Monday, October 27, 2014

Ari by Vaishali Shroff

Guest reviewer, Rachna Dhir's brings us a review of Ari by Vaishali Shroff.

"Shy" and "coward" are labels used very lightly in Indian culture for children of all ages. I sometimes feel that political correctness and accepting that "being introvert is okay" are concepts that must be a compulsory part of both parent training and teacher training!

Written by Vaishali Shroff, the new book Ari by Tulika publishers breaks many a stereotype with its theme. The author has done a great job of depicting how the child gets over his own limitations with a little help from his mother, who knows him well.

To quote from the jacket "When the teacher announces that the class will stage The Lion and the Mouse, Ari is thrilled. He knows he'll make a wonderful lion...Ari is neither noticed nor chosen". This is the sombre backdrop for the story and I choose to divulge no more.

The illustrations are by Kavita Singh Kale, who has written and illustrated two books for Tulika herself (My Facebook Friends and Avneet Aunty's Mobile) in addition to illustrating our own Arthi's Ranganna. According to the jacket, "the flat illustrative style with its strong kitschy palette .... captures the energy of ... Play-acting".

With bold illustrations and minimal text per page, the book is sure to touch many a heart. The dedication by the author, whose own son Arinjay is the inspiration for the story, is extremely compelling "For the Aris of the world who glow, and for those who see it".

We need more such books that deal with real issues faced by children on a daily basis. No child can or should be called naughty or serious, perhaps. There are times when the same child can choose one hat or another? And why not? Who does not want to have fun, every once in a while?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Two stories from north-east - Hambreelmai's Loom and Race of the River

Rachna Dhir, our beloved guest reviewer, weaves in a cluster of two charming stories set in the north-eastern states of India. Thank you Rachna!

Since we all are a part of the growing Saffron Tree family, it is a given that we love books and so do our children, students and friends.

The shift from print to digital is a topic of concern, beyond mere conversation, for many of us. What will happen to physical books that we love to touch and feel and smell, we often wonder? However, can we step back and devote a minute to how the switch from oral story telling to written scripts might have taken place? In other words, how "a language is born"?

A new written language has recently taken birth, with the first printed book in Mishmi, a language which so far was only an oral one.

For the longest long time, children and adults in the North East Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, have been speaking in Mishmi in addition to speaking, reading and writing in English and Hindi, taught in schools.

Chennai based publishing house, Tulika, got the honour of bringing to the world with pride the first - round of applause, please - ever book in Mishmi and what's even better is the fact that it is a CHILDREN's BOOK!!!!

I was told by my Kannada teacher a few years ago, that Telugu (spoken in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and the newly created Telangana) was an oral language that borrowed its neighbouring state Karnataka's Kannada script when it wanted to move to printed material. Similarly, when the book was to be published, it was decided that the English script will be used for the printed version of Mishmi!

Retold by Mamang Dai and illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy, Hamreelbai's Loom, is based on a folktale that tells the story of how weaving came to the Mishmi people.

Hamreel is a species of fish with patterns on their bodies, in Mishmi language.
Besides birds, butterflies, fish, clouds, waves and ripples in water, fern, bamboo, flowers, this is a simple story of a girl and a porcupine.

Mamang Dai is a Padma Shri awardee from Arunachal Pradesh. Besides being a novelist and a poetess, she has also been a journalist and civil servant who is "drawing attention to the disappearing traditions of her state" by documenting her native customs and culture.

While Kalyani Ganapathy lives in the Nilgiris, she has been able to capture the essence of Arunachal Pradesh's textiles and nature beautifully. According to the jacket, "she is passionate about handcrafted motifs, patterns and I textiles."

Another feather in Tulika's cap is the first ever children's book in Meghalaya's Khasi language for children -"The Race of the Rivers"!

The traditional folk tale is translated and retold by Esther Syiem, a professor of Literature in Shillong. The illustrator, Benedict Hynniewta, teaches painting in the same university as Esther, the North Eastern Hill University.

The folktale is about two sisters who take up the form of rivers. Many words from Khasi language are explained as the story progresses. The book is filled with dreamy illustrations that make each page a true delight! From the beads of a necklace to the fruit on a tree - young children are bound to be amazed by the details and go over the pages even when the story is not being read to them.

When politicians talk of "national integration", they could well start with children and their books, for best and long lasting results. What Tulika has done over the last fifteen years is commendable as they brought us classics including "Who will be Ningthou?", "The King and the Kiang", "Bijoy and the Big River", "Bulbuli's Bamboo" and introduced cultures of the North Eastern parts of India to the world!

Local authors and illustrators have the special gift of sharing cultural nuances that outsiders or tourists could easily overlook. Both these books are living examples of why adults need to choose children's books not just for the stories but so many other reasons as well!!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My two great- grandmothers

Author & Illustrator  : Lisa Aisato N'jie Solberg
Translator:  Espen Stranger Johannessen
Publisher: Pratham Books
Ages: 6 years and above
Great Grandmas are rare to come by and who would not cherish the feisty and loving kind?
This Pratham Books story revolves around a charming and perceptive young girl, the product of an inter-racial marriage. She has two great-grandmothers from two very different worlds. While she has never seen the paternal one who lives in Gambia, she is fortunate to meet the Norwegian great-grandmother occasionally.
The grand old ladies build and enjoy a rapport with their little great grand child. While one sings and narrates old tales, the other manages to connect over the phone, despite a language barrier.
As with aged people, the child sees them turn frail and fragile and finally pass away. 
The warm tale ends with a lovely vision of the two ladies meeting and chatting in the next world sharing stories of their youth, bound by the love of the ocean and of course the little girl.
The book works at two levels:
1. It celebrates mutli cultural differences and ageless relationships. 
2. Old age and death are difficult to explain to little kids, but this story can come in useful in such discussions and that too, in a non-tragic way.
Kids over six years should find they can read the book confidently, but the poetry in the relationships shared, can  be enjoyed across ages.
The art is full of soul and makes you feel you have met the characters.
Do take a look at some more of the illustrator's work- here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sophie's Squash

Sophie's Squash

by Pat Zietlow Miller
illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Every once in a while, the younger child throws a curve ball by adoring a picture book that I wasn't sure would be a hit in the first place.

Of course, I bring all sorts of picture books home still, even though both kids have moved on to chapter books that appeal to their unique interests.

Why am I clinging on to picture books? Because I simply adore picture books - there is something magical about them; the kids think so too, and I hope they don't outgrow it anytime soon.

Intellectually, I deconstructed the text of this book, read and re-read it for my own education, but wasn't sure how the kids will receive it.

Right after the first read, the 6 year old said, "This is so silly. And funny! Can we read it again? Now?" The nine year old read it a couple of times and did her unique snort-giggle at the quirky funny parts.

Little Sophie picks out a squash at the farmer's market. Her mom was planning to cook it for supper. But Sophie has other ideas. Thus starts this cleverly crafted book with a simple story of a friendship between a girl and a nondescript winter squash. Yes, that's right, a winter squash! If that doesn't automatically conjure up chuckle-worthy situations in one's mind, it's a pity.

Her parents try their best to point out the obvious, but Sophie would not hear a word against Bernice, her squash. Wherever Sophie went, Bernice went with her.

Every night, Sophie gave Bernice a bottle, a hug, and a kiss.
“Well, we did hope she’d love her vegetables,” Sophie’s mother told her father.
“Shhhhhh,” Sophie said. “Bernice is sleeping.”

With clever dialogues to lighten the mood and convey the predicament of the parents, the book takes this friendship through its natural progression. And, before it gets too tedious, leaving the reader wondering how much longer to endure this nonsense, Sophie notices that Bernice is getting softer and is lacking her usual verve. Resourceful and determined as she is, Sophie learns from her next visit to the farmer's market that "fresh air; good, clean dirt; and a little love" is all that is needed to keep squashes healthy.

At home, Sophie cleared the leaves from Bernice’s favorite spot. She made a bed of soft soil, tucked Bernice in, and kissed her good night.
"Get better soon," she whispered.

And that is not the end of that. In fact, it is a new beginning. That night snow falls, and keeps falling all winter, burying Bernice. And, when Spring comes along there is a small green sprout in the spot where Bernice was resting all winter.

Of course, by now, readers would recognize where this goes. Sophie tends to the now-sprouting Bernice all spring.

One bright summer morning, Sophie somersaulted across her yard, landed by the garden, and stared in disbelief.
Bernice had grown two tiny squash. “Wow!” Sophie told them. “You look just like your mom!”

It comes as no surprise when the book closes with Sophie cuddling Bonnie and Baxter, Bernice's kids.

The illustrations capture and complement the tone and the humor of the story well.

On the one hand, the adult mind might say, "Poor Sophie. How come she doesn't have any real friends? How pathetic! Why can't her parents do something constructive about it?" But, on the other hand, from the perspective of writing an off-the-wall picture book for children, this is so riotously inventive.

Noticing that the 6 yo sees the silliness as well as the sweetness and the quirkiness in this whole situation, and reads it several times just for the fun of it, I'd say this book is definitely cherished.

And soon, Sophie's Seeds, a sequel to Sophie's Squash is coming out.

[image source:]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plant a Pocket of Prairie

Plant a Pocket of Prairie
by Phyllis Root
illustrated by Betsy Bowen

I was chuckling heartily along with my daughter when I read the first book I came across that was written by Phyllis Root, "Looking for a Moose", when my daughter was just about two-ish.

And now, Plant a Pocket of Prairie gave me another way to connect with my now nine year old daughter and inspire her to preserve what's left of our natural environment.

What is a prairie? Most of us know it as the open grasslands of the Mississippi river valley where flora and fauna of all sorts thrive and form a tight eco-system that has been sustaining itself for years. Not many of us know that it has been dwindling steadily over the past several years.

Once prairie stretched thousands of miles... starts the book, describing the lush meadows that was home to prairie chickens and five-lined skinks among other animals and plants; and then, moves on to state that it is Almost gone now to farm and town and city, even before we knew all the things a prairie could do.

As I read the first two or three pages of the book to my kids, I noticed their squirms and wriggles of initial resistance for the subject matter. By the fourth page, they sat up and exclaimed, "I get it! We are adding on more plants and more animals are coming too!"

The book has a gentle message about bringing the prairie to life even in urban and suburban areas via careful planting and tending. Start planting "in your backyard / or boulevard / or boxes on a balcony" the book suggests in a practical way, because even small pockets of native plants can replicate the wider, larger habitat.
Plant foxglove beardtongue
A ruby-throated hummingbird
 might hover and sip and thrum.
While exotic names like foxglove beardtongue, Joe Pye weed,  and hairy mountain mint certainly kept us smiling, this is not a gardening book per se. It is rather a fanciful flight into what might be if we took a small step towards restoring the environment for the creatures whose territories we have usurped over time. From the small critters, all the way to bison will be back if they have a place to come back to.

The woodblock illustrations are beautiful, giving a back-to-nature sort of unspoiled feel as if we were in a meadow.

Back of the book has a map showing the extent of native prairie from 1847-1908, as well as the tiny blotches of its much-diminished spread as of 1987-2011. How to Plant a Pocket of Prairie section suggests various ways to explore and understand the prairie. Sometimes called "upside down forests" due to the deep roots of many prairie plants, there is more biomass underground than above ground in prairies. There is also a section devoted to the animals and plants of the prairie with brief notes about each.

While it is heartening to read the verses suggesting that planting purple coneflowers will bring Dakota skippers and swallowtails, it doesn't happen overnight. We have a few white butterflies gracing our garden (thankfully we don't have any cabbage family plants in the garden this year) and the kids know first-hand the joy it brings to them.

And, when the kids stop at our purple coneflowers in our small yard hoping to catch a glimpse of a butterfly or a bee, I am glad this book has in some small way inspired them to carry the message forward.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book. But the opinions expressed here and the decision to share it here are my own.]

[image source: University of Minnesota Press]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Vanamala and the Cephalopod

Vanamala and the Cephalopod
By Shalini Srinivasan
Illustrated by Sebin Simon
Duckbill Books
Ages 10+

I’m not going to attempt summarizing the plot of Vanamala and the Cephalopod in a paragraph, but this is how it all begins. Vanamala puts up a notice in Thambi’s shop advertising the sale of her sister, Pingu, age eight. Now, Kanti Stores is no ordinary provision shop. A mysterious trough in the back room gifts Thambi with pretty baubles on a regular basis. Whatever-it-is-in-the-trough takes Vanamala’s notice seriously and Pingu goes missing. Guilt-ridden, Vanamala sets off in search of her sister. This leads to underwater escapades of the strangest kind. En route, all sorts of fantastical creatures make an appearance - the Tower Bird, the Lettuce Grower, the Boss…  My favourite is Basavan the bull (okay, zebu).

As I read, I felt I had stepped into Alice’s Wonderland or Roald Dahl’s magical world. Nothing like it has been attempted in Indian children’s fiction in a long time. The author, Shalini Srinivasan, is clearly a nature-lover and wildlife enthusiast. The writing is powerful and smattered with witty philosophical thoughts.

The voice of the grumpy pre-teen is pitch-perfect and the story is set firmly in the district of Mandya near Mysore. From the names and references, my guess is Vanamala lives close to (or in!) my ancestral village. Who would have thunk?

For someone like me who is particular about the aesthetics, there is plenty between the pages to drool over – fonts, borders and gorgeous illustrations. No amount of gimmickry can salvage a badly written story, but great design and production values can elevate the reading experience of a well-written one, and that is exactly what happens here.

There is, however, the usual problem – a sagging middle. I found my attention wavering, although I discovered that it all ties together neatly in the end. The parts featuring the Cephalopod were a bit of a letdown, considering I had very high expectations. I had also been hoping to see more of Thambi, so I was thrilled to find these stories online.

The book picks up again and ends with what can only be construed as the promise of a sequel. Beautifully done.

[Image source:]

I was sent a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Dog Who Wanted More: A Rulebreakers' Club Adventure

The Dog Who Wanted More: A Rulebreakers' Club Adventure
Written by Sowmya Rajendran
Illustrated by Arun Kumar Kaushik
Published by Karadi Tales
Ages: 10+

With a title like that, I was intrigued. A childrens' club? A dog? Reminded me of Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outer and Dog series. The five in this book, Jagannathan, Keerti, Monica, Tejas, and Rishi, are certainly five who form the club, but they are minus that all-important Dog. They try everything to convince their parents of the need for one, but they would have none of it. In fact, the parents would have none of many things. So, the logical thing to do was to form a Rulebreakers' Club, and the first thing to do as a club was to steal a dog. Why, a reader would ask, not just adopt one, with so many strays wandering around? Because it is so much more fun to just steal one.

And that is when the fun really starts. For starters, Spike, the dog they zero in on and steal, isn't the epitome of friendliness that they thought he was. He wants more, of everything - mainly attention and food. There was also the question of where to keep him so that he remains hidden. Which is when Rishi, the self-confessed nerd comes up with a brilliant solution - keep him at his Granny's place. Granny, who is partially deaf, and who stubbornly remains in her own house so that she can put on the music of MS Subbalakshmi full blast at any time she wants, and who wouldn't suspect a thing. It turns out to be the perfect solution even for the large amounts of food (7 packets of biscuits at a go??) that they need to feed Spike, with the turn in events that leads to unwitting but complete cooperation from Granny. Between Granny and Spike, though, the children vote on returning the dog to the owners as a better option, and proceed to do so, with unexpected consequences.

How does this come about? What is all that about the reincarnation of Grandpa? What about the people from whom they had ingeniously stolen Spike? Who are they really? What is all that fishy business about the box given to the policeman? And who is the policeman anyway, as he had been caught suspiciously trailing the children and Granny? Why does he come to their school? What happens next?

Sowmya Rajendran has come out with another hilarious book after the popular Mayil books, made even more so by the illustrations by Arun Kumar Kaushik. This one is the first in a series, and all of them seem to have interesting titles, listed at the beginning of this book, published by Karadi. The book is certainly funny, with the language one now associates with Sowmya Rajendran's work. She has also broken many stereotypes. Old, deaf Granny turns out to be a very cool person, even if a bit stubborn in the end. Keerthi wants to be a wrestler, instead of the usual pursuits girls are shown to indulge in, and Rishi the nerd knows how to put his foot down when he needs to even if he insists on excel sheets for any operation, and Spike the dog turns out to be not so friendly even though he looks 'oh so cute and adorable'.

It would have been a great book, but for a particular turn in the story that takes you the way of movie potboilers, and leads to some confusion that a reader needs to read again to unravel, and might become a bit of a drag. Maybe a spot of tight editing would have done the trick, something that would hopefully be addressed in the subsequent books in the series.

Image source:

I was sent a copy of the book in return for an honest review. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Oma's Quilt

Oma's Quilt
by Paulette Bourgeois
illustrated by Stephane Jorisch

Oma, (grandma, mom's mom), is getting ready to move out of her house in Maple Street that she has lived in all her life, to go and live in the Forest View Retirement Home. Oma does not like this, but she understands that  this is for the best.

Emily goes to visit Oma and finds her feeling lonely and unhappy and a bit irritable. Nothing seems to go right at the Retirement Home for Oma - food tastes funny (Oma loves to make cabbage soup and strudel), the flowers in the hallway make her sneeze, the lumpy bed in a strange place makes it hard to sleep at night. Oma misses looking out her window and waving to Mrs. Mostowsky across the street.

Emily wants to make Oma feel at home, to help her settle in. What can she do?

Well, when Emily helps her mom sort through Oma's things in the basement, she has an idea: Why not use Oma's old clothes, Opa's flannel shirts, Mom's dress for her first piano recital, and Emily's baby blanket to make a quilt! "Oh, Emily! What a clever, clever girl you are!" says mom and they get to work together.

When the quilt is finished, they visit Oma and present it to her. Not only does it keep her warm, the quilt fills Oma with warm memories.

Now, she does not feel so irritable anymore, even though she complains. Whenever she misses Maple Street, Oma wraps herself in the quilt to feel right at home.

Narrated through Emily's voice, the book is gentle and relatable. Many elders in our society are unable to live alone and manage all their daily tasks; moving to a community home seems like the only viable option. It is a tough decision for the family and it is a huge adjustment for the elders to lose their independence and to be so reliant on strangers, while paying for that service.

Of course, kids don't know all these tough emotions when they read this upbeat book. Oma does end up substituting for the in-house cook at the Retirement Home, making her lovely cabbage soup and strudel for her fellow cohabitants. Oma learns to adjust. And what my kids took away is that Emily helped Oma with the transition, and that she visits Oma often, much like she used to when Oma lived on Maple Street.

All in all, a heart-warming tale written in child-friendly tone, with delightful illustrations that are uplifting and mildly humorous.

[image source: Kids Can Press]

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

I am an artist

Title: I am an artist                  
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Author and illustrator: Marta Altes

This is a story about a little boy who can neither stop seeing the art in everything, nor creating art all the time. The family cat is painted and stationed under a lamp strung with kitchenware, as installation art. The walls are scribbled over. The vegetables are shifted around his plate and arranged artistically. Colours, movement, texture, he appreciates them all. The only problem is that his mother hasn't taken to his art very enthusiastically. And so one day he decides to surprise her with a special work of art, created while she slept. Does she like it or not? I'm not telling!

It comes as no surprise that this book was written by an illustrator. Only someone with a deep love for art could have expressed it in this form. From the dripping paint title on the cover to the quirky, detailed illustrations through it all, the art work is a delight and could very well have told a tale without the accompanying words.

This book appealed to both my children in very different ways even though they're both a little too old for it. The Brat because he does indeed see beauty in everything - Look mama, that cloud looks like a T-rex chasing an apple. And the Bean because she can spend hours mucking around with paint, is keen to paint on the walls in an attempt to keep up with our murals and totally feels the pain of a child whose mother is not amused by his artistic antics.

I love that this book expands the boundaries of art for children who have only been introduced to conventional art work and pointy hills. It introduces them to installations, texture, movement. And it sets their minds free. And sometimes it helps set a grown up mind free too.

I was sent a copy of the book in return for the honest review. 

A little cloud and a handful of continents

I'm making a cluster of these Katha titles because they're suitable for the same age group and are a simple lesson in environmental studies, although Little Cloud is neatly wrapped up in fiction.

Title: Little Cloud's Quest
Author: Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar
Publisher: Katha
Illustrator: Joyita Banerjee

One day Wind finds Little Cloud looking rather low and prescribes her a healthy dose of friendship. She carries her high up in the sky and introduces her to the Cirrus clouds. The wispy Cirrus clouds point out that she looks nothing like them, is too slow, and then they melt away.  She next finds the Cumulus clouds playing hide and seek and tries to join them. Unfortunately she is too small and the big clouds refuse to play with her.

She bursts into tears of loneliness and her teardrops bring a desert to life. The thirsty children find relief, plants burst into bloom and Little Cloud soon has a lot of friends.

This story is simple enough for a three year old to comprehend, but can also be used to teach older children the different types of clouds. A great add on to text books for both educators, as well as parents. Little cloud facts at the bottom of the page add to what the story illustrates about each type of cloud. 

Co-authors, Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar are both deeply interested and involved in matters of environment and wildlife. On his blog, Aitken, who has a studio in the Western Himalayas mentions - "The interplay of the mountains with the clouds that hover over them never fails to fascinate me. They suggest a seamless transition from form to formless, hint of an other-worldly existence and lift me from the mundane. I spent many childhood summers lying in fields on my back staring up at a floating stream of clouds." Which adds something to our understanding of what drew him to this topic. 

The illustrations by Joyita Banerjee are simple and bright, but unexceptional. The layout on the other hand, is interesting, with chunks of text laid out in blocks.

Title: The Case of the Runaway Continents
Author: Geeta Dharmarajan
Publisher: Katha
Illustrator: Joyita Banerjee

Neatly positioned as a mystery, The Case of the Runaway Continents raises geographical questions about the positions of the continents, leaving it to a child's enquiring mind to mull over.  Why does the bulge of Brazil fit into the hollow of West Africa? How did the remains of warm water coral reefs end up in the cold Northern Hemisphere. How do certain animals in South America and Africa share ancestors?

I love the way Dharmarajan points young readers in the right direction instead of just feeding them dry facts. It makes the book interactive, keeps their curiosity alive and makes it easier to retain information.

Carbon dating, continental drift, fault zones; a simple and interesting introduction to each of these concepts even while keeping the theme of a mystery alive. A great supplement to children already studying this in school or even for those who are just keenly curious.

Joyita Banerjee's illustrations are once again, bright, colourful and a great support to the text.

I was sent the books in exchange for an honest review.
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