2018 in Children’s Books


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

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

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

Words of the wise

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

2018 in Children’s Books

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

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

Loud and clear

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

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

Future is female

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

2018 in Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

Words and pictures

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

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

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

2018 in Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

Powered by the people


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

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

Building a resistance

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

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

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

Invisible people

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

Cast of characters

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

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

Spotlight Northeast

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

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

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

Expanding the discourse

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

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

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

A Touch of Butterfly Magic


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

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

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

Drawing grief

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

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

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

Worth the wait

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

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

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

Illustrating wonder

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

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

The Ammuchi PuchiIndia Puffin, 199.

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!