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.

‘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.

Magic, monsters and mysteries

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

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

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

What’s the prime focus of your list?

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

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

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

Do you plan to navigate unexplored themes?

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

Does the list include new writers and illustrators as well?

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

What are the key highlights, according to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packing Mumbai into 85 pages – how difficult was it?

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

What made you decide to self-publish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any memorable moments while researching the book?

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

What are your favourite bits in the book?

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

The escapist pleasure of reading

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

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

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

“Arre, but who reads now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tree whisperer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we need to talk about climate change

Kids, it’s time to sit your parents down and have THAT chat. Yes, that one. That life-changing one. Make sure your parents are comfortable, ply them with plenty of tea, coffee, or a beverage of their choice. Ask them to turn their mobile phones off, or at least keep them on silent. After all, talking about climate change isn’t going to be easy.

First, start with the basics. The climate is changing – it’s real. No matter what the politicians say. Or the news does not say.

Take them through the science – the greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide – that are being pumped into the air, how they are warming the atmosphere, trapping heat, melting ice caps, causing sea levels to rise, and so on and so forth. Now just because there’s an average rise in temperature doesn’t mean that the entire planet will warm equitably (Yes, see anticipating questions from the grown-ups already). It means that some places may get cooler and have longer winters, while others may see devastating monsoons. We are already seeing all of that happen.

Next, explain to them that we are living in the age of Anthropocene. Say it slowly – anth-ro-po-ceee-neeee. Elaborate that this means that human activity is accelerating climate change. Burning fossil fuels, pollution, deforestation all of that keeps pushing the temperature up.

Second, it’s exacerbating extreme weather conditions. Third, our cities are not resilient or adapting fast enough to these extreme weather conditions. We don’t have the infrastructures or the plans in place. We just do not.

If there’s some vociferous talk about “development” versus “environment – one of the most inane debates ever – remind them that extreme weather events leads to loss of human life and infrastructure. Which all racks up a bill that is heavy on our GDPs. We need clean air, drinking water and soil to survive, and that is just a basic truth. And also, vital to development.

And lastly, spell this out, repeat if necessary – we are children and we are not going to “save” the planet. Because the Earth does not need saving, she’s going to be fine. Plus, there’s homework to do and unit tests to mug up for. So, it comes back to the grown-ups who have the power to get their voices heard and at least show their dissent about what’s happening. After all, no child wants to inherit a planet stuffed with greenhouse gases and problems of this gargantuan proportions.

Here’s the thing – grown-ups are not talking about this. At least not enough. A friend said right on the heels of Mumbai’s floods, the teachers in her niece’s school did not think it was important to chat about what had happened and why. I am sure that many children must have exulted at the thought of no school the next day, but they must wonder, why is this happening time and again, and why are we not prepared for this. Let’s face it, if children don’t get answers to their questions, then they will find out for themselves. And perhaps they will be better equipped to help grown-ups understand what is happening.

I go to classrooms often to talk to children about my book So You Want to Know About the Environment. Increasingly I feel this constant worm of worry when I realise how little tweenagers and teachers understand climate change. One student told me that it’s when you go up a mountain and the air becomes thinner, that’s climate change. Another smart aleck told me it means the climate is changing. Well, yes. But it’s only when we begin talking about how relentless the last summer was or a particular flood, that they start nodding and realising that climate change is not something that’s happening in the Arctic regions or other far flung places, it’s occurring everywhere and impacting everyone. And all of us.

So, kids, have that chat. It’s time.