Monday, January 23, 2017

The Case of the Candy Bandit

The resident nine-year-old won Archit Taneja's The Case of the Candy Bandit in a giveaway on the Duckbill Gangstas page a few years ago. I had first reading rights (of course!) and for a couple of nights, had dreams as bizarre as Rachita's. I could see the kid would love the nerdy-meets-madcap fun-ness of the book. This is his review.

The Case of the Candy Bandit (Superlative Supersleuths)
By Archit Taneja
Image courtesy
Duckbill Books
Ages 9-12

The Case of the Candy Bandit is the perfect title for a detective-mystery. The cover, with pictures of sweets, grabs your attention. The drawings within the book are even more interesting and funny. If the idea of a gulab jamun pancake is simply outrageous, so is the drawing of a gulab jamun pancake maker.

This book is about Aarti and Rachita, two budding detectives in sixth grade. They are the Superlative Supersleuths. The PTA has decided that treat packets be given to the students on the condition they eat their lunch. The treat packets start going missing. It’s upto the Superlative Sleuths to sniff out the thief. Do they succeed or get completely spooked out?

Aarti, a rather creative and cheerful person, suggests a Pirate Case Book. Rachita on the other hand, is a serious and straightforward person. She is enthusiastic about detective work. The Detective Decree they make is brilliant and way too funny. I’d use the 3 Ws to describe it - Wow, Wacky and Wonderful. Rachita’s birthday presents are rare and totally unbelievable. Wonder where they were bought really!!! Vipul’s theory on the Observer Effect is perfect. If an experiment is conducted on someone, they should be unaware of it, otherwise they will behave differently. I like Vipul because he is a smartypants just like me.

This story is like Aarti - hyperactive without the hyper. There’s a lot of action, things keep happening like a relay of events. One thing’s a bit disappointing. In every detective story, this happens - There’s one suspect. Then the suspect changes and the thief is caught. That could have changed.

As a nine-year-old, I can certify that 8-11 year-olds love their candy. The level of maths used in the book is quite high, there’s even some calculus. Rachita is so scientific in her approach to the case that there’s science even in her dreams. Rachita’s dreams about Archimedes teaching the pirates to balance and finding the centre of gravity are witty and certainly well thought out. If Rachita’s dreams are burgers or fries, then there’s science as the sauce to go with them. Yumm, I love burgers. Talking of food, that purple-tongued seventh-grader is rather lucky to have a packet of jamuns. Oops, my appetite is gone because of those tongues. You’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean!

This is a wonderfully spicy book. Super entertaining for little spies like me and just a FANTASTIC BOOK!!!

Psst ... The next in the Superlative Supersleuths series, The Case of the Careless Aliens is just out.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

An Alphabet in Bloom

An Alphabet in Bloom
by Nathalie Trovato

Today, the typical ABC book is universally accepted as an introductory book for preschoolers to learn the letters of the alphabet. However, they can be much more than just a tool for letter recognition and sequencing.

Centered around refreshing themes, offering visual enrichment, even rhyming or alliterative text (Dr.Seuss!) of ABC books offer a range of stimulating experience for the preschoolers.

Illustrations play a big role in ABC books, they cannot overwhelm or confuse the young reader, and must be easily recognizable and clearly laid out.

Ms. Trovato's Alphabet in Bloom is rather unique in that, it is a Wordless ABC book of sorts, that has no text showcasing the letters. Absolutely no letter on any page to indicate the abecedary. Instead, there are large cut-paper collages on every page with easily recognizable things around the garden, that start with the letter of the alphabet in question.

Back of the book has a list of things to find/identify in the wordless pages of the book: "What can you see from a to z?"

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book, but the opinions shared here are my own.]

[image source: Home Grown Books]

Thursday, December 08, 2016

El Deafo

This review is a guest post from Anupama Chandrasekaran. Anupama Chandrasekaran loves teaching, learning and working fewer hours. She has previously written for Indian and international news organisations from Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong and Chennai. This is her first review for Saffron Tree. A pleasure to add El Deafo to the disability-themed books of CROCUS 2016.

Book Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Published: 2014
Publisher: Abrams Books
Genres: Children's literature, Graphic novel, Autobiography
Awards: John Newbery Medal

Image Source: Google Books

“You won’t feel like putting it down, amma” said my precocious 9-year-old as I picked up El Deafo – a self-deprecating and poignant, autobiographical, children’s graphic-novel by hearing-impaired American author and illustrator Cece Bell (short for Cecelia Carolina Bell.)

As predicted by my in-house reviewer, I was riveted to 233-pager, guffawing, gasping and sighing as Bell’s tribulations unraveled. The 36-year-old Bell’s Newbery award winning story takes readers through the rough and tumble of middle-school friendships and the unforeseen superpowers of Bell’s hearing aid, making her conjure the name El Deafo – a phonic-eared superhuman -- for herself.

El Deafo’s azure book jacket with a rabbit-eared, humanoid caricature snagged my attention this autumn as I zig-zagged through the narrow aisles of Singapore’s Kinokuniya book store -- stocked floor-to-ceiling with fantasy, nature, anime, and you-name-it literature. I was looking for a funny yet soul-searching, non potty-humoured, children’s graphic novel that could zap the sight of my second-born being curled under yet another Captain Underpants comic book.

Bell, who long maintained a blog on her hearing-impaired experiences, was hugely inspired by fellow-American Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical comic book about a sixth grader titled, Smile.

The Virginia-based children’s book author and illustrator, who works out of a studio she calls ‘The Hermitage’, found speech balloons a precise fit to explain the aches and pains of her disability. In the 2014-published El Deafo she goes on to using it to its hilt.

There’s the instance where words from the speech balloons start fading as the battery of hearing aid goes low and then another point when her dialogue box is empty as she decides to switch off her hearing aid during a sleepover with an overly-chatty friend.

My 10-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son thoroughly appreciated this clever usage of word-balloons to illustrate the author’s hearing problem – an issue that had never crossed their mind. The plot of lost friendships, forging of new ones and the restringing of broken relationships, also struck a chord with them.

A few weeks ago, I bumped into a parent of a child who suffered from hearing loss. The mother agonised about a certain cacophonous classroom situation and how unsettling it was for her child. While I couldn’t completely comprehend what she meant then, I think I understand it slightly better now, after reading El Deafo. It’s a book that could be an eye opener for teachers and other caregivers.

Of course, as Bell herself admits, her book may merely be scratching the surface.

El Deafo may be about deafness, but it is “in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience....I am an expert on no one’s deafness but my own.”

This book could certainly be your first step to understanding these real-life superhumans.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Farewell CROCUS 2016

And we reach the end of our most thought-provoking CROCUS (Celebrating Reading Culturally Unique Stories) by far. 

Earlier this year, the ST team began with ‘disability’ as the theme but expanded it into various dimensions to be more inclusive. We decided to celebrate books on difference - physical/cognitive challenges, sexual orientation, adoption, divorce, abuse, suicide and more. 

Over the last four days, we brought you many books and an author interview. We tried to capture books across the age spectrum as always. Some of the book choices may seem controversial, disturbing, dark, too ‘adult’ even… but we need to encourage dialogue and discussion with our children.

Lavanya did a splendid job with the flyer and Sheela, our most consistent contributor, was instrumental in ensuring CROCUS goes live. Sandhya and Arundhati ably backed the endeavor and got us some gems. You may have missed some of our reviewers at CROCUS this year, but they have been ardent champions of the theme in the past and their reviews are captured in the round up post. We have stepped up our presence on Facebook and thank you fellow book lovers, for the shares.
Each one of us deserves a good life. Acceptance. Happiness. Opportunity. Hope. Health.

Let us read all kinds of books, with all sorts of characters, to and with our children.  We will keep sharing our finds so that we grow as a community. Keep visiting, keep reading, and keep sharing.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

A Round Up of Past Reviews with Inclusive Narratives

While we deep dive into the chosen theme each CROCUS, Saffron Tree reviewers have covered a number of books on the subject, over the years. We would like to summarise some of them, for you, here:

Giraffes can't dance, Chuskit goes to school and Little Vinayak are gentle ways to help young minds celebrate differences.

Margrit learns to cope with stares and questions in her own way in My feet are my wheel chair.

Helping Hand  Why are you afraid to hold my hand sensitively bring out how we can be compassionate and get over the discomfort / awkwardness that we may feel around those who are differently able.

In James Patterson's  I funny series  Jamie is just a regular kid with a great sense of humor. And he happens to be in a wheelchair and is an orphan. Peter Nimble is refreshing YA fiction about the adventures of Pete the blind thief.

Duckbill's Hole Books  have 'different' heros- a Vampire boy who dislikes blood and Timmi, who does not fit into the 'good  girl' mold and comes from an atypical family.

Rules is about growing up, acceptance and having a sibling with autism. The Reinvention of Edison Thomas is about a bright autistic boy who has to deal with a best friend turned bully and a rather low social life.

Emmanuel's Dream is an inspiring biographical tale of a boy who cycles cross country, a great achievement in itself and more so since he is lame.

Save me a seat speaks of APD in the context of a regular school story.

A blessing from above  and Elephants never forget subtly make a case for adoption for both the adopter and the adopted.

Jobless, Clueless, Reckless and Daddy come lately , in the YA genre, are more than a nod to the changing family structures we see now in India.

One Green Apple is among many other books on immigrants gingerly trying to fit in while holding on to some of their roots and Wanting Mor is about the conflicted world of an orphan who lives in post war Afghanistan.

Aging is intriguing to children Mr. Putter and his ilk  help the young ones understand seniors- grandparents and other grand ones.

We are all born free is a non fictional book which with the help of pictures helps children understand the need for acceptance and co-existence.

None of the Above

None of the Above
by I.W. Gregorio

[Note: Recommended for 18+ due to physically intimate situations; also included are biological and physiological information regarding reproductive anatomy and disorders of sexual development.]

A practicing surgeon by day and a YA writer by night, Ms. Gregorio is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books ™ dedicated to advocating changes to the publishing industry in order to help create and promote inclusive literature that honors the lives of all young people.

The book is about Kristin Lattimer, a high school senior voted homecoming queen, who finds out that she is Intersex in a rather painful and unexpected way: Krissy is a female, grows up to be a female, thinks and feels like a female, identifies as a female, is heterosexual, has external female characteristics, and yet, she has internal male reproductive organs, not the female uterus.

And, without her permission, this information is leaked to the school, which spins out of control. Her struggles in school, in life, to come to terms with this and to do what is surgically possible for "normalizing" makes up a good chunk of the book, with the associated drama and complications in relationships and friendships and heartbreaks.

Author Gregorio has done a brilliant job of explaining the medical and biological facts, while very gently yet firmly showing the emotional turmoil that people with AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) go through, and the adjustments they have to make in their lives to accommodate this constraint. At times, the kids sounds pedagogical with the medial information conveyed to the reader, but, their interactions and relationships are very much in tune with what is expected from teenagers overall.

It is impossible not to root for Kristin and jump in to defend her against the insensitive bullies. What was heartbreaking for me was when she is removed from the track team because there was an issue of her gender - she cannot compete in the girls' track events as she is not 100% a girl - after training hard and being the best, it was all I could do from crying out loud. And when she was teased about which bathroom she could use, I was just about ready to burst.

Through it all, she has a steadfast friend, and there is a sweet budding romance that comes from shared experience and a deeper understanding of herself.

Why are humans obsessed with highlighting the differences and excluding fellow humans on that count? Is there any hope for a gender-neutral society in our future? Why do humans feel the need to identify one gender as "superior" and thereby put down the others as inferior? Can embracing our differences be independent of establishing any sort of hierarchy based on it?

[image source:]


by Alex Gino

Some people are born into a body they don't identify with. George is a girl who is born in a boy's body. Throughout the book she refers to herself as "she", identifies as a girl, but is looked upon as a boy since she was born with the boy body parts.

When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. 

Cliched single mom and macho older brother fade into the background, but, George's best friend Kelly stays tight through and through. Kelly is fine with George identifying as a girl. When auditions for class presentation of Charlott'e Web is announced, George immediately wants to play Charlotte, the female spider, and not Wilbur, the male pig.

The books is a quick read, but the message will linger long after the last page is read and the book is put away.

Theater as a backdrop for this story is fitting as where else can George pretend to be who she really is.

When George's brother and mother finally realize and accept it, there is not much brouhaha over George's gender identity. George is who she is. Except, she wants to go by Melissa, that is her name, that is what she wants to be called.

The ending is perfect, where Kelly lets George/Melissa try on her girly clothes and they both go out into the world (to the Zoo with Kelly's uncle, to be precise) and for the first time George is comfortable with being true to herself.

[image source:]

What's Up With Jody Barton?

What's Up With Jody Barton?
Written by: Hayley Long
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books
Ages: YA

It is difficult to review this book without giving away the surprising plot twist waiting about midway through the book. So let me begin by saying that this book is about sexual identity and friendship. It also addresses the issue of high school bullying.

Jody and Jolene are sixteen year old twins, but unlike each other in every way. Jody is the quiet one, unashamed of liking math , hanging out with geeks and adoring The Doors and River Phoenix. Jolene is loud and self-centred, and  has raised flirting with boys to a fine art. They live above their parents’ diner and help out with cooking and service after school. When both of them fall for dashing Liam, Jody steps back – after all, who stands a chance against Jolene’s charms, right?  But then Liam starts hanging out with Jody, and Jody instinctively responds .. with disastrous consequences. Liam, in the time honored tradition of golden-haired boys in  teen lit, turns out to be a mean and small-minded bully , and soon Jody is victimized by pretty much everyone at school.

As narrator, and occasional illustrator, of this story, Jody had my attention at once.  Jody is smart, funny and knowing , as well as genially tolerant of what could well be the world’s ‘uncoolest’ parentsand a truly obnoxious sister. Hayley Long’s writing is fresh and funny, and her characters realistic. I enjoyed the way she slyly plays with reader perception, drawing us along what we immediately assume is a story about two sisters warring over a boy,  before dropping that plot twist on us. I found myself immediately drawn into Jody’s world and angst, and the dilemma of ‘coming out’ in a world unwilling to accept any behavior outside of set social norms.  Like much British fiction these days, this book has its share of mean, self centred girls, roving the town in loud, under-dressed packs, and obsessing over little besides boys and make up. In fact, that pretty much sums up every significant female character in the book, though Jolene does redeem herself a tad towards the end, when she finally stands up for Jody against Liam.  But it also gives us lovely characters like quiet math-head Chatty Chong, who sticks by Jody when no one else will, and Jody’s football-crazy Dad.  I also liked the believable, and decidedly unromantic path the plot took at the end – it emphasized the importance of friendship , acceptance and a child’s right to freely be him/herself without fear of social prejudice.

Image Courtesy: Macmillan

Talking of Muskaan

Talking of Muskaan
Image courtesy Duckbill 
By Himanjali Sankar
Duckbill Books

The blurb tells you that Muskaan tried to kill herself - a topic that many parents felt was not appropriate for teenagers a couple of years ago. Since then, we’ve all heard of precious young lives being lost. Here’s hoping suicide isn’t a taboo subject anymore. These are difficult conversations, but we do need to have them.

The book cuts to the chase, opening with the chilling sentence - “Muskaan hadn’t come to school.” Very effective.

The first chapter introduces the reader to the cast (Muskaan’s friends - Aaliya, Subhojoy, Rashika, Srinjini, Divya and Prateek) and raises perturbing questions - Why did Aaliya think she was responsible for Muskaan attempting suicide? What did Subhojoy know? - compelling you to read on.

Before it gets any bleaker, the author deftly manoeuvres a flashback - the next chapter, written in Aaliya’s voice is a hilarious waxing episode from five months ago. Aaliya’s wry sense of humour makes it impossible to remain morose. Again, there are the questions and clues that keep you reading - why is Muskaan so mutinous about doing anything typically girly?

The narrative progresses in Prateek’s voice who is rich, hot and seems like a spoilt brat. We get to know that he asked Muskaan out but got rejected outright.

The baton is then handed over to Subhojoy, who, in stark contrast to Prateek, lives in a one-room chawl and is extremely conscientious. He has to be; for him, the scholarship is everything.   

An excellent decision to tell the story through these three alternating voices - the narrative does not get monotonous, and it gets us into the heads of very different characters in terms of gender, backgrounds, motivations. It’s difficult to flit in and out of these distinct voices, but Himanjali Sankar does it admirably. Subhojoy in particular, with his earnestness and underdog status, will have readers rooting for him. Muskaan becomes close to Subhojoy, and through him we get to know what she is brooding over. Aaliya has an uncanny knack of reading people, and from her we get to know about all the others too. Not knowing Muskaan or Aaliya entirely gets the reader thinking; it's good to have questions one doesn't know the answers to, problems one can ponder over and in the process unravel some knotty issues of one's own.

The narrative proceeds at a comfortable pace. Once the homosexuality part comes out in the open, one sort of knows where the story is going, but being so invested in the characters, you can’t help but keep turning the pages. There are funny bits at just the right places, yet not once does the humour appear forced or self-conscious. Neither does the talk of sexuality sound out of place. Prateek’s relationship with Rashika and his troubles with the mysterious hacker, Subhojoy’s focus on academics and his interest in Rashika, Aaliya’s obsession with her dance performance and her insecurities about her own sexuality - the subplots keep the reader engaged.

Apart from heavy-duty stuff like class differences, homosexuality, suicide, the book reflects the everyday situations and anxieties today’s teens face. As a parent who has been dreading the adolescent years, and who has observed the current lot of teenagers from afar wondering which planet they’re from, it was reassuring to see that deep down they’re not very different from what we ourselves were as teens. 

The thoughtfully designed cover, chapter heads and the quotes at the beginning of each — all lovely touches. 

Valuable because it opens up conversations on poverty, sexuality and suicide in an imaginative way; exposes sheltered teens to different ways of living and gets readers to examine their own prejudices. The conversations with the parents are telling and will get adults to introspect too; Prateek gets his attitude from his parents, and Aaliya is influenced by hers. Don’t our children absorb our best and our worst?

Talking of Muskaan is on the Crossword Book Award shortlist.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions shared here are entirely mine.]

Hello Darkness

Hello Darkness
Written by: Anthony McGowan
Publisher: Walker Books
Ages: Young Adult

Anthony McGowan is the master of the unexpected  in YA fiction – his books are dark and disturbing, his protagonists often  unreliable, his plot arcs always surprising.   Hello Darkness  ticks every one of those boxes. It is also one of the few YA books in recent times to  talk  about mental health, as it looks at one troubled week in the life of a child struggling with a deteriorating grasp on reality.

In the Universe according to McGowan, high school is a nightmarish gulag, teeming with gangs and pubescent overlords fighting for control, autocratic teachers – there is even a Chinatown.  Out on the fringes of this underworld is Johnny Middleton, our protagonist and narrator who, in his own words, ‘has problems’. We are fleetingly told  that he has had some sort of nervous breakdown in school  a while ago, may have been institutionalised and needs to take medication of some kind on  a regular basis. Johnny is a social outcast, steering clear of the politics, cliques and daily intrigue of school. But then someone starts slaughtering the school pets and Johnny finds himself being blamed.  It doesn’t help that his parents have chosen that week to leave him on his own, expecting him to take his medication and stay out of trouble. But Johnny is fourteen – it is a given that he will do neither.

Fighting to prove his innocence before he is expelled, Johnny  finds himself caught in the war between the Deputy Head of the school and his henchmen ‘prefects’, and rival gangs, the Drama Queens and the Lardies.  As reality and fantasy converge in his tortured mind, Johnny struggles to join the dots between clues, find allies, prove his innocence and, most of all, stay sane.

Hello Darkness reads like a Noir novel from the ‘50s – you are never quite sure how much of it is real, and how much of it the product of our increasingly unreliable narrator's feverish imagination. Yet, even as we worry for  his crumbling hold on sanity,  Johnny makes for a believable, and likeable, Marlowe. His wry humour and incisive eye  reveal  an intelligence far beyond his years;  his deft negotiation of the shifting alliances  of the shadow world that is his school suggest a maturity that no one else seems to have noticed.  And most of all, you notice his compassion - for animals, for the talking cat that may or may not be real, for his baby sister.

Don't expect a satisfying ending - McGowan leaves you with just a hint of a happy ending, but no real clue as to what will happen to Johnny.  What he does give you, however, is a powerful examination of living with mental illness. 
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