Adventures in tween land

Tweenager Stoob has a plan: it’s to grow up and “be a celebrity when not inventing things and saving the world.” When I read that in the latest instalment of The Adventures of Stoob: Mismatch Mayhem , I couldn’t stop chuckling. After all, how many times had my friends’ children voiced the exact same plan of becoming adventurers, inventors, or superheroes (preferably all at the same time), opting for exciting career options over the ones their parents had chosen? Samit Basu’s book series is a running commentary on the everyday life of Subroto Bandhopadhyay, otherwise known as Stoob, where the protagonist is contemporary, very Indian, and very real.

Stoob and his friends Rehan and Ishani don’t have to embark on perilous quests to save a gem that will in turn save all of humankind nor do they have to battle a crowd of meat-chomping zombies. Instead, the series celebrates the ordinary and special moments that childhood is made of. In many ways, Stoob can be (and has been) compared to the Enid Blyton’s school books, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, or Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate series. Yet, it manages to stand out on its own. Mainly because Basu creates characters and narratives that are entirely believable. So, Stoob and his friends worry about exams in Testing Times ; in A Difficult Stage , play rehearsals take precedence over everything else in life; and in the latest instalment Mismatch Mayhem , a classic love triangle threatens a deep friendship.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, the editorial director of Red Turtle, Rupa Books’ children imprint, said, “When Red Turtle started, we wanted to publish a funny, contemporary fiction series that would capture the voice and feelings of the modern Indian tween. Their thoughts and feelings, both profound and banal. There are lots like this in the West, but few Indian ones that work as a series.” And that’s what sets Stoob apart from his Western counterparts, the little details which make him real to the upper/middle class, urban reader. Basu writes convincingly, portraying the awkwardness of being a tween poised at the brink of adolescence. “Writing in different voices is a simple question of seeing the world through what you imagine are another person’s eyes: much like acting, I presume,” said Basu, over email. “So if you can get in character, it hopefully flows quite smoothly. And it’s easier to get in character as Stoob, which is mostly a matter of memory and identification, than it is to the protagonists of any of my previous books, who are mostly able to defy physics but not turn into sociopaths.”

This time around in Mismatch Mayhem , Stoob is “A Man Who Has Seen Life, Its Sorrows and Joys… A Man Whom James Bond and Alex Rider would have Known and Respected.” That’s because he’s dated a girl from another school who seems to prefer earrings over Calvin and Hobbes (like seriously). Things get complicated when best friend Rehan also likes the same girl. What follows is a rollicking adventure, pretty much laugh-out-loud all the way.

Basu said that he has many friends whose kids are the same age as Stoob and their stories were reminiscent of his childhood. “Not that much has changed, except the technology around the kids,” said Basu. To write the series, Basu spoke to many children, learning about their concerns, and hearing anecdotes from their schools.

Basu said, “My favourite reactions are when parents or children come and tell me their own school stories that Stoob reminded them of, because this also doubles up nicely as research. I’ve also been trying out a writing experiment, which is reading out first drafts of Stoob chapters to key readers as I write them. It’s something I would never do with books for adults, because adults would feel compelled to have thoughts: kids just listen and respond without overthinking it, which I enjoy hugely.”

What also makes the books fun are the illustrations by Sunaina Coelho. They have a life of their own, with the characters doing their own thing in the illustrations, almost like doodles in a school notebook. “I write the illustration requests out the way I write out comic scripts: a visual description, text captions. Really good artists are able to take that and then take wing, making illustrations richer and deeper than the text they start out from. They’re on their own trip very deliberately; the idea is to step into Stoob’s imagination and hopefully recreate the kind of effect that a Terry Pratchett footnote does, which also fits in nicely with the kind of hyperlinked thinking that kids do very naturally nowadays. There isn’t much of a process after that because I always just really like Sunaina’s work, so I send a list of illustration-base text, she sends the artwork, and I send a mail telling my editor how much I love them.”

Although irreverent in tone, the series manages to underscore contemporary markers and issues, such as the poor quality of children’s television programming, the stress of exams, the struggle to be perceived as cool and fashionable, and the constant presence of technology in their lives. All of this makes Stoob relevant to a contemporary, urban audience who will easily relate to him and his gang.

If humour was a pre-requisite super hero power, then Stoob would join the legion of fictional caped men, women and beasts. But since it’s not, he will have to settle for the title of one of the funniest and endearing school children in fictional history in children’s literature.

What’s in your tiffin?

Recently, a friend texted about a piece of homemade fudge that had come back uneaten in the lunch box of her 13-year-old son. “I asked him why he didn’t eat it,” my friend Sudeshna Shome Ghosh wrote. “His response was, ‘How could I? I didn’t know what it was.’” My friend rolled her eyes (you can now do that thanks to an updated emoticon app), I LOL’d and that was the end of it.

IMG_9038The conversation brought back dabba memories, of going to school and opening my stainless steel lunch box in the afternoon, hours after it was packed, wondering about its contents. With the mother being a fabulous cook, the dabba was usually crammed with theplas folded in half with a dibbi of mango pickle, jeera rice with caramelized onion and curd, or rotis that miraculously stayed soft so that they could be torn with two fingers and eaten with sabji . There was lunchbox envy, where I coveted my classmates’ tiffins because they brought food that wasn’t familiar to me. I yearned for cucumber sandwiches, after re-reading Enid Blyton books, even though the white bread would be curling up at the edges by afternoon. I even wanted the dabba that held cold, clammy Maggi noodles, something that I now wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. But at that time, it was as exciting as moringa leaves are now to chefs.

Now there are plenty of cookery books, blogs and Instagram accounts with innovative lunch box ideas, all just a Google search away. Blogger and nutritionist Nandita Iyer, better known as Saffron Trail online, has simple, healthy ideas, which include vegetable peanut noodles, pita pocket pizza sandwiches, and puliyogare or tamarind rice. Lulu Loves Bombay blogs about travel, her children, and food. Her sweet potato discs sound like a lovely addition to the dabba , as do her methi thepla and mango chunda. Sanjeeta KK’s blog, Lite Bite, has a Lunchbox Bites section with some handy tips and recipes such as for muthiyas and wholegrain chillas.

On Instagram, Lunch Box Dad, Beau Coffran’s mealtime hacks include rocket ships from bread and cheese, and Spider-Man lunches with berries; while bleary-eyed parents may not be keen to wake up and make food art, it’s a fun account to follow. Grace Hall’s Eats Amazing blog focuses on Bento-style lunches for her son and follows themes such as Halloween, rainbows, and gardens. Her #PackedLunchLove Project has creative boxes that, she promises, take just a few minutes to prepare and are a visual feast. A few years ago, graphic designer and illustrator David Laferriere’s innovative sandwich bag art went viral. He’s made over 1,800 sandwich bag drawings with monsters and kites.

And when in doubt, return to the library.

Apart from the usual cluster of recipe books, check out Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything , a charming account of a family, with two picky-eater children, that moves from the USA to France and discovers how the French government and the school system strengthen food education. Then there’s Chris Butterworth’s Lunchbox: The Story of Your Food , illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti. A picture book, it takes young readers on a journey from farm to fork, getting them to think: where did the food in my lunchbox come from? It’s a lovely way of engaging children with farmers who grow our food and get them curious about what they are eating.

Mommy Go Lightly, a.k.a. journalist and author Lalita Iyer, writes lovingly about dabbas on her blog, “Food is intuitive,” she writes about packing her son Re’s lunch box. “At least that’s how it should be. Try different things and figure out what works for your child. My tip is, make it visually exciting. Make it look good. All you need is colours.” Pretty much all my mommy and daddy friends gave me tips like that when I talked to them about the art of dabba packing: fruits and dry fruits in small Tupperware boxes to snack on in the bus; use leftovers innovatively.

Shinibali Mitra Saigal, who packs food for her nine-year-old daughter said, “Mine doesn’t like anything soggy, squidgy or leaky. My daughter claims that thanks to me, she had to eat pickled strawberries, which taste vile.” When I asked her what she meant, she added, “According to her, the pickle in an airtight container leaked and ran into the strawberry in a different compartment. So that makes it pickled strawberry and an excuse not to finish her lunch box.”

Ghosh wakes up ten minutes earlier in the morning to make extra sandwiches for her son’s friends. “According to my son, none of them want to share the fruits I pack,” she said, with a sigh. “But he’s telling me that, and well, he hates fruits. So…”

Looking back, we can appreciate that one person who woke up at the crack of dawn to toil away in the kitchen to prepare fresh lunchboxes for the family. I regret the dabbas that I brought back home uneaten, even the alu methi, which really doesn’t do itself any favours when cold. Okay, maybe not the alu methi.

The author writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru.


Out of line but in your mind

What does a Chuppertyhoover look like? We know it makes a good pet once it’s been fished out of a chamber pot, because Jerry Pinto says so in Monster Garden : A Draw-It-Yourself Picture Book . And that means it can look like whatever our idea of a good animal companion is. The Chuppertyhoover could have eyes like a dog, ears like a rabbit, a face like an elephant, a body like a giraffe, and legs like an alien. Or it could look like a chapati that’s just been hoovered off the carpet. Or it could be a hoov that’s gone chup and ’ert. Basically, no one’s been told what it looks like. Then, there’s another conundrum. The Chuppertyhoover only eats Asumptivet. And that too, only if it’s fresh. No stale Asumptivet for our Chuppertyhoover. But again, what does an Asumptivet look like?

The answer is not in Pinto’s latest book published by Duckbill. Rather, it’s in your child’s imagination. Because that’s what Monster Garden is about: being imaginative and creative to draw and colour your own picture book. Pinto’s prose frolics delightfully across the pages with the help of Priya Kuriyan’s illustrations. There’s a tree looking slightly nervous and the child has to draw a Scrumpeelious under it, while a Sharmistickle has to be drawn to hover in the air. Hairy feet poke out in an Asumptivets field, as Pinto offers a hilarious, but complicated way to get to an Asumptivet. And in all of that, the child creates his or her very own monsters, plucking them straight out of his or her fancy.

Pinto said he wanted Monster Garden to be free of preconceived adult notions about what children like to draw and paint. “Do they really like to paint ducks who wear shirts and caps but no trousers,” he asks. “Do they like to paint lady mice in frilly knickers? Wouldn’t they like to imagine what a Chuppertyhoover is? And how it looks when it eats a Floover? I thought I would, so that’s the book I gave them.” That’s why there aren’t any kinda-obvious ‘Join the Dots’ or ‘Copy and Colour this Picture’ pages in this whimsical and quirky book. “I was given a series of dot-to-dot books when I was a child, by a peculiar aunt who kept giving them to me when I was way into my teens,” said Pinto, via email. “But even as a child, I could see what the dots were joining up to make and I couldn’t see the point of joining them. And then I could never decide whether to use straight lines or curvy lines — and if the latter, then should they be convex or concave or just plain wriggly.”

Monster Garden is a mischievous book, sparkling with humour and ingenuity. Children are fascinated and spooked by monsters, most anyway lurk in their imagination. Monster Garden brings that to the forefront. Priced at Rs 150, the book will make for a super goody bag filler as well. There’s a pull-out colour poster where Kurian has created a fabulous gallery of monsters including the Bubbleganoosh and Pinkiporous.

But what makes Monster Garden an important addition to the library is its spunkiness — it is a clarion call to get children to think outside the colouring lines, rummage through their own thoughts and create what they want. For a change, no one is telling them what to draw and how to draw it. Pinto and Kurian offer hints and nudges, but that’s about it. And that is a rarity in a world that’s full of staid, run-of-the-mill colouring and activity books, which are extremely popular with parents, who want their children to “be constructive” in their play or reading time as well.

Pinto hopes that parents will encourage children to get this book and draw all over it. “I hope they won’t tell their kids that you must draw a better monster than that, come on beta, I know you have it in you, because what is a better monster?” said Pinto. “I hope they will buy two copies and save one for themselves and draw the monsters themselves because Pama-Muppy also have inner children, starving inner children who must be fed.” Given the popularity of colouring books for adults across the world, and the universal appeal of Monster Garden , this might actually happen. As a child, Pinto said that he had poor hand-eye coordination, mostly because his bad eyesight went undiagnosed until eighth standard. “So I would get failing grades at drawing in school because I did not stay within the lines,” said Pinto. “So this book was designed for all those kids out there who like their colours to break out of the lines, who find that their washes wash everything else out, who have no sense of proportion. It’s for genius kids and we know from Picasso that every child starts out as a grandmaster and then they grow up and lose all sense of great art. This is for those children who did not grow up but who are chronologically called adults too.”

The author writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru .

Harry Potter casts a new spell on the internet and how

In its new format, Pottermore is more of a site that will keep Potterheads up to date with wondrous news of the wizarding world.pottermore

I have reclaimed my magical name and Hogwarts house – Ravenclaw in case you were wondering – and am pleased to report that I am back on the revamped Pottermore site.

Until now, it was a space where I would slink off during writing breaks to brew a potion (I was usually T for troll), cast a spell (was a little better at that) and unlock secrets from the Harry Potter stories.

But now in its new format, Pottermore is more of a site that will keep Potterheads up to date with news of the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

A voice message from JK Rowling welcomes fans to Pottermore, which she calls her “magical corner of the internet, a place where you can explore her writing, both familiar and new. And where you can read features, articles, and news from the Pottermore team”.

If you’re already a member, then you can retain your user name and house. I was quite tempted to sort myself again, but then I was a little scared that I would get Hufflepuff this time around. So I decided to let sleeping Hippogriffs lie and stayed with fellow house members, Cho Chang and Luna Lovegood.

At Pottermore, you can still revisit the books, along with JK Rowling’s thoughts about the characters, the plot or the setting.

The newest post by the author takes muggles into a previously forbidden world – an exploration of “11 long-established and prestigious wizarding schools worldwide”.

The jade palace of Mahoutokoro is an ancient Japanese school where robes change colour as the wizards grow wiser (or darker). Quite like karate’s many coloured belts, I imagine.

Then there’s Uagadou which is situated in the Mountains of the Moon in Africa. At this largest of all wizarding schools, spells are cast by hand gestures or pointing fingers.

The Brazilian Castelobruxo sounds quite intriguing with its golden rock edifice guarded by the Caipora spirit-beings. Apparently, Peeves is nothing compared to these feisty beings.

If you recall, Bill Weasley had got something nasty in post from a penfriend – turns out it was a Castelobruxo student who was disappointed that his friend couldn’t afford the trip to Brazil to visit him.

The fourth one, Ilvermorny from North America, is yet to be revealed but Rowling’s hinted that smart Potterheads will be able to figure this one out.

I have a few thoughts, but am currently trawling the internet for more ideas. So far we have learnt about seven wizarding schools – including Durmstrang and Beauxbatons – which means we can expect to hear more from Rowling in the future.

Browsing through Pottermore makes you feel like a beetle on a window pane – nudge, nudge Rita Skeeter – and getting a sneak peek into the very busy Potter world.

For instance, we sit far-away-from-London wishing that we had a portkey to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the eighth story that unfurls 19 years later.

We read longingly about the casting of the play – good going there, and the creative process between Rowling, director John Tiffany, and writer Jack Thorne.

Thoughts threaten to overwhelm us, until we need a pensieve to mull over the many strands – how and when will we get to see the play which officially premieres in July, and will the production come to India.

Dementors hover over that thought, after all it’s not like Harry Potter: The Exhibition, the international travelling exhibition has come down here.

There are also updates on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a movie spin-off that will be out in cinemas in November 2016.

Set in 1926 in New York, this is the story of Magizoologist Newt Scamander, the author of the eponymous textbook on the wizarding world’s magical creatures.

Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, comes to New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures. And in what sounds like a Pandora twist, the creatures are let loose in New York by mistake.

A new behind-the-scenes preview has just been released and it reveals details about the casting.

Porpentina Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston; her sister Queenie Goldstein, played by Alison Sudol; and muggle Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, come together with Scamander to form an unlikely quartet in this film’s quest.

Colin Farrell plays a powerful MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) Auror, we are told. In the behind-the-scenes preview, Redmayne says, “This world, it’s been a wonder really.” Yes, we know that.

Harry Potter’s message of inclusion

On February 4, Potterheads will celebrate JK Rowling’s book series by hosting Harry Potter Book Night parties in different parts of the world. Once again, I will sit with my co-host to cut out paper dementors, draw owls on white balloons with a marker, and make fudge flies with chocolates. But more importantly, apart from being a celebration of these fabulous books and fudge, our February gatherings always remind me of a key Patronus message tucked inside the Harry Potter stories: of inclusion and empathy.

In 2014, a study titled The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice showed the books go a long way in teaching young readers tolerance and compassion. Rowling’s seven-book series constantly shines a light on systems of social hierarchies, like class and caste: there are the privileged magical people, and then there are the others. Muggles are non-magical people and some refer to them as mud-bloods, a filthy word for Muggle-born wizards who have often been ridiculed, tortured, and even killed. Only Pureblood wizards are considered worthy of magic.

Discrimination and prejudice, privilege and merit, inequality and diversity, tolerance and inclusion are an inherent part of our social structure. Yet, we don’t always talk to our children about these issues, and if we do, it’s often framed as something that’s alien to our social fabric. Instances are not contexualised, instead they are viewed as external, far-away phenomena. Children have nascent opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and it’s something that has to be nurtured. Especially in our society, with all its complexities. As children grow older, these perceptions, values, beliefs, and attitudes are shaped and solidified by parents, educators, peer groups, and the media they consume (among other things). These become the frameworks within which they’ll go on to interpret people, events, and issues as adults.

Look around us — children’s literature, artefacts, and the visual media are dominated by Hindu mythology and narratives. In comparison, fewer books are published about other folk tales or oral histories of minority communities. Nor do we see that many games, apps or films on these traditions that are equally rich and intricate. In such a scenario, where representation is selective, how do you begin to understand diversity? Most school textbooks are ill-equipped to explain India’s caste system and how it continues to exist in latent and manifested forms. How do you then explain to a young adult what it means that Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar, felt forced to commit suicide because of the way society treated him in a city as big and supposedly modern as Hyderabad?

In his suicide letter, Rohith Vemula, wrote, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” Those words are haunting, as is the rest of the letter. A friend of mine read the note and said that’s how his own childhood feels in hindsight, centred around his identity of being a Dalit. It was like the child didn’t matter, he said, because he grew up in an environment that constantly reinforced discrimination.

As children, we are rarely made aware of our own positions of privilege and as a result, we soak in prejudices — after all, how will we think of examining them if we’re not told prejudice exists or that it’s a topic of discussion? A subtle sneering at the children who play in public parks, or the ones who are “not like us, no” is all it takes sometimes. That difference is always palpable, embossed like an invisible line, whispered in school and college corridors, and even in staff rooms.

To not talk about this inequality, to ignore it, makes us equally culpable. It can only lead to a generation of citizens who would rather not question these complexities, the status quo, or their own source of privilege: caste and class. This further snowballs when it comes to the idea of merit, whether in college, the workplace, or in any other part of our lives.

If by reading a book, children can become more empathetic, then as adults, we can do so much more to encourage them. Maybe start by opening a dialogue. Answer questions. Listen to them with an open mind. Surround them with stories, books, films on inclusion and human rights. And lead by example.

Children are quick on the uptake. In the first Potter book, Draco Malfoy holds out a hand in friendship to Harry, “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.” Harry didn’t shake his hand.

Bijal Vachharajani writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru.

Inked heart

A sneak-peek into Penguin’s new imprint Inked

The behemoth publishing house, Penguin, has expanded its footprint in India with a new subdivision, Inked, which is meant for young adults. This one is separate from Puffin, the group’s children’s imprint. Their debut offering comprises a mix of books by Indian and international authors, including Cracked by Eliza Crowe, a story about a half-demon girl;Seventeen and Done: You Bet! by Vibha Batra; a teen romance and Karmaby Cathy Ostlere, written in verse. Batra’s book is a breezy read and reminiscent of high school books such as the Sweet Valley High series, and Crowe’s book follows the Twilight vampire books phenomena. Ostelere’s book is a riveting read, but feels a bit archaic. In the future, Inked plans to release books by blogger and writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, author Ranjit Lal, Shiv Ramdas, who has worked in radio previously, and Unmukt Chand, the captain of India’s under-19 cricket team. In an email interview with Time Out, Ameya Nagarajan, the assistant commissioning editor of Penguin Books India and the editor of Inked, shared their plans for the near future.

Why do you think the Young Adult (YA) category is now seeing a spurt of growth in India?
I wouldn’t say that the category is seeing a spurt now—it’s being going strong for a while. Just look at the popularity of Rick Riordan, Stephenie Meyer, Jeff Kinney and so on. It is true that publishing houses here are making a concerted effort at the moment, but I can’t speak for anyone else. At Penguin, Inked has been on the cards for a while, and we are launching now that our plan is in place.

What made Penguin decide to launch a separate YA category?
No one can deny that children today are growing up very fast. There’s a whole new stage of emotional growth that’s popped up, and teenagers want and enjoy far more autonomy than they ever have before. They demand and get the freedom to access information, to express themselves and to make choices for themselves. This means that the traditional division of children’s writing vs adult writing just doesn’t work anymore. Children’s writing, especially in India, tends to be nostalgic and occasionally didactic, and seems to come from an external voice that is directed at the children. Your modern teenager wants none of that! Internationally the YA space has taken off in the past few years, with Harry Potter and Twilight becoming overall sensations, which led us to believe it was time we started to explore this space in India.

What are the different genres we can expect to see from Inked?
Well, my whole philosophy with Inked is very simple — if it’s a good book, well plotted and well written, and it speaks to the audience, let’s do it. I will say though that there is a tendency in YA to gravitate towards fantasy, especially paranormal, and romance, and I find this a bit problematic, because the interests of such a large demographic cannot be so limited! We definitely want to publish across all genres, so later this year you will be seeing science fiction, non-fiction and a coming-of-age novel. I’m hoping to publish more genres next year, more non-fiction for sure, maybe some horror and humour. Both fantasy and chick lit will continue to feature in our list.
What is the kind of readership that Inked is looking at?
Anyone who likes our books! Technically our readership is about 13-19 years, but the beauty of YA is that, because the themes transcend generations and age, they can be read by anyone!

Inked books are available on

By Bijal Vachharajani

Status: Spooked out

Really enjoyed an email interview with Suzanne Sangi, the author of Facebook Phantom, who’s debut novel has a gay protagonist.

It’s only supernatural, Suzanne Sangi, the teenage writer of paranormal fiction, tells Time Out

At first glance, Suzanne Sangi’s book Facebook Phantom is easy to dismiss as one of the countless young adult books that deal with the paranormal. After the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, the market has been flooded with vampire clone literature. But a closer read reveals some solid and plucky writing by this 17-yearold debutant writer. Bangalorebased Sangi writes about the fascination that social media holds for teenagers through the story of three friends – Sonali, Neel and Joanne. “Facebook Phantom is a paranormal romance,” Sangi wrote, in an email interview with Time Out. “It is more or less a psychological thriller which takes you into the world of the supernatural right at the heart of technology.

In the book, Sonali, better known as Li, starts chatting with a mysterious stranger called Omi Daan on Facebook. Daan is “melancholic and extremely good looking”, with a penchant for putting up beautiful cover photos on Facebook. The harmless flirting soon reveals a stalker side to Daan, plunging Li into a dark world full of dangers. “As Li and her friends try to free themselves from the hold of this Omi Daan, they realise that it is not easy to escape such darkness once you’ve been drawn in, and discover the depth of their friendship,” said Sangi, a student of Mount Carmel College. “Facebook Phantom was inspired by this world’s general obsession with the fascinating social networking site – Facebook – and also my personal taste for all things paranormal.”

For a debut book, Sangi’s writing is assured. Further, she takes on the topic of social media, a theme that most young adults can easily relate to. “As a teenager, I very much know what it is to be obsessed about something and I’ve tried my best to bring this to light in the book,” said Sangi. “Whether it is chatting with a crush or gossiping with friends or reaping crops on Farmville, Facebook is a whole new level of obsession. I am in absolute awe of the addictive  nature of this site, and since we’re all only human, we tend to overdo things a bit sometimes. But whatever the matter, long live the Facebook Era!”

Sangi is an avid reader and it’s evident in her book – Li loves reading as well but all that takes a back seat when she starts chatting to Daan. While some of the twists in the plot seem forced and slightly contrived, Sangi’s characters are very real.

Interestingly, she introduces the dapper Neel as a gay teenager, most probably a first for an Indian young adult fiction book. “Neel Sarathy is my favourite character in the book,” said Sangi. “He is insanely hot, with an impeccable fashion sense, free, humorous and kind. His relationship with Li has been so exciting to write, and I have to admit, I’ve always had a soft side for gay people and find them to be the most frank and humorous friends you could ever have – they always seem to cut through all the crap in life and look straight into the heart of a person. And I absolutely admire their immaculate fashion sense!”

As an extension to exploring her fascination with alternate sexuality, (spoiler alert) Neel later finds himself attracted to his best friend, Li. “There is an interesting story to Neel turning straight,” Sangi revealed. “When I was in high school, I had a surprisingly strong crush on a girl and this boggled my mind since I am/was absolutely sure that I am straight; she just made me so happy and it was nothing sexual. I did get over her in a month or so and it never happened again. When I was writing about Neel, I imagined the same thing happening the other way round – where a usually gay person suddenly falls for the opposite sex – and it made sense to me.”

Facebook Phantom, apart from being a paranormal romance, is also a Bangalore book, where the characters vend their way through the city. “[I am] a Bangalorean in heart and soul, I have written the entire book based on Bangalore and its cool people,’ explained Sangi. “This familiarity is something I cherish about the book.”

Facebook PhantomDuckbill. R199.

Ask a silly question

 Who would you rather befriend on Facebook – a ghost or a vampire? A vampire. Hee hee. The aftermath of Twilight still hasn’t left me, and I would rather date/ befriend a vampire any day.

What do you think a ghost’s Facebook wall would look like?Frequent status updates of how hell sucks, dangerous trips back to earth and cool sneak peeks of heaven. A profile picture which keeps flickering and changing every two seconds – that would be killer!

Stephenie Meyer or JK Rowling or…? JK Rowling forever. Nothing beats the brilliance of the Harry Potter series. Oh! And Rick Riordan can make me laugh!


Suzzane Sanghi Duckbill, R199

By Bijal Vachharajani



Nerves of steal

Get ready to be spellbound by Sarah Prineas, author of The Magic Thief series, who will be in Mumbai this fortnight (Sadly, Sarah fell ill and didn’t make it to Mumbai. But she did sign me a copy that too in her secret language).

sarah prineas, magic thief, Books, fantasy books, bookaro festival

Sarah Prineas’s three-book series, The Magic Thief, tells the story of Connwaer, an orphan who lurks in the alleys of the magical city ofWellmet, picking pockets and steering clear of the Underlord and his goons.Conndiscovers he’s  a wizard when he steals the wizard Nevery’s locus magicalus (a magical stone). As Nevery’s apprentice,Connbegins studying at a magic school and starts investigating why the magic in their city is dwindling. The trilogy has some fantastic characters, including tough-guy Benet, who loves to knit, and bakes scrumptious biscuits. This fortnight, children will have a chance to meet Prineas, who will be signing books in Mumbai at Crossword Bookstore. She’s inIndiafor the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival which is being held inDelhithis fortnight. She spoke toTime Out about books, baking, and writing for children.

What was the inspiration behind The Magic Thief series?
The first lines of The Magic Thief are “A thief is a lot like a wizard. I have quick hands, and I can make things disappear.” I kept those lines in a file on my computer for a long time, but I had no idea who said them. Finally I started wondering. What kind of character could be both a thief and a wizard? Immediately,Connleaped into being, completely himself, and ready to get into trouble and jump-start the story. The inspiration is that I’ve read loads of fantasy, and I wanted to write a book with all my favourite fantasy things in it: magic, adventure, wizards, dragons, peril, biscuits and bacon.

Connwaer is extremely believable, even though he lives in a magical world.
Connis so incredibly fun to write, because he’s a true protagonist – his actions make the story happen. He’s completely himself, so I always know what he’s going to do in any situation. He’s also full of contradictions: he’s a thief who never lies, he is smart and yet he does unbelievably stupid things. He is stubborn and he is brave, he thinks a lot but says very little.

How difficult was it to create the magical city of Wellmet?
When I first started working on the Wellmet world, I was inspired by nineteenth-century maps of London, with the twisty streets and dead-end alleyways with funny names, like “Mouse Hole” or “Cutpurse Lane”. Pretty soon, the setting started growing into a distinct place not like anywhere in our world. The concept of “balance” became important. Wellmet is a city that depends on balance, the run-down, dangerous Twilight on one side of the river, the wealthierSunriseon the other, and the wizard’s houses on islands in the river itself. One of the big questions thatConnhas to deal with is how to bring the various parts of the city back into balance with each other.

Tell us about tough guy Benet.
Benet was a funny character to write because he started out as a minor character, a simple tough guy bodyguard. Then I started thinking, “What do bodyguards do?” Well, they take care of people, usually by being tough and knocking heads together. But what if this bodyguard took care of people in other ways? So Benet started baking biscuits and knitting sweaters and scarves, and he became a much more important character, really the centre of Conn’s new family.

Can we expect a fourth book in The Magic Thief series?
I have written a fourth Magic Thief book, though I don’t know when it will be published. My next book starts a brand new series, the first book is calledWinterling. It’s a fantasy story that begins in our world and goes into another, magical world, and the main character is a girl.

By Bijal Vachharajani on November 26 2010

Tale spin

Time Out listens in to some city storytellers

Coomi Vevaina loves to tell children the story of Beeblebean and Beebleboo, a poem about a stone wall built between the two kingdoms with those names. “It’s a story about walls that exist between people,” said Vevaina, who heads the department of English at the University of Mumbai. The last time Vevaina recited the poem, the young audience had many things to say about imaginary walls. One child said that a wall exists between his mother and grandmother, while another pointed out that there’s a wall between India and Pakistan. The reading that triggered this discussion was organised by Word-fully Yours, an association that is trying to promote peace and conservation through stories.

Traditionally, our storytellers have been our grandparents, our parents or our teachers. They first introduced us to Indian folklore, myths and fables. But the upsurge in professional storytellers – Word-fully Yours is just one of many groups that organise storytelling sessions – suggests that the activity is moving beyond the realm of home and school. “Oral traditions are best passed down the family, but with nuclear families this is getting to be a bigger challenge,” said Vijay Prabhat-Kamalakara, the managing director of Storytrails, a Chennai-based group that conducts outings replete with stories. “Professional storytellers are an alternative,” he added. “For example, our stories are not the kind that grandparents would tell. How many times have you heard the story of Martha Benz and the first cars or the story of Operation Fortitude from grandparents?”

Prabhat-Kamalakara said that Storytrails was born out of the idea that almost every activity, however mundane, has a story behind it. “We attempt to research, script and creatively present such stories through theme-based trails,” he said. “Storytrails has trails for different age groups – some indoor and some which take kids through bakeries, cinema studios and car service centres.” This summer, Storytrails organised workshops at the Landmark bookstores in Mumbai, through stories, role play, songs and dance, kids learnt about countries, inventions and book characters.

If the storytellers and the narratives have changed, so has the telling of the story. It is no longer limited to reading aloud from a book. While voice modulation, song and dance have always been part of the tool kit, storytellers are increasingly using aids such as drama, costume and sets to enhance the experience for young listeners with short attention spans. Vevaina, the president of Word-fully Yours, said that her team blends storytelling with drama, puppets, art and craft. “We weave in these forms to consciously create a story,” she said. “For us, stories are a powerful form of passing on the right values in this shrinking and rapidly threatening world.”

For others like Blue Fun Umbrella, storytelling has translated into a profit-making venture. Started three years ago by Meenakshi Kishore and Sonu Mehrotra, Blue Fun Umbrella’s clients include Disney, Crossword Bookstore and Hamleys. Kishore said that they combine story-telling with concept building. “One of the concepts we try to instil is about saving,” said Kishore. “We have a pig puppet who tells the kids that he wants to earn money. He takes the kids to imaginary shops and to a bank where they have to save money.”

Blue Fun Umbrella also organises performance-based sessions. They have narrated the story of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a castle, live music and actors reading from the book. Activities are part of the session, where kids need to solve puzzles in order to get the key to a forbidden castle. In a storytelling session to promote the film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, kids got eye patches and bandanas.

However, some like Storytrails don’t believe that they need to put on different voices or make faces to engage children. “The first step is to choose an appropriate subject that would be of interest to the age group being addressed,” said Prabhat-Kamalakara.

Another challenge is building a team that can work with a varied group of children. Most groups devote a substantial amount of time training their storytellers. Kishore said that Blue Fun Umbrella mainly hires professional actors for their sessions, but Storytrails draws upon a motley crew of travel writers, architects, lawyers, teachers, engineers and students who have a desire to tell stories to kids in their spare time. Word-fully Yours trains its members to conduct storytelling modules. “What’s really important is having a passion for storytelling,” said Vevaina.

By Bijal Vachharajani on June 23 2011 6.30pm
Photos by Tejal Pandey

Minor accomplishments

Time Out looks back at 2010 and realised that it was the year the kids held the reins

children's Books, dvds, art 4 all, Suar Chala Space Ko, aria panchal, jalebi ink

What happened in 2010? Hundreds of children’s books, tons of toys and dozens of DVDs lined the shelves of bookstores. Over the year, puppet plays, film screenings and clowns entertained kids as well. A study by the TV channel Nick India threw up disturbing results: only 25 per cent of children across six metros actually played outdoors on a daily basis. While there was lots of activities for kids, 2010 was really the year when children held art exhibitions, wrote books and even worked on a commercial play, with a little help from adults, of course.

When he was just 15, Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon, a story about a boy who takes up a quest along with his pet dragon. The book became a bestseller and was even turned into a Hollywood movie. Bollywood isn’t exactly enthused about signing movie deals with children, but this year two books written by children found mainstream publishers. Anshuman Mohan, 15, wrote Potato Chips (Harper), an earnest work about Aman Malhotra, who switches schools to join the prestigious St Xavier’s and tries desperately to fit in. Written with almost frank brutality, the book is packed with adolescent jokes and teen angst.  Another author, the 17-year-old Arun Vajpai, teamed up with Anu Kumar to write On Top of the World (Puffin), an account of his expedition to Mount Everest. Vajpai is the youngest Indian to have climbed the mountain.

At Jalebi Ink, a media company for young adults, children got a chance to air their views about their neighbourhood, the environment and the world around them. In October, young reporters from Jalebi Ink’s Green Squad published Junknama, a newspaper about the environment. They wrote about garbage disposal, water woes and the diminishing green cover. They also visited Dharavi to witness waste recycling, interviewed environmentalists and covered programmes such as the Carter Road Car-Free Day. In a story titled “Trash Troopers”, the reporters  pointed out that Mumbai produces more than 6,500 tonnes of garbage every day, “roughly equivalent to17 fully loaded Airbus A380s”. On October 10, the children distributed copies of the newspapers to evening walkers at Carter Road in Bandra and marched holding solar lanterns.

At Dreammakers 2010, students of Art 4 All managed to do what most adults haven’t. They displayed their paintings at Chemould Prescott Road Art Gallery and even sold some. “Mumbai through the eyes of children” featured iconic landmarks such as Flora Fountain surrounded by Gothic buildings and hoardings, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and Rajabai Tower, all painted by children. Images of traffic jams, petrol pumps and fishing colonies were rendered in bright colours. The kids were understandably excited about their paintings being displayed, but a few were concerned that if someone other than their parents bought their work, they wouldn’t be able to take it home.

When director Shaili Sathyu wanted to produce a children’s play this summer, she delved into a pool of ideas generated by kids. The result wasSuar Chala Space Ko, a quirky play about a smelly pig who travels to space. “The play is based on a puppet play originally written by children during a workshop that I conducted in 2001,” said Sathyu. “The play developed in an organic way, with children thinking of different plots and putting them together. The title of the play was conceived by the kids.” In May, Thespo, a youth theatre initiative from Q Theatre Productions, conducted “Dramabaazi”, a children’s workshop. The result was The Mighty Mirembayanna and the Prisoners of Peace, a play about peace and war. Toral Shah of Q Theatre said that they thought the workshop was a great way for kids to experience “what it’s like to go through a rehearsal process, learn lines, get into costume, wait in the wings for their entry and have an audience”. With most plays for children being written and performed by adults, this summertime was a welcome change.

By Bijal Vachharajani on December 23 2010