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

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

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

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

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

Kirrin Island

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

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

‘Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island’.

‘Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island’.

Florona or Swapnadwip

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

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

‘The Land Of Neverbelieve’.

‘The Land Of Neverbelieve’.

The Land Of Neverbelieve

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

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

‘Why The Whales Came’.

‘Why The Whales Came’.

Bryher and Samson

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

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

Finally, Indian parents have words and images to explain grief and loss to children

Bereavement is never easy to talk about, more so with children.

Boo! When My Sister Died

Boo! When My Sister Died (Pickle Yolk Books) is a picture book written by Richa Jha and illustrated by Gautam Benegal. In it, the protagonist Noorie’s sister dies and the world, as the girl knows it, changes. As Noorie yearns for Zoya’s return, Jha and Benegal unspool a story about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Like a child talking, the book is often straight and direct: “That night my sister Zoya was away at the hospital, I dreamt of her. The next morning Mummy said Zoya was dead. I cried.” And yet, the picture book ends on a note of hope.

Jha said the picture book initially started as a story of separation of two friends. “It was during the collaborative creative process between Gautam and I that we felt the need to create a bigger canvas to tell a deeper tale of separation in a more permanent sense,” she said. “This led us to explore whether death in itself can be treated as permanent. And if so, how does one explain the poignant memories of the dead that punctuate the loneliness of the ones left behind?”

The illustrations lend a dark yet colourful ambience. Some pages are splashed with light and rainbows, and others are resolutely dark, as if someone turned off a light switch. The crosshatch background, said Jha, mirrors the confusing unresolved thoughts and questions that emerge in the wake of a sudden death. “The illustrations are hand drawn in a crosshatched style progressively ranging from a warm space of togetherness and belonging to a space of loneliness and isolation,” said Benegal. “Finally, with closure and coming to terms with the realisation that a close person who has left us physically also gifts us with an abiding presence of shared memories and moments, we return to that warm, secure space.”

Although Jha conceded that this may be a difficult book to sell in the Indian market, she felt that as authors, editors and publishers, we “owe to it our young readers (and the parents) the freedom of choice and the option to pick up books that can help them initiate conversations on seemingly difficult subjects”.

Jha noted that children have a sharp grasp of reality, even in its most unsavoury form. She took Boo! to a summer camp in Delhi for underprivileged children and realised that at least a dozen participants had experienced the loss of a near one. “I had not expected it,” she said. “The room became emotionally charged. I put the book away the moment I felt myself slipping into an insensitive TV reporter mode about to ask, ‘so how did you feel?’. But that was also the moment I realised how important it is to create books that talk to a child’s inner most grief or fear or even joys.”

The Boy with 2 Grandfathers

Image courtesy: Tulika Books
Image courtesy: Tulika Books

Amol lives with his mother and father as well as his Appa and Ajoba in The Boy with 2 Grandfathers by Mini Shrinivasan (Tulika Books). Appa and Ajoba are as different as Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Appa is from Chennai, spends every morning performing a puja, and wears dhotis and bush shirts. Ajoba, in sharp contrast, has stylish white hair, a thick moustache, and wears a tweed coat with a silk scarf. But they both dote on Amol. One day, Amol’s mother falls sick with cancer, and the two grandfathers rally together to help their grandson through this difficult period.

“The idea behind The Boy with 2 Grandfathers is to use a humorous tone to highlight how men and boys deal with difficult emotions and how young boys and grandfathers too can be sensitive and gentle in their own unique ways,” said Shrinivasan. “Also how families from mixed communities live harmoniously while respectfully poking fun at each other.”

Shrinivasan said she felt the need to address the “tough situation of loss” because few books do that beyond the fantasy worlds. “Children’s books can help by dealing with such real issues of real children, especially pre-teens, but by keeping some humour and fun in the story and by not being preachy,” said the author.

Shrinivasan won the Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her book Just A Train Ride Away. In it, she describes how Amol copes with the slow withering away of his mother, the long silences, and the absences. “It was very hard to write the last chapters as I could not get a handle on how a 12-year-old would feel,” she said. “It was serendipity that I came across a first-person account of someone who went through a similar experience just when I was stuck. That helped to bring the authenticity that I was looking for.”

Gone Grandmother

Image courtesy: Tulika Books
Image courtesy: Tulika Books

Chatura Rao and Krishna Bala Shenoi’s picture book, Gone Grandmother (Tulika Books), starts hauntingly. “One day in February Nina’s grandmother went away,” writes Rao. “Nina didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” Everything was the same – the sky was still blue, the birds continued to call out from the trees and friends played hide-and-seek. Except that the grandmother was gone. Gone Grandmother is a beautiful exploration of grief, the comfort of memories, and the innocence of childhood.

Rao said she felt that children have a great many questions that need to be answered with gentleness and honesty. When her grandmother passed away two years ago, her seven-year-old niece wanted to know where she had gone. “Her mother replied that grandma has gone to Ganpati,” recalled Chatura. “The little girl said she really couldn’t see how our old grandma could have journeyed so far, all the way to Ganpati’s home. This struck me as a pretty valid doubt. When someone dear passes on, where do they actually go? As adults, we perform the rituals of death, some of us donate money to charity, or contribute to feed the poor… we find ways to accept loss. But what is a child supposed to do for answers? Gone Grandmother was born from seeing things from my niece’s eyes. I was really hoping to answer her question.” And the book becomes a beautiful way to answers these questions.

Shenoi uses light as the foundation to illustrate the book. The result is stunning. “I wanted aspects of the visuals, particularly my use of light, to reflect the progression of the story,” the illustrator said. If you look closely through the book, the story gives the sense of a day progressing – starting from daytime and then fading into darker colours as the sun sets. “The illustrations, particularly those set in the grandmother’s room, are lit with patches of golden light to bring to the images a sense of her Nani’s warmth even in her absence,” said Shenoi. “And the compositions emphasise Nina’s smallness in her grandmother’s room, giving us a sense of some of her loneliness and longing.”

For Rao, this book wasn’t easy to write. “It seems like a simple enough narrative, but it was hard to strike the right balance between a child’s loneliness and her need to understand the truth.” But she manages to do that. In fact, the author has heard from many adult readers that the book reminded them of the time they lost a beloved grandma. “They said that the book acknowledged loss and spoke of hope, and these made them feel better,” Rao said. “The children I presented it to liked the funny bits best – the lists that the protagonist Nina makes: Ways to Reach the Stars and Ways to get to God’s Home. Perhaps they too make such lists themselves sometimes.”

Rao added that stories like these can help children deal with difficult subjects. “Loss and grief expressed through a story gives the child a chance to explore it in a slightly removed sort of way. She realises that the experience is universal (because it’s in a book) and yet is personal because she feels close to it while reading. So, it’s okay to feel sad and blue, but then life goes on.”

The Harry Potter films gave us Alan Rickman as Severus Snape but aren’t a patch on the books

Never judge the book by its movie: this is especially true for the screen versions of JK Rowling’s novels.

There is a point in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Ginny Weasley bends down to tie Harry Potter’s shoelace at The Burrow. While watching it in the movie theatre, I wanted to fling up my hands in despair and yell, “What! Why?!”

You will not find that stupid scene in the books. Not even if you were to use a Revealer (that bright red eraser that makes invisible writing visible). Ginny in the books wouldn’t tie anyone’s shoelaces, she may actually trip them instead.

Few movies can do justice to a book series, especially one as rich as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. As a reader, I have definitive ideas of how Hogwarts and its moving staircases should look, whether Cedric Diggory resembles Edward Cullen (no, he does not), and how the Mandrakes cry when pulled out of the soil. A friend and I had a really long argument over the pronunciation of Sirius – she insisted it is Cyrus, and I couldn’t believe she was “serious”. (I won, in case you were wondering.)

All of us have versions of our beloved books in our heads. Some adaptations, such as the Game of Thrones series, come close to doing justice to their literary roots. This match is possible in a television show that stretches over several episodes instead of being scrunched up into 120-minute editions. Conversely, the Percy Jackson films were pretty much a disaster when compared to Rick Riordan’s funny and fantastic books.

For Potterheads, there’s always the tussle between endlessly discussing how the movies are not a patch on the books while devouring them just to get one more gulp of the wizarding world. The movies have been a means of remembering and revisiting the books that we all love. Without the movies, Alan Rickman would not have been seared in our collective memory as Severus Snape.

Movie adaptations of popular books tend to set the dominant visual cues for fans. The younger generation will always think of Daniel Radcliffe when they think about The Boy Who Lived, rather than Jim Kay or Mary GrandPré’s illustratations in the novels. Be it the figurines or the colouring books, they are all based on the movies. Even the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in America and Harry Potter World in London are tours organised by the producer, the Warner Bros studio.

Potterheads have their absolute favourite scenes from the books that have often been ruthlessly cut on the editing table. For instance, where is the wonderful story behind the Marauder’s Map, and how can Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire even proceed without telling us that the hack Rita Skeeter is an unregistered Animagus? Don’t even get me started on how easy the labyrinth was in the final task in the Triwizard Tournament.

One of my pet peeves has to be the fact that the filmmakers reduced Ron Weasley to a sidekick. In the books, he has all the funny lines and he is loyal to a fault. His insecurities, on the other hand, reveal his vulnerable side, something that is completely glossed over in the films. That is why we should never judge the book by its movie.


An Indian play struck a special connection with its young audience. Just look at these Post-It notes

An actor lies down on the almost bare stage of Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre and wriggles like a fish. Another actor mimicks the gurgling of a river with fluid body movements, as Moyna, the protagonist, skips across the make-believe waterway. In the audience, a child gasps, mesmerised by the drama of a forest unfolding in front of her. This was six years ago at the opening of Gillo’s Kyun Kyun Ladki, a children’s play based on Mahasweta Devi’s book, The Why Why Girl.

At a time when children’s theatre was rife with loud comedy and slapstick scenes, Kyun Kyun Ladki was a play that stood out for its quiet, graceful reflection of a child’s innate curiosity. Mahasweta Devi’s story, published by Tulika Books, is about a tribal girl who is full of questions. As a note from the theatre company Gillo explains, “It is the story of Moyna and at the same time the story of so many children, all who always ask the question ‘Why?’ Performed through dance and movement, the play shows glimpses of their lives and of their minds.”

Now with the play nearing 50 shows, director Shaili Sathyu is preparing to retire it after a few more runs. “We initially planned the play for five shows, really because of the way [the] play was developed,” said Sathyu, over a phone call. “The actors had no idea of the entire play – they knew bits of it, and didn’t know how it came together…”

For the production, the cast and crew quizzed children and parents about the questions that kids often ask. “We took on the key questions,” said Sathyu, adding that they searched for different contexts for the same questions asked in the original story. “Why is the colour of the sky blue? Why do I have to work? Can fish talk? Any child in the world would have some of those universal questions in their mind.” But the play isn’t just about questions. It’s about the motivations and context that propel a child to reach a question, and then what happens in the ensuing conversation. Often these questions are dismissed by adults as annoying or awkward. But Kyun Kyun Ladki celebrates the questions and a child’s curiosity.

One reason Sathyu plans to retire the play is because the original cast is no longer part of the show (except for actor John Soans, who returns especially for the next run). Gillo’s adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s story was a collective creation by the cast and crew that took four months in the making. “Every actor’s reflections added to the characters in the play,” said Sathyu. “One could say the ownership completely lies with the actors. This brings in a sense of conviction in what they are portraying and has to a large extent been the core of the play.” Sathyu added that a certain soul of the play gets lost if the actors don’t have ownership of it. “We want to leave this play with good memories, create work together with a new collective.”

In a 2011 review in the now-defunct Time Out Mumbai, this reporter wrote, “What’s fascinating is the lack of sets on the stage – the actors seamlessly transform from playing children to adults to animals and even a door, a pump and gurgling river.” The actors worked with Bharatnatyam dancer Hamsa Moily intensively to recreate scenes through movement, which became a spectacle on stage. Another goosebump-inducing moment is when the teacher in the play sings Safdar Hashmi’s poem “Kitaben”. The clear voice rings out across the hall, holding everyone from the children to the grown-ups spellbound. It is moments like these that make Kyun Kyun Ladki memorable.

Sathyu explained that their attempt has been to give space to a child’s voice through the play, and not what adults think what a child’s voice should be. Which is why, not all the narratives in the play have neat endings. “The parallel narratives are more like thought bubbles,” Sathyu said. “As you read stories, you get other thoughts, the mind goes into different thoughts, they evoke smell, memory. We were going into these thought bubbles. And it’s not important to find a closure on that.”

Before each show, Sathyu takes to the stage and welcomes the audience and advices the grown-ups against explaining the play to the children they are accompanying. “Children understand more than you realise,” she points out. And the audience – the children – seem to love it, going by the feedback the play has generated.

Sathyu said the play was well received by many friends in theatre who otherwise don’t like to watch plays for children. “We tried by not spoon-feeding children, and with the aim of respecting a child’s capacity to process a performance and make sense on their own,” she said. “We succeeded to some extent.”

After each show, Gillo keeps post-its and sketch pens for children to write their thoughts on. “I loved why Why Why girl the best,” writes Arushi; “I liked the book part. It was funny,” writes Yuvansh. Sathyu recalls a show in Pune in either 2011 or 2012, where a six-year-old came out with her mother and asked in Marathi, “Aai, tula kadle natak (Did you understand the play)? Should I explain it to you?”

“It’s these small reactions from children that are worth more than a thousand lukewarm responses from others,” said Sathyu. “This is what motivates us to continue planting more questions in children’s minds.”

Wordless books, endless possibilities

Tucked away in Madhya Pradesh is Bhimbetka, a cluster of rock paintings that date back centuries. Here, it’s easy to step back in time and imagine our ancestors painting their everyday life and sharing stories about animals and battle scenes. I couldn’t help but think about the awe-inspiring Bhimbetka as I read Ammachi’s Glasses (Tulika Books), a wordless picture book by Priya Kuriyan. The book is a reminder that sometimes you just don’t need words to tell a story. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” sometimes.

Detailing humour

In the book, Ammachi wakes up one morning and is found stumbling, bumbling, and tumbling through the day. She trips over the dog, cooks a pair of blue-and-white slippers, and what not! Why? Because she can’t find her glasses. It certainly creates quite a to-do in the family’s life. And offers multiple moments of hilarity for the reader. Kuriyan’s book is steeped in humour and detail. Every re-reading reveals some delightful feature that you may have missed or makes you appreciate the little nuances that have been added. Whether it’s the bewildered faces of the family members, the furniture and photographs in the house, or the ubiquitous crow in the background, it all adds to the reading experience.

“Three years back, I was at a SCWBI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] workshop on making picture books that Anushka Ravishankar [author and publisher] and Suddhasattwa Basu [illustrator] we conducting. We were sitting together and discussing picture books, and we came up with this story. At that time, I did it with words, lots of words,” said Kuriyan, one of India’s most beloved illustrator. She then sent it Tulika Books in Chennai who came back with some interesting feedback. They felt that perhaps the words were not working, and to think about a wordless book. Kuriyan, who was trying her hand at rhymes for the story, happily took the advice. In between her regular projects, it took Kuriyan a while to sit down with the book. But things sped up when she moved to Kochi from Delhi, and was able to finish the final art work in six months.

Memorable characters

Kuriyan said that Ammachi is a lot like her father’s mother. Her sister and she lived with their grandmother for two years in Kerala, and that’s when they had the closest interaction with her. “Before moving to Kerala with my parents, my grandmother stayed in Ranchi,” said Kuriyan. “She always wore the same costume — she was a figure in white [much like the grandma in the book]. She’s like this comic book character who never change their clothes, like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes is always in a stripped T-shirt. I have never seen her wear anything else apart from that. There was something about her appearance that made her perfect to be created in this character.”

Little quirks and foibles make the book wondrous. For instance, Kuriyan recalled that her grandmother used to hate the family cat. “She would try to scare it,” she said. “Once she tried on to pounce on the cat and she fell.” In the book, Ammachi trips over the family dog, while the cat laughs away.

Of course, the book is also very local to Kerala, from the house to the food to the clothes. The story is based on a Malayalam saying, said Kuriyan, about how when something is missing, you tell that kids that the crow took it away. Many little things come from Kuriyan’s memory of houses there. “It’s a Christian household,” she pointed out. “There’s always a Last Supper painting hanging in the dining room. Then, I have seen my parents reading only The Hindu newspaper [it’s The Hindooo in the book].” Of course, Ammachi is a bit pretentious as well, she reads existential authors only — you have to read the book to find out about the pun Kuriyan has tucked in there.

Much like reality

Nature is inherent to Kuriyan’s work. In one page you see a tree. Then you see a close-up of little white flowers and fruits, and then suddenly, you realise it as a mango tree. “I like painting lots of leaves and flowers, I find it very calming,” she explained. “I think kids should see nature in books, or they won’t know stuff like this. Showing a mall would be so boring. Also, nature is disappearing outside, it will be sad if it disappears from books also.”

What Kuriyan also gets right is just how older people are often uninhibited about their clothes or behaviour. “If you see older people, they are very comfortable, they don’t care who is watching,” she said. The book’s pages are strewn with everyday items such as a football and toaster, but also underwear. As Kuriyan says, “it is normal to see these things around you such as clothes strewn around. I don’t think anyone hides clothes from each other. What’s a bathroom without bra and underwear?”

Kuriyan’s recently made an appearance on Instagram, and it’s evident from there how much of her work is down to her keen observation sense. In the book, the mother has to run out to curtail an Ammachi-related emergency. She’s wearing a nightie, “with a dupatta draped over her, as strange men are around,” points out Kuriyan. Much like many of the women we are used to seeing. “Nuanced things make a difference, that’s what kids see. They would relate to it, I think,” she added.

More than words

Another breakaway from the picture book norm is that the story is not linear, rather it is cyclical, full of mystery and suspense. And all told without words. Wordless picture books often confound some grown-ups who don’t see how such a book aids in learning, one big reason to buy a book in the first place. But these books are a treasure trove of detail — whether it’s Flotsam by David Wiesner, which takes children into the underwater world as well as science, history, and documentation. Or The Arrival by Shaun Tan which tells the story of survival and industrialisation, through the eyes of an immigrant.

“One great thing about wordless book is that there’s no text,” said Kuriyan. “There’s nothing to tell you that the story on this page has ended. No one is telling you that now it’s time to turn the page. You can take as much time as you want on one spread. The vocabulary is also yours, not someone else’s. Perhaps it’s a nice way to getting kids to talk about what’s happening.”

Diversity, joy and some good old silliness

In a brief but albeit highly productive five years, Duckbill has made its mark with its focus on new voices and a wide range of topics says Bijal Vachharajani

Over the last five years, Duckbill, a publishing house based out of Delhi, has been pushing the boundaries when it comes to creating books for children and young adults around brave and unusual themes, and introducing new authors. Crucial at a time when children’s literature continues to be dominated by Hindu mythology, the usual set of authors, and more recently, celebrity children. “Anushka [Ravishankar] and I set up Duckbill because we wanted to publish fun contemporary fiction, which we could not focus on our then places of employment,” said Sayoni Basu, one of the chief platypus at Duckbill. “Also we wanted to find new voices, because there seemed to be a certain lack of diversity in Indian children’s writing in English. We wanted more joy and more silliness,” asserts Basu.

A lighter touch

The joy and silliness is evident from their “P…P…P…Platypus” song they launched the publishing house with. It’s rather catchy, and if you look it up on YouTube, it might just become your earworm for the rest of the day. Of course, since the time of their launch, they have published a wide range of books, including stories on LGBT teenagers, bullying, adoption, and differently-abled children. At the same time, they have an entire fun series called the Hole books, which are crisp, short stories that make for quick reads, as well as the History Mystery series that takes a light-hearted but clever look at different facets of our history.

Not all their books work, but what keeps them interesting is that the themes are often different from the usual mainstream stories. “Over the five years though, we have found that in addition to the silly and funny books which are our first love, we feel compelled to publish books with different focuses (though ideally, these are still funny). [It’s] because the range of books available for Indian kids seems so inadequate compared to the range of interests, challenges and dilemmas that Indian kids face. So clearly, we also need to publish on a wide range of subjects,” said Basu.

Fresh take

In July this year, they released two books written by the winners of the Children First contest. Last year, Parag, an initiative of Tata Trust and Vidyasagar School, Chennai teamed up with Duckbill to run a contest to find books featuring children with special needs. “The idea,” said the press release, “behind Children First was to publish books which treat children with special needs as children first – with all the hopes, fears, mischief and fun that comes with being children.” The four winners are Lavanya Karthik for Neel on Wheels, R.K. Biswas for Vibhuti Cat, Harshikaa Udasi for Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Day, and Shruthi Rao for Manya Learns to Roar.

Another way Duckbill discovers new writers is through their workshops. “I think they succeeded better than we had expected (though we never really had defined expectations) and we have seen some very exciting new voices emerge,” said Basu. “I think a focus – which writing at workshops or in a contest provides – really helps authors, whether unpublished or published, to write at their best.” Duckbill so far has introduced some 19 new authors, including Shals Mahajan, RamG Vallath, Shalini Srinivasan, Arundhati Venkatesh, Parinita Shetty, Pavithra Sankaran, Archit Taneja, Zainab Sulaiman, and Tanu Shree Singh.

In collaboration

At the same time, their author list includes established names such as Adil Jussawalla, Anushka Ravishankar, Jerry Pinto, Ashok Banker, Asha Nehemiah, and M. Krishnan. “While the focus on books about differently abled kids was a conscious one this year, the rest has happened serendipitously,” explained Basu. “We had already published/ signed up two books about differently abled kids before the contest happened. And the LGBT, adoption etc books happened because authors were unconventional enough to write them, so we can take little credit!”

Duckbill keeps a one-arm distance from mythology and folk tales, books that dominate most publisher’s lists. The only one that sounds like mythology, is Ravana Refuses to Die by Rustom Dadachanji and it’s actually a laugh-out-loud story about a group of children in the town of Babubari. “Since we can publish a maximum of 12 books every year (and we frequently don’t publish that many), we have to be extremely focused in what we choose,” said Basu. “There are so many collections of folktales and mythological stories available that we feel we should publish on subjects which are less talked about. And also, it helps that Anushka, Ayushi (Saxena, described as ‘More than Editor and Pleasant Platypus’) and I are not huge mythology fans. And given the times we live in, mythology is also quite problematic to publish.”

Another reason that authors seem to root for Duckbill is because the publishing house goes the extra mile when it comes to promoting their authors. Whether it’s on the shelves of bookstores or online. Also, we are told that bribes to complete manuscripts include huge slices of homemade toffee cake and cuddles from the resident Duckbill dog. “Our main marketing is through social media, so we have to keep it going. And it is fun,” said Basu. “We like talking about children’s books in general, and Indian books in particular, not just our own books. And our authors are always sporting enough to write blog posts and do silly things like write platypus poems and serious things like talk about books they have read, so it is all very much a collaborative project.”

Messing with the Mongols

Yakkety Yak, the narrator of Nayanik Mahtani’s The Gory Story of Genghis Khan AKA Don’t Mess with the Mongols, assures us that the fabulous fearsome protagonist is “actually awfully nice”. Well, he goes on to add, “to anyone whose name begins with a Y, that is. He kills everyone else. Just kidding.” Oh, well!

The dopey-eyed time travelling Yakkety Yak sets the perfect tone for this fairly unusual biography of Genghis Khan. The book is funny, engaging, and packed with information (not to mention puns and raps) about the Mongol warrior, all cleverly illustrated by Tapas Guha. “While I was looking for ways to introduce Asian history to my daughters, Genghis Khan invaded the territory in my head,” said Mahtani, over email. “I was utterly fascinated by this poor, illiterate, exiled, ‘half-blood’ Mongolian boy who grew up to become the world’s leading conqueror. And what really drew me in was that there were such conflicting opinions about him. Was he the vilest of villains that ever lived or the most far-sighted leader the world had ever seen? Genghis Khan refused to leave until I did some finding out for myself.”

The topic got sealed when an uncle shared a photograph of Mahtani’s grandmother’s childhood home, which is now in Bhera, a village in Pakistan. When Mahtani looked it up, she discovered that Genghis Khan had been to her ancestral village. “Perhaps that’s the reason I time-travelled and visited his homeland,” she said.

Mahtani lives in London and she spent hours at the British Library, researching her protagonist. “My constant writing companion was an invaluable Mongolian account called The Secret History of the Mongols, written shortly after Genghis Khan’s death,” she said. She also read other versions of history, including translations of Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo), the Jāmi al-tawārīkh, and Jack Weatherford’s writings. “It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together – one missing link gave me a bit of a runaround but then it happily emerged.” And as the author confessed, she was hooked by the material she found — “the centuries flew by as I breathlessly tried to keep pace with Genghis Khan on horseback.”

Mahtani juxtaposes history with imagined scenarios, giving the narrative a rich, immersive life of its own. “I was keen to meet Genghis Khan in his childhood to try and understand his motivations and his fears. What gave this young boy the strength to carry on despite facing odds that would give Harry Potter’s hardships a run for their money?” she said. “While I used imagined dialogue and scenario to recreate his childhood, I tried to build it around facts.” She also puts in a fictional reporter, Yuherdit Hearfurst, who is constantly breaking news on his show, Steppe On It. “I then attempted to blend these various scenarios with historical fact, to make it a fun read for the kids (hopefully!),” added Mahtani.

The Gory Story of Genghis Khan is Mahtani’s second book. Her first book Ambushed was set in a tiger reserve and took on the subject of poaching through fiction. For her, sharing stories is a wonderful way of building understanding. From Genghis Khan, she hopes that children take away the thought that history depends on who is telling the story. “That there can be many versions to the ‘truth’ — and that’s perfectly alright,” she said. “And that we can all still be friends, no matter what our version of the truth may be.”

History books in India predominantly choose to navigate India’s vast history through the Indus Valley Civilisation until the post-Independence period, but few look at characters such as Genghis Khan. And it becomes essential to tell these stories at a time when textbooks are often skewed to portray only one side of the story. “I set out to tell a story that would engage kids (even those who don’t like reading or dread history) and remind them that history depends on which point of view it’s being told from – and also, that it’s a good thing to consider all points of view,” said Mahtani. “Genghis Khan himself followed shamanistic beliefs (he worshipped the spirits of the sky, winds and mountains) — but he upheld religious freedom for all in his empire, at a time when it was very rare to do so. Today, more than ever, I feel we need to have all kinds of stories for our kids to read. Because varied stories make life more interesting, don’t you think?”

This cat’s out of the bag

Like all her books, Manjula Padmanabhan’s observations gets kids excited about details in Pooni at the Taj Mahal

Oh yay! Pooni the cat is back. And oh dear! She’s gone missing again. Writer-illustrator Manjula Padmanabhan is back with Pooni at the Taj Mahal,published by Tulika Books. Pooni the beloved green-eyed cat is the protagonist of a series of picture books, with the first one being, Where’s That Cat?

The idea for a series, says Padmanabhan, came from an earlier book, A Visit to the City Market, which had beenpublished by the National Book Trust India (NBT) in the 80s. “I had always wanted to draw a sequel to City Market but it wasn’t possible to find time to work on it,” she writes in an email. “My entire aim, in all three books — City Market and the two Pooni volumes —was to provide a framework within which I could draw scenes from real life. I am always keenly interested in recording life on the street, noticing things — and also, of course, deleting things! For instance, in Where’s That Cat? I had to constantly ‘remove’ garbage from the scenes on the street.”

A good eye

Both the Pooni books are vivid and rich in detail, the first with street scenes, and the second with the Taj Mahal in Agra and the tourists who visit it. In Pooni and the Taj Mahal, as Minnie and her family explore the Taj, young readers get to see the monument from different perspectives, including a bird’s eye view. Padmanabhan takes a closer look at the people — there are women in pop-coloured ghagras, hippie international tourists, and of course, visitors taking selfies constantly! And it makes for a fantastic spotting book for children.

“With the current Pooni book, the greatest struggle was to figure out a way to include the Taj, without making the book look like a tourist brochure,” says Padmanabhan. “I am not skilled at drawing buildings in correct perspective. Believe me, these drawings are not correct: the angles are wrong, the scale is often wrong and I’ve left out more details than I’ve included.” Padmanabhan explains that at the very onset, she had decided that the monument would be impressionistic, as she wanted to focus on the people. “I wanted to create background characters who might seem to be actually talking or arguing or just sharing a joke so that a young reader might wonder: What is that person saying? And why are those people all wearing orange? Why is the cat running? Where is the cat?” she says.

Padmanabhan has written and illustrated children’s books, novels, plays, short-stories, and cartoons, and most grown-ups fondly know her as the creator of the comic strip Suki. “Everything I do feeds into everything else,” she says. “If my mind was a zoo, then all the different animals inside it — the cartoonist, the journalist, the playwright — they would not be in separate cages but would instead be roaming around, talking to one another. Those supposedly different parts of my work aren’t really different. I’m an artist and a writer. That’s all.”

Looking and seeking

Padmanabhan has a knack for capturing her observations on paper. She travelled a lot as a child and spent hours sitting inside cars, staring out of the window, looking at things. “I do really look around a lot,” she says. “I get car-sick when I’m in a moving vehicle, so I can’t read or do any work.” What makes Pooni a perfect picture book is that with very few words, Padmanabhan manages to elicit a range of emotions from the reader. You fret with Minnie as she looks for Pooni, you worry for the mischievous cat, you are happy when you spot her in the page somewhere. “For me, at least, drawing is a very conscious process, like doing a puzzle or working on an engineering problem,” she explains. “How to create a current of energy that flows smoothly from page to page? How to tell a story almost entirely through expressions and physical gestures? Since I am a cartoonist, I have a small advantage: I am used to drawing expressions.”

Padmanabhan’s books are really a celebration of diversity — of people, cultures, clothes, traditions, patterns. Something she says, she does not do consciously. “I think that’s just a general principle for me — I draw and write about things that interest me,” says the author. “I am always interested in ‘otherness’ — in people, animals, places and food(!) that’s unfamiliar. Outside India, whenever someone suggests going to an Indian restaurant I always beg to be taken anywhere else — because I already know what Indian food is like!”

Pooni at the Taj Mahal, Tulika Books is priced at ₹150.