Sunday, January 25, 2015

Little Fingers

Little Fingers By Sheila Dhir
Illustrations Mugdha Sethi

Tulika 2010, reprint 2013

Reviewed by Rachna Dhir

While my own children are now teenagers, reading books with pages running into many hundreds, I am always on the lookout for age and context appropriate picture books for younger children to give as gifts. There is something to be said about gifting books. They bring so much joy to the receiver that the giver has the obligation of selecting carefully, which perhaps is an honour that needs to be taken seriously. And if the giving adult knows the receiving child well - nothing short of magic can be felt by both to make their bond special over carefully selected books!

One such favourite book that I have gifted to quite a few children I know is Little Fingers. Written in prose, this twelve page picture book by Tulika is perfect to be read aloud to the youngest child. The illustrations on each page are as simple as the words and just as captivating.

Rather than use the stereotypical things we do with our fingers and hands, the author has thought of some rather unique use of each finger that is so well supported by the illustrations.

According to the back jacket, "each finger has its own personality, and when ten little fingers come together, they make things happen."

Hawaii based Sheila Dhir is a well known writer for Indian children's books. She wrote and illustrated the path breaking book "Why are you afraid to hold my hand?" also published by Tulika, that is popular not just with individuals but also used by institutions for sensitivity training vis a vis differently abled members of our society, especially children.

This review would be incomplete without a special mention about the illustrations. From the choice of shade to paint the hands in to the child like feel of each finished frame, Mugdha Sethi has set the tone for how illustrations for Indian children's books need not always be "inspired" or "guided" by (to be politically correct) their western counterparts. Indian children not only have brown skin tone, but they also play the tabla as well as cat's cradle, just as they say both namaste and bye bye with equal ease!

For beginning readers, this book is perfect with plenty of rhyming site words and no complicated sentences. This feature is bound to make it a hit with the teaching community! It can be adapted to a simple skit, as preschools and Montessori houses of children are always looking for such material. It is sure to engage children who are bound to get excited when they see activities they are so familiar with (working with finger paints and beads, for example).

All in all - a delightful book in every aspect!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Interview with Sheila Dhir

Rachna, ST's guest reviewer brings this inspiring interview with writer/illustrator, Shiela Dhir. Thank you for this!

Saffron Tree friends, in today's day and age of scheduling meetings, sometimes even months in advance, an unplanned encounter is a rare occurrence. However, that is how I met author and illustrator Sheila Dhir in Bangalore, a few weeks ago.

Many people have asked me in the past if we are related, because of the same last name. And I used to laugh, "I have never even seen her!" Well - see her I did and we had lots to share. We parted ways on the promise that I would interview her for Saffron Tree and she happily agreed. Thank you Sheila.

Sheila Dhir, born Shailaja Nair, has been involved with close to forty international books for children and her web site is extremely informative. Here we share details of her writing and illustrating adventures, in her own words.

Let us start at the beginning - what did you like to do the most as a child?

As a child, I was always interested in art, thanks to my art teacher. Not only did I participate in several painting competitions but also won several prizes. One experience stands out clearly in my mind's eye - it was an honour to win the prestigious Indo- Soviet Nehru Award for my painting titled "Journey into Outer Space" along with four other children from different parts of India.

The award was a month's holiday by the Black Sea at the Artek Camp in Russia. lt was the first time that we represented India and we all felt a deep sense of national pride. It was truly a memorable, unforgettable and wonderful experience at the age of thirteen - with fond memories and friendship with children from Russia....

You studied at The National Institute of Design, NID . Would you like to share some memories from your Ahmedabad college days?

My memories of NID are very nostalgic! We had very good faculty members whom we addressed by their first names and various faculty from abroad from time to time. I majored in Visual Communication which included Typography, Graphic Design, Book Design, Printing Technology and such. We had a very free, liberal atmosphere where a jury examined each of our various design was an intense 5 1/2 year programme with involvement with several hands on projects from the Government of India. Very fulfilling and satisfying experience.

You also have a post graduate degree. How was that experience?

I did my Masters in Mass Communication from the University of Denver in Colorado, but it was far more theoretical than my education at NID. Some 10,000 students applied for the programme, 150 made it for the interview stage after rigorous tests and 30 students were selected finally- we certainly felt privileged and honoured...

How did you start writing for children?

I have always been interested in children's books and education - thereby was planted the seed of writing and illustrating children's books. I have over 37 children's books internationally today - very satisfying.

I have worked for several publishers such as Tulika, DC Books, Scholastic, Inc in India and Asiapac Books in Singapore.

"Why are you afraid to hold my hand?" (Tulika) is a unique book. It is both written and illustrated by you and deals with the differently abled in a sensitive way. How did the idea take seed?

"Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand" is one of my favourite books created- written and illustrated, by me. For my thesis, I worked for Six months at the Spastic Society of India in Mumbai. After being in close contact with various children with cerebral palsy, I felt compelled to depict the attitudes of society at large towards the differently abled children and this book sensitively describes the dialogue between a disabled child and society at large. This book has been translated into Tamil, Malayalam and as a hard bound book in Korean and has been received very well.

I have since visualised an entire series along similar lines about Cancer, Autism, AIDs and Blindness and am looking for an interested publisher to take on this series that is so close to my heart.

Your book on twins (published by Scholastic India) was well received. No other book in the Indian context/ market is available even when we see many twins in India today, more than ever before. Please share your personal life experience that led to the birth of the book.

"The Mathematics of Twins" was born after we had twin girls. They were born prematurely at 28 weeks in Colorado and we went through a lot when they were in the neonatal unit for over 12 weeks! This personal experience inspired me to do a book about the uniqueness of twins.

Each one of your books is unusual - please share any special memories associated with a few?

Each book has been very special to me and you are right, they are quite diverse! I did a two book series on the Holy Cow and other Beasts and one on Krishna and other mythical figures in stylised Mithila paintings. There are no such books for children- vibrant and colourful...

Another series is Appu the elephant, which I illustrated for my cousin - one of these won the first prize in Publishing.

I have retold stories on Ashoka and Hungarian Folktales which has turned out very well indeed.

Chandu Pottu is a simple book about a little girl who is fascinated by her mother's bindi.

Indeed, I feel very passionate and satisfied by my creations.

You have had the opportunity of working with many Indian publishers. How do you see the evolution of Indian children's books? You have also conceived many activity books, for example.

My puzzle and riddles books are indeed a big hit. A favourite of mine is Jot a Dot- a book on creativity for children - it is written in verse and is truly unique as it explores design principles where Jot is the writer and Dot is the illustrator

I also have a self published book simply titled Thank You God - again in rhyme -totally non- denominational and simply describing the wondrous beauties of God...

Another favourite of mine is Little Hands which has been translated into several Indian languages. (And reviewed on Saffron Tree)

I see the publishing world in India growing, expanding and including sensitive themes for children today.

With the advent of computers, it is critical that it continues to flourish and touch on themes of societal concerns...

Would you like to share any other projects, besides books, that you may have been involved with?

A very special project I was involved with was the GANDHI book, designed by me for a private company in Mumbai. This was brought out for the world premiere of the movie "Gandhi" where I designed a book of Gandhi's quotations in rust silk, the special box and invitations along with a Braille edition of the book for the Blind Association of India.

It was exquisite gold and rust silk-screened on parchment paper- one of its kind on Jan 13th, 1983. It won the top PRSA award and it was a wonderful experience working on it- a true labour of love.

Tell us about the Georgia project where the Women's Network asked you to design a calendar.

The calendar project depicting the Calendar Girls was a very unique and exciting project indeed. Women from all walks of life with diverse careers dropped almost everything literally for a cause. This project was a take-off on the highly successful Calendar Girls movie, set in Great Britain where the women bared themselves to raise money for a leukaemia unit. I was one of the models for the Calendar I designed for fund- raising- quite an experience

What do you like to do when you are not writing or illustrating?

When I am not designing, writing or illustrating books for children, I love to exercise at the gym, swim, play a bit of tennis, am a voracious reader, see Miss Marple series, comedy shows, good films, etc.

Where is "home" for you, these days?

We are now in Hilo, Hawaii- a paradise which we love for its flora and fauna, pristine oceans and husband Krishna is the Dean of the Businees School at the University of Hawaii and our twins Devika and Radhika are in the mainland, gainfully employed.

Thank you, Sheila

Thank you so much for this opportunity to express my candid feelings as an author and illustrator of over 37 children's books internationally and for interviewing me, Rachna. I am so glad we met in Bangalore this year!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Adventures of Pilla the Pup and other Stories

The Adventures of Pilla the Pup and Other Stories
Author: Uma Anand
Illustrated by: Mario Miranda
Publisher: Om Kidz
Ages: 3 and above

The Adventures… is a collection of three sets of stories, that chronicle the misadventures of a motley group of talking animals. The author of this collection of stories, the late Uma Anand , was a well known journalist  and author, most famously associated with the Aunty Wendy column in the Illustrated Weekly of India, and the Children’s Hour on All India Radio.  Aimed at a very young audience, the stories are short, simple and cheerful, reminding me of  the Winnie the Pooh stories, as well as Ermintrude (though lacking the dead pan humour of that famous talking cow and her cronies).  The short chapters and amusing characters make the book especially entertaining for reading aloud to younger children. 

Dul Dul the Magic Clay Horse  begins with Dul Dul, a clay horse, magically coming to life and then promptly escaping from his unwitting creator. Dul Dul meets an assortment of characters -  Pilla, the little black and white puppy, Pitki the squirrel, Cheep Cheep the baby bird, Garbar the ornery goat -  and each meeting invariably sparks off a little adventure. 

The Adventures of Pilla the Pup, the second set of stories in this book, follows the escapades of that little dog through run-ins with fierce cats, weeping donkeys  and surly dhobis. Ladhu the donkey joins the group of friends, while Dul Dul reveals his talents as a songster.

Finally,The Tale of  Lumbdoom the Long-tailed Langoor shifts the focus onto  that  eponymous simian and his friends – Bhola Bandar, Neeli the fish, Dumkat the tailless fox.The thrills are cranked up a notch as well, as the friends battle, and outwit formidable foes like Ajgar the python and Bhayanak Bhedia.  I confess I was a little startled by the dark turn these stories took , as they end with the otherwise cheery, almost childlike animals banding together to  kill their enemies. 

The stories may seem dated,  given the profusion of characters and ideas that children's publishing positively bursts with these days.  Yet  is hard not be charmed by the characters, and the simple, universal themes of these stories - friendship, tolerance, the importance of team spirit, helping a friend in need. 

For me, the highlight of this book were the simple, yet  stunning illustrations by that genius of line art, the late Mario Miranda  It is a pleasure to see these characters come to life through his wonderful black and white drawings. I was especially thrilled by the sheer abundance of illustrations in this slim book - there is barely a page without a beautiful image to feast one's eyes on.

A review copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher. All views expressed here, however, are my own.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Picture Book Biographies of Women Pioneers and Role Models

The Books section at A Might Girl features a couple of thousand books that support girl-empowerment. I check their list on and off to pick books that I'd like my kids to read.

Biographies can be compelling - inspiring stories of real people who did amazing things without ever really wondering about fame and power. They did what they did as they thought it was the right thing to do, and it came naturally to them.

There is no discounting the power of a well-made picture book. The combination of  few hundred well-chosen words, plus complementing pictures to drive home the point, and perhaps tell a parallel tale add up to a perfect package to stimulate the young reader.

This set of picture book biographies of strong women role models barely scratches the surface. Some issues discussed in these books may not be relevant today, which makes us think back to the times in history when things were skewed against women, or any particular community or ethnic group.

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise

How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children
by Jan Pinborough
illustrations by Debbie Atwell

Children today take it for granted that they can borrow unlimited books from the library and read about anything that catches their fancy. My own two kids feel giddy as if in a candy shop when I take them to the library.

So, it was quite a shock to them to read this book and learn that once upon a time, children were not allowed to borrow books from the libraries.

Miss Moore, Annie, was a rebel from her young age. She was strong-willed and she usually got her way. When she became a librarian, she set out to offer children's library services that would become the model for the rest of the world.

Elizabeth Leads the Way

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote
By Stone, Tanya Lee

What would you do
if someone told you
your vote doesn't count,
your voice doesn't matter
because you are a girl?

Would you ask why?
Would you talk back?
Would you fight for your rights?

Elizabeth did.

As a young teenager, Elizabeth was appalled by the law which stated that without a husband, nothing belong to the woman. Her father, Judge Cady, had ruled that the farm be taken away from the widow of a recently-deceased farmer, thanks to this law. A farm that the widow had worked on all her life. And now, she had nothing, because she didn't have a husband.

With short anecdotes from her life, the story pieces together the determined way in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton set out to champion for girls' sports, property and child custody rights for women, equal wages, coeducation, abolition and even birth control.

Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer
by  Carole Gerber
illustrations by Christina Wald

The first woman to be honored with a Doctor of Science degree by the Oxford University, Annie Jump Cannon to this day holds the record for identifying more stars than anyone else in the world. Her system of classifying the stars from the coldest to the hottest is still in use today.

Despite the bout of scarlet fever leaving her partially deaf, she became an astronomer par-excellence who came to be knows as "census-taker of the stars".

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?

The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell
by Tanya Lee Stone
illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Limited to being Wives, Mothers, maybe Teachers and Seamstresses at the most, women didn't have much of a career choice up to a century ago.

Born in England, Elizabeth's family moved to the US when she was eleven. The book established her determination and strong-will early on with the anecdote of her carrying her brother over her head until he gave in. She did not set out to be a doctor initially.

"But she hadn't always wanted to be a doctor. Actually, blood made her queasy. One time, her teacher used a bull's eyeball to show students how eyes work. Elizabeth was repulsed."

After a series of rejections, even her acceptance to a medical school finally, turned out to be a joke. But, she stuck to it. And, even though she graduated from medical school, she was not hired as a doctor anywhere. Even private practice didn't work out at the beginning. That's when Elizabeth decided to go out into the streets of New York and help women and children lead a healthy life.

With her sister Emily, also a doctor, Elizabeth opened The New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 - the first hospital run for women by women.

Mary Walker Wears the Pants

The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero
by Cheryl Harness
illustrations by Carlo Molinari

Despite being a medical doctor, despite volunteering to serve the North and help the wounded during the Civil war, even being a prisoner of war held in the South, and despite being awarded the Medal of Honor, Mary Walker was ridiculed for wearing pants during her time!

This was an interesting book for both my son and daughter as they take it for granted that women can wear pants if they want to today. but that was not the case up until a hundred years ago. More than the pants-fixation, they were surprised that she was taken prisoner. What did they do to her? And was she afraid? How did she manage alone? So many jumping off points for further discussion.

Brave Girl

Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909
by Michelle Markel
illustrated by Melissa Sweet

When Clara Lemlich's family immigrated into US and tried to settle in New York, they found life too difficult. Nobody would hire Clara's father. But, they were hiring young immigrant girls as seamstresses and tailors in large factories paying minimum wages. The original sweat-shop.

So, instead of carrying her books and going to school, Clara takes a sewing machine and goes to work in a garment factory. Her wages help pay the rent and get meager food for her family.

But, Clara wanted more. She went to night school and learnt to speak English. But the unsafe work conditions and unfair wages as a garment worker irked her. When several hundred women workers picketed in 1909, many companies did not budge. Not until the affluent Womens Trade Union League lent their support. Eventually, workers were allowed to form unions to fight for better working conditions and standardized pay based on their skill and labor.

What to do about Alice?

How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!
by Barbara Kerley

Alice had issues. Her father was an over-achieving President of the country who never mentioned her mother's name. She had a blended family that didn't seem to blend so well with her personality and needs. She became rambunctious and acted out as any kid would under the circumstances.

While the older child has come across a few characters like this in fictional stories, it was interesting for her to read about a Alice Roosevelt who did her own thing and didn't care what others thought.

Not quite the inspiring story or a role model like the others so far, nevertheless, the book captures Alice's life at the White House and her antics, and puts a positive spin on it.

Louisa May's Battle

How the Civil War Led to Little Women
by Kathleen Krull
illustrated by Carlyn Beccia

Though well-known for penning Little Women, Louisa May Alcott had a tough life. She worked hard to pay for her family's needs. She went to the Union hospital to nurse the wounded men during Civil War.

Her letters home during that time, Hospital Sketches, became a successful book. When she caught a near-fatal typhoid and was unable to work, she turned to writing. The success of Little Women helped her find her writing style, and gave her financial security.

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor

by Emily Arnold McCully

With over ninety original inventions and twenty-two patents to her credit, it is hard to believe that Mattie was not highly educated or privileged in any way.

Without trying to explain the scientific principle or theory behind her inventions she managed to successfully create many useful things.

Truly inspirational, considering she was dubbed "the female Edison".

Amelia to Zora
Twenty Six Women Who Changed the World
by Cynthia Chin-Lee
illustrated by Megan Halsey, Sean Addy

Alphabetical lists are exciting and yet tough to do, especially for those tricky letters. I was thrilled to find Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nightingale of India and efficient diplomat, listed for 'V'.

The older child liked to read one or two pages at a time, of the twenty six women who spanned the late nineteenth to late twentieth century. While the book provides a brief biography, it is an ideal starting point to go deeper and let the kids research these illustrious women further.

While not quite picture books, the following had some interesting mix of women pioneers.

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists
by Jeannine Atkins  (Author) , Paula Conner (Illustrator)

Seven women: Maria Sibylla Merian (Following Butterflies), Anna Botsford Comstock (Among the Six-legged), Frances Hamerstrom (Secrets), Rachel Carson (Signs from the Sea), Miriam Rothschild (Life in an Old Lawn), and Jane Goodall (The Dream); are featured in this book.

The book shares facts from their lives, taking writing liberties with dialogues and emotions to add to the drama and the importance of their contributions. The format and presentation did not appeal to the kids much.

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women
by Catherine Thimmesh  (Author) , Melissa Sweet  (Illustrator)

Can chocolate chip cookie be considered an invention? Not quite what I expected in terms of scientific inventions, but, quite fascinating nonetheless as these inventions have practical everyday use.

The format and presentation was not appealing to the kids, but the short & crisp descriptions, including some inventions by young girls had my daughter's attention briefly.

Here are some biographies of women role models shared randomly so far in this blog.

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle
by Claire A. Nivola

Of Numbers And Stars: The Story of Hypatia
by D. Anne Love  (Author) , Pam Paparone (Illustrator)

Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa Hardcover
by Jeanette Winter  (Author)

[image source:]

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Riding the Tiger

Riding the Tiger 
by Eve Bunting
illustrations by David Frampton
published by Clarion Books (2001)

Allegorical tales, when well-told, can be chilling and effective. Otherwise, the connection is lost and the message is too confounded to discern for the young reader.

Eve Bunting is a master at this sort of iron-hand-in-velvet glove approach to allegory (as in Terrible Things). And it works well in this story about the enticement of power for a young kid looking for a place to fit in.

Danny is a new kid in town, all of 10 years, raring to go. A glittery-eyed tiger comes along and offers him a free ride. Danny hops on. As the tiger walks, Danny feels a sense of veneration and awe from the bystanders. And, when the tiger struts around getting brusque and acting tough, Danny feels a surge of elation at first.

He willingly goes along because he feels respected, as if he is getting noticed for the first time. That sort of attention can get addictive. Plus he is a bit scared of the tiger himself, as the tiger is gradually revealing its true stripes. The tiger claims to have power, but, it clearly abuses its might. It intimidates and controls others without any provocation or cause. As they prowl on, Danny notices the fear and helplessness the tiger invokes in others. Danny begins to feel a justified discomfort at this point.

"Do you want what I want?" asks the tiger, "Because anyone who isn't for us is against us."

In the end, when Danny tries to get down from his ride in order to help an old man who was hurt as a result of tiger's intimidation, the tiger says, "Stay where you are." This is the moral dilemma, a crisis of conscience for Danny. He sees no reason why he should not help the poor old man who is hurt and is whimpering faintly.

I hung halfway on and halfway off the tiger, and I knew I had an option. Which was the same as a choice. I glanced down. The ground was so far below me. Once you get up on the tiger's back, it's hard to get off. 

Danny stands up for what is right and hops off the tiger, refusing to ride with it anymore.

"You've had your chance. You'll never be one of us. You are all alone now, kid," said the tiger.

If only it were that easy to dissociate oneself from the giddying thrill of  dominance and live to lead one's life free from power struggles, the world would be a better place. Some don't want to get off the tiger's back; and even those that do want to get off, can't let go of the only connection they have to a community, to feel like they belong somewhere, like the only place to be is on this tiger's back with due recognition, rather than on the ground, ignored and forgotten.

The story can be applied to inner city gangs, to bullies in street-corners and school halls, even to adults who abuse their powerful position of authority.

The woodcut illustrations add to the menace of the tiger while the reds, oranges and blacks make it all seem ominous.

Horrifying as it was, the book was a wonderful read for the resident nine year old who got the underlying idea after a couple of reads.

While Your Move by Eve Bunting, illustrated by James E. Ransome, deals with the gang menace head on, Riding the Tiger covers a broader idea of doing what one feels is right without being bullied into making the wrong choice for the sake of misplaced loyalty or conformity.

Of course, children's books have to end with the possibility of breaking free and leading one's life by making the right choice. Otherwise, where is the incentive in reading it, discussing it, using it to illustrate the truly complex dynamics of survival in a tough world.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Nirmala & Normala

Nirmala & Normala
Written by Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam
Published by Penguin books

We, in India, have grown up on a steady diet of movies in which identical twins get separated at birth due to unforeseen circumstances, acts of god, strange twists of fate, odd behaviour of birth attendants, ... what have you. They are usually taken in by people as different from each other as possible, and grow up not knowing their reality. Hilarity/ confusion often arises out of situations that arise due to mistaken identity. Then we have the sudden and inexplicable bursting into song and dance, with everyone around joining in - whatever the mood of the song. And the hero who is the 'good son' of an underworld don! So many components to a formula that can be put together arbitrarily, and have perfect nonsensical sense!

A woman dies while giving birth to identical twin girls. For reasons best known to herself, the midwife deposits one of them at an orphanage and then puts the other in a reed basket which she sets afloat on the river, which is then picked up by a movie producer. The girls grow up in disparate circumstances, and one day, both of them separately meet a 'boy'.

We all know how it might go on from here - though with a significant difference. For Nirmala will be Nirmala, the movie heroine, and Normala will be Normala, the 'normal' one. Though the 'normal' is debatable - there can be many shades of normal!

Personally, I liked Normala more - she certainly seemed a more believable character, a 'real' person, than Nirmala, who was the plastic sort of person, as if she were merely following a script. That, I suppose, is the success of the writers. The graphic novel format made the narrative very visual, which, again, was a masterstroke - almost as if a movie were unfolding in front of you - fitting in with being a spoof of movies, be it from Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, or any other sort of wood.

A couple of grouses, though. One, is that the narrative lacked a certain depth that would have made it more interesting - something was missing. Two, is that the authors have missed the opportunity of making it funnier by having the two protagonists' paths cross. After all, they are identical twins with a difference only in the placement of moles - a classic trope of this genre. That way, the movie spoof would have been more complete. As it is, I felt a wee bit cheated! Not paisa vasool enough!

This book would certainly be a hit among the intended age group, if the lengths I had to go to take it off my teen and a visiting friend are any indicator - they were glued to it, giggling away as they read!

Image courtesy Penguin Books India.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review. The opinions are all mine.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Queen of Ice

Queen of Ice
By Devika Rangachari
Duckbill Books

Queen of Ice is a tale from another time. I hesitate to label it a piece of historical fiction. History tends to put teen readers off and that would be a pity, for this is a book with drama, with intrigue, with characters that captivate you and events that keep you riveted. The teen protagonist’s angst as she grapples with the unfairness of the world will resonate with young adults. However, it cannot be slotted as a YA book either. As with her previous work for children, Harsha Vardhana, Devika Rangachari creates a fascinating tale based predominantly on historical fact. The choice of subject is even more interesting this time – Didda is the crippled queen of Kashmira, a ruler who had hitherto been relegated to obscurity on account of her gender. This is a book you should read if you are politically inclined, a history buff, a feminist, a champion of the differently-abled, or just someone who appreciates a story well told. Queen of Ice will enthrall you and leave a delicious lingering after-effect.

The first thing that struck me about the book was its exquisitely crafted cover, made me wonder what beauty it held within. The book opens with Didda’s powerful voice. Her gender, her deformity, her father’s contempt – she doesn’t have much going for her. Yet, young Didda comes across as someone who is incredibly strong and determined. Is it because of the astrologer’s prediction that she is destined for greatness? Or something she has inherited from her forceful mother? We see that Didda loves and hates with equal passion. We witness her vulnerability as she deals with her father's rejection and her cousin's animosity.  Enter Valga, whose circumstances are far removed from Didda’s royal parentage, but who has something in common with Didda – her father has no affection for her either.  With her exceptional physical strength, Valga becomes Didda’s carrier-girl, a position that makes her privy to the princess’ secrets.

Didda is an ambitious woman – I love that she is unapologetic about it. As the book progresses, we sense that she is capable of destroying anything that stands in her way – I love that the author does not judge her for this ruthless streak.

Devika Rangachari paints an unflinching portrait of Didda and a beautiful picture of tenth-century Kashmira. The details and descriptions left me with the feeling I was reading an account written by someone who had witnessed these events as they occurred.

I wondered initially about the style. Why was the book targeted at the teen audience? The language was simple enough and the content seemed appropriate for slightly younger kids. As I read on, it became apparent that the style, stark and reminiscent of Kashmir in winter, serves to accentuate Didda’s complexities.

The book is presented as two first-person accounts – that of Didda’s and her porter Valga’s. Didda’s overpowering voice and the fact that I identified so much with her, made Valga’s voice seem superfluous at first. It was only later that I realized her perspective was essential, for it is through Valga that we see a side to Didda that no one else does. And it is after Didda’s cruel acts that we catch her in her tender moments, in scenes so beautiful that I found myself misty-eyed. Devika Rangachari deserves applause for treading a delicate path with great skill.

[Image source]    

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Interview with Vaishali Shroff

Our guest reviewer Rachna Dhir is happy to share with you all an interview with author of Raindrops, Ari and The Missing Bat, Vaishali Shroff.

Vaishali, your son Arinjay is the inspiration behind your latest book - Ari. Please share the story behind the story

I always try to write stories that parents and children alike can relate to. Stories that drive home less talked about problems that many kids face.

As a child I was just like Ari. I remember coming home from school and sitting before the mirror after being rejected in school concert shows. I could never run to the teacher and confess that I think I can do it. I preferred to hide. But I still used to wonder why not me. Till I accepted the cruel fact that may be I wasn't as good as the others.

My son decided to do something about his ordeal. That's when I realised it needs to be told. Ari needs to stand up and be heard by parents and teachers who may have failed to see the true potential so called introvert children bring to the table. The real fireflies with an inner glow vs the butterflies that everyone loves to chase. The trauma that comes along with being labeled as an introvert and constantly told that you're someone who cannot perform as well as the outspoken kids can dent young minds for life

Having said this, I am not trying to say that extroverts lack potential. This is only about the other half that can do it but lack the opportunity.

You are a writer, editor, columnist, and story teller-
Tell us how it all started?

I have been writing ever since I can remember. I started off with poetry. My first publication was a poem in The Indian Express during the 1993 Mumbai riots. I cannot ever forget how it felt!

Those were the days of fan mails and receiving letters from places far and wide, from people young and old including soldiers posted in Sikkim! . The encouragement to write more made me think I am destined to write. Thus began this amazing journey that happened alongside my corporate life.

Subsequently I also started a storytelling club for children in 2009 in Pune and now continue the same in Mumbai as well.

Your first book was Raindrops, also with Tulika. It was very different from Ari - both story and look and feel wise. What was the inspiration behind Raindrops? Please include your other works too.

I've always drawn inspiration from real life events for my stories. My second book 'The Missing Bat' by Pratham Books was based on my travels in Kashmir. Raindrops, too, was a result of a personal experience with children. It's important that children are sensitive to the environment. That they think about things they see and experience around them. I like to bring that out in my stories.

Tell us about your childhood, your inspirations - what attracted you to writing? Who were your role models and mentors?

My mother always made me write. She used to keep throwing topics at me and I used to write. She used the Wren and Martin as a guide for she herself did not have a flair for the language. Writing became a huge part of me and slowly I realised how I felt better every time I wrote. The pieces were like highly guarded secrets tucked away under a pile of books so no one ever laid hands on them. Writing, in those days was never talked about as a profession like they spoke about engineering and medicine. So I secretly nurtured my passion thinking some day... May be....

You work across many media - magazines, CBSE readers, anthologies. Please share some favourites?

Any media only helps to take your story to a wider audience. With magazines it's interesting because you can talk about current issues and trends in the reading and writing industry. It felt incredibly proud and humbling to be recognised by the CBSE board as someone whose stories needed to be read by thousands and thousands a of children across the country. That feeling is simply indescribable. Yes, they will also give exams with my stories being part of the curriculum. Ha ha.

Anthologies are special because your story proudly sits next to works of some famous authors who you've always dreamt of being! :-

You have had memorable travel adventures with your son. May we hear some juicy details, please?

Ha ha ha. My son has this interesting knack of observing details about surroundings that one would never dare to imagine. To cite, we love going for wildlife safaris with him. At the end of one such safari he said, "I never thought tigers can be so scared. We enter the animal's house without asking them, chase poor tigers to take pictures, and some bad people even make noise. Who is the wild one? I always thought it was the animal."

Needless to say it's now a story :-)

Would you like to give aspiring story tellers and authors some guidance?

A good story needs to be told. While some stories make us fantasise and others make us realise... They all make us think about how we can make this world a better place. I cannot imagine growing up without Roald Dahl and Ruskin Bond and Enid Blyton and Dr. Seuss who I discovered along with my son (I'm still growing up!).

While people say that a writer is about their writing style I say Nay! A writer is all about the story and how long it stays with you after you've closed the book and put it back in the shelf along with many others.

My only advice to writers is to be honest to who you are and write only about what you strongly feel. Not what the industry demands and the reader reads. It's important to tell the story in a way that makes people think and say, "why didn't I think of this before!"

Please share details of some more projects you have done for children?

I've had many other publications for children which include pop-up story books, readers, various fiction and non - fiction articles for children's magazines, parenting columns, and so on.

Thank you Vaishali!

Life's got a little more beautiful with a five year old next to me and an infant nestled in my arms. It's tough but now I can only imagine how many stories I get to tell through it all :-)

Thank you for reviewing Ari. It's a book very close to my heart for a multitude of reasons. I secretly dream of Ari being staged as a play so that people can actually experience every word in the story and more. :-)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Okaasama Otousama

Story : Sandhya Rao
Pictures : Krishna Bala Shenoi
Published by: Tulika Books
Reviewed by Rachna-Dhir

Okaasama Otousama- (O O for short) is the perfect example of how to bring joy in children's lives in simple, uncomplicated ways! Why do parents want to take their children anywhere for them to "have fun" when we have such amazing books at our disposal?

I was reminded of my children's favourite Sandra Boynton books that used to travel with us to the doctor's, to the airports, on long car journeys.... The list is endless.

Children draw comfort from the familiar. Once they like a book, it does not take long for it to become a companion. After a vaccination, during high fever or an illness, after a tiff with a dear friend at preschool, during a long air or train journey- at all these moments that can be anxiety ridden or even traumatic, books can heal in ways that can be described as soothing or magical!

Borrowing the plot from the back page, "A joyful tribute to multilingualism that says Mother and Father in 18 different languages" from lands far and near.

Sandhya Rao has the key to children's hearts like few others and Tulika has their hands on today's children's pulse. With the multicultural world we live in, O O is such a welcome gift. I can imagine preschoolers on stage singing in different tunes - the lyrics being the same, of course.

Kudos to Krishna Bala Shenoi, the illustrator, to do thorough research and bring the words to life. He did an internship at Tulika while studying at Bangalore's Srishti School of Art and this book was the result. According to the jacket, he wants "to take young people places!" And does he succeed!

So - what are you waiting for? Grab your copy and please do tell me if I am wrong?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Atisa and the Time Machine - In Search of Kalidasa

Atisa and the Time Machine - In search of Kalidasa
Author - Anu Kumar, Illustrator - Priya Kurian
Publisher - Jaico Books
Ages - 12+

When the whiff of history is still in the air, I thought it would be appropriate to present the book review of this new book on the stands. This is the third book in the series of Atisa and his adventures.

Atisa, a teenage boy, has been on various adventures already in his time travelling flying machine (the earlier adventures are detailed in Atisa and the Seven Wonders and Adventures with Hieun Tsang). This machine has magically transported him to various eras, making him come in contact with the significant historical characters of that time period and partake of the adventures of their time.

Now, Atisa is summoned to the Gupta period, through a distress call for help, which his special sound catchers capture. It is the reign of King Vikramaditya and a pot pourri of events unfold at the same time. The king is on his way back to the kingdom after defeating the Saka tribes. Something sinister is afoot in the capital, which the king is completely unaware of. The astronomer Varahamihira is concerned about the superstitions of the people surrounding the forthcoming eclipse. There is a mysterious man, whom everyone is trying to protect by all means and his identity is kept a closely guarded secret from Atisa.  Then there is a funny trader who pops in and out of Atisa's present and the past going back 1800 years. This is the situation in which Atisa lands. 

Atisa's flying machine comes like a boon to the good people of the Gupta period. They seek his help in getting across secret messages and scrolls to concerned people. The story is all about Atisa's adventures, where he crosses path with numerous interesting people like - the path finders who are adept in finding the ways through the dense jungles, the astronomer Varahamihira and his daughter Lilavati,  the crucial 'gems' of the Vikramaditya's court one of whom is the missing person and Fa-hsien, the Chinese monk who happens to be in India then. The attitudes, fears and the belief systems of the people of those times, are revealed beautifully through the story. 

The book has multiple angles, all of which come together in the end. It is pretty apparent that the author has done a lot of research to bring in the various elements of that period together in this fictious tale. For a person who would have just read the facts of the Gupta period, the book would be a delight as it strings the information together in a story garland. It motivates us to seek more information of that time period.

I personally would have liked to see the actual facts of the Gupta period presented briefly in the end or in bubbles through the book, like some historical fiction books do. So even if I pick the book without any knowledge of the historical background, I could have understood the context  better with this. For example, a litte more information about the king and his dynasty, the nine gems of the Vikramaditya's court or a brief write up of the famous temple in Deogarh which comes up in the story, would have made it more interesting. A tighter editing would have been welcome too.

Priya Kurian's wonderful illustrations which give life to Anu's words, pop up every few pages. If you are a history buff, it is not a book to be missed. History, Fantasy, Mystery - all rolled into a single package! To know more about the author, you can read this interview with Anu Kumar and her recent writeup for CROCUS 2014.

(The book was received as a Review copy from Jaico Publishers, but the views expressed are purely mine)    
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