Monday, February 23, 2015

Bookasura: The Adventures of Bala and the Book- Eating Monster


Bookasura: Bala and the Book-Eating Monster
Author: Arundhati Venkatesh
Illustrator: Priya Kurian
Publisher: Scholastic India
Ages: 5+

The story of Bakasura must surely rate among the most retold mythological stories  across  Indian households – it has certainly been a huge favourite in my family for as long as I can remember.  After all, it’s got all the elements of a crowd pleaser– a hungry and evil giant simply asking to be trounced, helpless villagers, a quirky warrior (in my mind, the only interesting Pandava), and  food – lots and lots of it!   Add to this the plethora of sound effects the story encourages you to improvise - growling, roaring, burping, other bodily noises too rude to mention – let’s just say the story of Bakasura is designed to delight with each retelling.

In Bookasura, author Arundhati Venkatesh, creator  of the popular Petu Pumpkin series (and a reviewer here at Saffron Tree), gives us a fresh and funny take on that beloved myth, pitting  a young boy against a hungry ogre with a very peculiar appetite. There's plenty of delicious food as well, and some interesting sound effects too.. but I digress.

Little Bala loves books. In fact, he has just done something amazing – moved from picture books to finishing his very first chapter book. Sadly, that rite of passage goes unnoticed because of the little monster hogging all his parents’ attention – his baby sister Meera.  As if that weren’t unforgivable enough, she even chews her way through one of his beloved books! So Bala is quite happy to be shipped off to his grandparents’ house in quiet  Melagam, where he hopes to spend the holidays listening to Thaatha’s stories, filling up on Paati’s amazing cooking, pottering around Navaneeth uncle’s garden – and reading his books  in peace, of course. Alas, he isn’t rid of monsters yet.

 Enter Bookasura, a  ferocious hydra-headed rakshasa with an insatiable appetite – for books!  In a bid to keep himself alive,  Bala offers the monster his precious  horde of summer reads instead.  But books, like food and patience, have a nasty habit of running out when you need them the most. With three books left in his bag, what is Bala going to do? Will he find a way out of his troubles, preferably a way that leaves him uneaten? Will the books he loves so much help him out? Or will help arrive from some very unexpected sources? 

Priya Kurian’s illustrations are, as always, a treat. With a few simple pencil strokes, she brings  the characters of the book to glorious life. Her potbellied Bookasura is definitely the highlight of the book, from his little drawstring pyjamas to his many heads, each with their individual scowls and mohawks.

Bookasura is a fun adventure for younger readers to giggle their way through. It is also a book celebrating books and the powers of good stories , and that takes a cheerful dig at, erm.. the lethal powers of certain contemporary modes  of entertainment. I enjoyed Arundhati's depiction of customs in a typical South Indian household and the questions she teasingly leaves unanswered-Why does Bookasura resemble baby Meera? How much does Kala Aunty really know about the book guzzling monster? Why does the rakshasa only appear when Bala falls asleep? I would have liked books  to feature more prominently in Bala's plan to defeat Bookasura - the classic titles mentioned throughout the story lead you to expect a conclusion where they will all somehow be relevant. The ending, though, is sure to have younger readers  - and their parents - giggle approvingly!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Patua Pinocchio

Patua Pinocchio  
Patua Pinocchio book review Saffron Tree
by Carlo Collodi
illustrated by Swarna Chitrakar
publisher: Tara Books


By now, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi has become a household tale that manages to amuse and captivate the young readers. The story has been translated into many languages, endearing the wooden marionette to readers the around the world. His yearning to become a human boy and his adventures along the way is both absurd and heart-tugging.

Well known for their sophisticated books that showcase indigenous art forms and local artists, Tara Books has taken this classic story, abridged from Carol Della Chiesa's translations from the Italian original, and paired it with Swarna Chitrakar's Patua Scroll Painting of Bengal to present a uniquely amalgamated book that opens with this short and crisp introduction:

How it happened that
Mastro Cherry, the carpenter
Found a piece of wood
That wept and laughed
Like a child!
He gives it to his friend
Geppetto, who fashions a
Marionette and calls it
Pinocchio.


An engaging telling in just about 180 pages, the story pops out and grabs the reader via starkly stylized original illustrations.

Patua Pinocchio book review Saffron Tree
Image Source: Tara Books


For readers used to the Westernized image of Pinocchio in rompers and a hat, it can be a jolt to see this new take on the puppet who wanted it all.

In loincloth and delicate jewelry, with dark-hued (wood-like?) complexion, Patua Pinocchio certainly challenges the readers to take the leap and test if the story is truly universal in its appeal.

The bold lines and rich earthen colors in plain white background adds a deceptive simplicity to the presentation while showcasing the strengths of this traditional art form practiced by the community of Chitrakars centered around Naya in West Bengal.

One of the perks for Indian readers is the parallel between Pinocchio's antics and that of Lord Krishna as a young mischievous cowherd. The idea that children are innately bestowed with godliness that they lose gradually as they grow up is pulled into this tale to present a vibrant interpretation of an ageless story.

The ideas for exploring Patua Pinicchio at Tara Books' site alludes to the fact that a fable that is considered a classic is open to multiple interpretations, one of which is presented in this book.

"Re-Drawing A Classic" section at the back explains how this book emerged from a workshop with artists from the Patua tradition of painting.

[Read an excerpt at DNA]

[Look Inside the book]

[Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher. The decision to review it, and share my opinions here, is entirely my own.]



Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Incredible History of India's Geography

The Incredible History of India's Geography
Written by Sanjeev Sanyal with Sowmya Rajendran
Published in Puffin by Penguin books India
Ages 9-14

When Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist and environmentalist, came up with the book, The Land of the Seven Rivers - a history of India's geography (reviewed here on Saffron Tree - do click on the link), it was the India version of Jared Diamond's celebrated book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Sanyal's book explained lucidly what it was about India's geography that shaped its history. For although geography can be argued to be a science, it gets clubbed with social sciences because of its unquestionable effect on the narrative of a people. 

This book, however, catered to a YA and adult audience  - it was too detailed for it to really interest middle grade readers - I know my daughter struggled a bit with this, though she was fascinated by the bits I shared with her. She wished that there was an easier version. She was  right. The book needed to reach younger readers, those who study about the history of the subcontinent in middle and high school. Enter this edition - The Incredible History of India's Geography - that speaks to the 9-14 year olds, without talking down to them.

The possibility that the Harappan and Vedic civilizations co-existed. 
The flourishing of civilization on the banks of life-giving rivers, and the changes as natural calamities changed the terrain. 
The idea of a nation that probably first came with the Bharata tribe that gave its name to the subcontinent, despite there being discrete kingdoms for most of its history. 
The deal with lions, pillars, and rulers.
The linking of the east-west and north-south axis of the country right from the period of the Ramayana, with the heart of the nation around the ancient holy city of Prayag - renamed Allahabad by the Mughal emperor Akbar - how even our British colonizers had to recognize this. 
The many cities of Delhi. 
The rich maritime tradition of ancient India with flourishing trade, culture, and knowledge and the loss of it more a millennium ago when the people of the subcontinent closed themselves off from outside influence, making it a sin to cross the seas, which could be called the beginning of the downfall. 
Modern history - British and independent India.

And so much more.

This is a slightly watered down version of the original, with bite-size fun facts, sketches that make many things very visual, and the same touch of humour, slightly cranked up, if I may say - a wonderful adaptation by Sowmya Rajendran, the author of the Mayil books. Sowmya has taken the text of the original, made changes where needed,  keeping intact those passages which were simple enough for a middle grade reader, condensed the information a bit, added the bite-sized facts in boxes, and given her trademark quirky chapter headings. All of this so seamlessly that it does complete justice to the original book, and one cannot detect any patchwork.

If there is one book that I would recommend to learn about our country, this would be it.

Image courtesy Penguin books India.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mathematics - Fun, Facts and Fiction

This fun, fact and fundas book from DC Mangobooks is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Through stories, the author illustrates daily application of basic and complex concepts in Maths. From counting to factorials, from weight to Fibonacci patterns and much more, maths enriches our lives and these tales remind, highlight and showcase the concepts.

Extensively researched, written in a lucid way with puzzles to reinforce what one has read, the book travels across the world as the stories are sourced from various cultures and countries.

Age recommendation is five plus for a couple of stories and for older kids and adults for the others.

Here is a short Q&A with the author, Riti Prasad:

ST- How and why did you zero in on Maths as the focus on your book?

RP- I love maths and I love English and I love stories so this seemed like a potent combination.  Besides that I wanted to write a meaningful book which has an element of learning and thinking laterally for children who read them. I wanted the parents to experience the joy of reading a book that teaches concepts in a non traditional manner. It is said that if you have a great story to tell, then people will remember you better- the same goes with mathematical concepts. Narrate the story and the concept understanding will follow.

ST- Did you know all these stories earlier? How did you choose which ones to keep?


RP-Most of these are available material. I did a lot of search both on Internet and from my memory to pull out stuff that would relate to the concept.

ST- Did the stories come first or the maths principle you were highlighting?

RP- It worked both ways. But more often, I decided upon the topics that I wanted to cover and then tried to recall the stories. The stories were reinvented & retold keeping the original flavour intact.

For the counting story I used the original African location for the story but layered them with more concepts like detailing on the city and its culture or cuisine and then layered the story with counting in eleven different languages. ( which was a brilliant move !!  we at ST say. )

For the Fibonacci story I did a lot of research on how rabbit farms are run and what challenges come up for the farmer including the fact that some rabbits may be eaten up by predators or may just escape from the hutch. Or when they get overpopulated you need to build multiple levels in the hutch etc.  or backward integration by growing the rabbit feed and even selling some of it to when in excess.

So my focus was to cover as many concepts as possible and treat the book like a discovery or a journey.

ST- How do you think the book can be best used ?

RP- You discover a new concept each time you re read it or as you grow with it. Also a child of 8 may not follow all stories and concepts at once but understand it over the years. Or may be just treat it like a very good story and worry about understanding the concept later as they grow older. So in a way the book grows with your child.

Kudos to Mango Books and team ! You can view a sample page of the book  here.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Horrid High



Horrid High
Written by: Payal Kapadia 
Publisher: Puffin Books
Review Copy
Reviewer: Rachna Dhir

Payal Kapadia's Wisha Wozzariter won the Crossword Book Award for Children's Writing in 2013. I read about that book in "101 Indian Children's Books We Love" by Young Zubaan and enjoyed it so much that I not only reviewed it but also interviewed the author for Saffron Tree before the Award was announced.

When Ms. Kapadia sent me a review copy of her latest book, Horrid High, I was a little nervous. Having loved her "debut novella" Wisha and shared my enthusiasm exuberantly, I was unsure of how the author could match the expectations she herself had set of her readers. But, I need not have worried. Ms Kapadia is a true gem. India has few authors who have such mastery to engage readers in the 10+ age group.

Described on the jacket as "A riotous, rambunctious adventure in the world's most horrid school", this 311page long Puffin book is truly enjoyable from beginning to end! In the author's own words, as expressed in the acknowledgements, "it explores the limits of horridness"!

In other reviews, I have often lamented the need for better editing in most Indian books for children. Even our most popular writers seem to lose steam around midway, after having a wonderful start and unfortunately leaving the reader disinterested towards the end. I have to say - Payal did not let her readers down!

Children love Roald Dahl books because he was so good at bringing mean characters to life. Almost each of his book had multiple characters whose horridness children even today delight in. Similarly, Horrid High is full of people who are nasty beyond belief. So, parents of sensitive children will have to explain that the book is purely for entertainment lest they worry too much. Luckily, the humour overtakes the sadness, pretty early in the game!

Except for the "boys don't cry" stereotype that could easily have been avoided and a very Punjabi sounding comment by a central character towards the end, I did not find anything objectionable in the book.

Payal Kapadia continues to name her protagonists (from her previous book) in very creative ways. Once again, the plot is universal - it could be set in any country, any where. In addition, there were a handful of "purely"'Indian names, this time.

Details related to children, their anxieties, adults with their pet peeves, foods and places were extremely well researched, giving the plot an extremely authentic feel.

Each chapter was linked so beautifully to the previous and next that I see this book serving as a textbook for aspiring writers - the layering, the attention to detail, the element of surprise ...... All had a place and a time, so to say.

Without getting into the story, I do wish to share that while it is very un Enid Blyton like, despite the backdrop of a boarding school, many "mysteries" do get solved as friendships develop.

Readers are sure to get the message of strength from this book. While it is all fiction, the author has talked about human nature without getting philosophical. So, no challenge is a deterrence if we set to solve our problems.

The illustrations, again by Roger Dahl, support the text well. The faithful mouse shows up in every frame and the expressions of children and adults have been captured rather well!

Thank you Puffin for showing the world what talented authors we in India are lucky to have!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Meet Geetha.V of Tara Books


I have today the happy opportunity of inviting V.Geetha, the Editorial Director of Tara Books, over on Saffron Tree. She graciously shares with us her thoughts about her work, the varied set of books the Tara team has created and what has kept them going over the last twenty years.

Thank you so much, Geetha, for your answers! It's a joy to read them.

1) How has your publishing values/philosophy evolved over the last twenty years?

We, Gita Wolf and I are feminists, interested in books, children, and our own contexts. When Gita announced that she wanted to do books for children, back in 1994, she had a sense of what she wished to do: create books that would speak to children in their contexts, featuring faces and voices they could relate to; basically books that would stimulate their imagination, while encouraging them to look around and take note - At the same time, we wanted to bring into our context, books from elsewhere, opening up the world of the child is as important as anchoring it. Apart from this, we were guided by our politics: we wanted to show a world with as many resourceful and intelligent girls as boys, where children's sense of a just and happy universe finds a place, and where relationships of power are shown for what they are, but there are also stories and images of resistance, relationships, and affection.

These values still define what we do, and how we work, with authors, artists and designers from a variety of social and economic contexts. But we have also developed a publishing outlook that is concerned with celebrating the book as a cultural object, through pushing its boundaries - with our experiments in printing, production, design, and pushing the boundaries of illustration. Today we value what we are a part of - the global culture of the picture book, to which we have contributed in a fundamental way, with our books that feature art by indigenous - folk and tribal - artists, the handmade book and the book that recalls older forms of the written word, such as a scroll...

2) Tara is known for its gorgeously illustrated children's books featuring unique yet diverse themes. People love your unique production values and the fabulous array of folkart-oriented books. In terms of art, everyone agrees that there's been a tremendous diversity. iIn terms of writing, how open has Tara been to new voices?

We have a range of texts: an AFrican-American tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr along with a patua artist (I See the Promised Land); a Gond tribal artist presents his view of the great city of London, speaking back to Kipling (The London Jungle Book); a domestic worker turned artist tells the story of how she became one (Following My Paintbrush, featuring Mithila art); a film hoardings artist and his art are the centre of a project that is uniquely Tamil (The Nine Emotions of Tamil Cinema); and in press are other such projects - including a Sri Lankan writer, who's done an illustrated novella on living and surviving war (The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers)... For us, openness means, openness to dialogue and conversation - it is not so much a question of providing space to diverse voices, but ensuring that diverse voices can actually converse and work together - otherwise, openness remains merely politically correct and in practice, just a mark of difference.


3) Your toddler books section has some lovely folktales and trickster tales - how are they selected? Are you open to creative and updated retellings to be paired with folk art work for the future? [Kanchil series, The Great Race, Gobble You Up etc.])

Some story-tellers come to us - Nathan Scott grew up in Indonesia, listening to the Kanchil stories. He came up with three such tales - we wanted to tease out the visual possibilities of these animal fables, using art forms that spoke to the content and context of these tales. For the Kanchil tales, you'll notice that we worked with artists, whose art relates to Indonesia in one way or another: kalamkari (Mangoes and Bananas) is a form of block printing that emerged out of the South-east Asian textile trade; the Odisha coast, as much as ours has been involved in this trade, which is why we chose patachitra from Odisha to illustrate The Sacred Banana Leaf. Jagdish Chitara is a textile artist from Guarat, and it seemed appropriate that we draw on his work as well. (The Great Race).

With Gobble you Up, it was the art that set the direction for the tale - Meena art from Rajasthan, done on walls of homes, and by women, and passed on from mother to daughter, typically features animals with their young, and often pregnant animals at that. An animal within an animal we discovered is also the subject of many traditional tales from the region - and so this is how this book came about.

4) You have been in the field of children's publishing for over twenty years. What do you think about the current trends in publishing? Any thoughts on the power of stories and story-telling as a medium to reach children?

We see our work as mainly to do with encouraging reading - we would like children to pick up books and read, leaf through, observe, since many of our books have art, as much as or more than text. It seems to us that a book makes a child pause, slow down, take in things at a different pace, and this activity is rewarding in itself. Listening to stories is a different experience, and while we are happy for children to have that experience, we think it is not our task to do this. Story telling as part of narrative in a book is a different matter, and we think, that adults as much as children enjoy that: and we would like to think that images as much as words tell stories, in fact different kinds of stories, allow for a range of voices to be heard, without the mediation of language, which means that non-literate voices too could be heard, and understood.


5) What do you like best/least about being an editor? Any funny anecdotes?

The immense satisfaction of doing best by the work - the author is too close to it, the reader is yet to read it, but the editor is trained to stand apart, assess it for its own sake, and chisel and shape it, minimally or in other ways.. In our case, we work as much with illustrators, artists and designers, so editing in that sense also involves coordination, tying things up together... very fulfilling and truly collaborative.

Funny anecdotes: maybe not funny, but there are fun moments. When we worked with Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar and designer Jonathan Yamakami on Sita's Ramayana, it was as if we were replaying the old monkey and aappam story. Any editing or addition on Samhita's part meant Moyna had to draw another panel. Suggestions from Jonathan meant that Samhita had to rethink text, and when Moyna chose to draw a deeply sad Sita, Jonathan would decide that he would give her a full page, and then as an editor, I'd feel compelled to rethink the length of the book - it seemed unending and well, fun.

6) I understand this might be a hard one. Which one is your favorite Tara title?

Excuse Me, Is this India - for the text
Signature - for the concept
Creation - for its visual poetry

Toys and Tales - for all of the above


7) Anything you want to share with us about reading picture books to children, why art and design matter to Tara? Why do you do the books you do?

I think I have answered this in different ways above - but in a nutshell, to us, the book works only when text, art, design and its making intersect in equal measure to create and communicate meaning. In that sense, publishing and book-making are essentially collaborative enterprises. Creativity, to us, is always a shared experience.

8) Any particular upcoming releases you are particularly excited about?

Yes, Between Memory and Museum: A Dialogue with Folk and Tribal Artists, which features visual responses by over 30 indigenous artists to the idea of the museum (forthcoming April 2015); The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers (forthcoming, April 2015, on surviving the war in Sri Lanka), and a children's book, Knock! Knock! (October 2015) that opens up like an apartment block by a young Japanese artist Karoi Takahashi - a sheer delight of a book.

9) What do you envision for Tara Books in terms of the kind of projects you want to undertake down the road?

More hard work, exploration, and books that convince children - and adults - that there are worlds that open out, outside the pane of a smartphone, a tablet and a computer screen.


10) Anything you want to tell readers and creators of children's books?

Read more, look at different kinds of art, learn another language... 

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 sight 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 www.shailajadhir.com 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 projects...it 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 mountains...my 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: amazon.com]
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