Saturday, September 13, 2014

Vanamala and the Cephalopod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Image source:]

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

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Dog Who Wanted More: A Rulebreakers' Club Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source:

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

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

I am an artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little cloud and a handful of continents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Glass Sea

pic credit
The Green Glass Sea
Written by Ellen Klages
Published by Viking, Penguin group
Ages 12+

'The Hill' is a place not yet on the map, away in the middle of nowhere, where a bunch of brilliant scientists are working on a 'top secret' project for a gadget requisitioned by the US government. Nobody knows where it is. So when Dewey Kerrigan, a brilliant and bookish 11 year old extremely interested in the mechanics of how things work, has to make the journey there to join her father Jim Kerrigan, who is one of those brilliant scientists, a series of officials transport her there, no one person knowing exactly where her destination is. En route, she befriends Dick Feynman, who is also part of the team, and whom she strikes up a conversation with, over the intricacies of the radio she is putting together from junk.

When she finally reaches there, The Hill turns out to be a bleak place overrun with the army guarding everything. Of course, the scientists are all there with their families, and there is a school for their children, where Dewey is enrolled. She soon realizes that she is the only nerdy girl around, and one of the two children who has no one to hang out with. The other one being Susan, 'Suze the Truck', who has gained somewhat of a reputation for being pushy, who has an air of bravado, but who secretly wishes she could be friends with somebody. Her wish soon comes true, but not in the way she wants.

Dewey's father Jim has to go away to Washington DC for something important, and the motherless girl is taken in by Susan's parents, the Gordons, both scientists at The Hill. What happens next? Do Susan and Dewey manage to bury their differences and come to a truce, even a friendship? What are all the scientists working on that is so top secret? What is the gadget? Why is Suze's mother who is working on the gadget so worried about it being all wrong? What is that worries Jim Kerrigan, about the US collaborating with scientists from Nazi Germany? What were the rumours about the very air igniting if the gadget was tested, and what, exactly, was the 'test' that is done in the middle of the desert on the 16th of July, 1945, the bright light illuminating the night sky, that they all view in the middle of the night from a safe distance? And what is the green glass sea?

Set against the backdrop of WW2 and the Manhattan Project, this is the story of the making of the atomic bomb from the point of view of the children of the scientists working on it. Real people like Richard Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer feature along with the fictional Gordons and Jim Kerrigan. The book spans the time from early 1943 and ends on the day the first bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Though there is no talk of the actual destruction caused, the book still chills because of the knowledge we have about the bomb, and is one of the best children's books on the subject, and winner of the Scott O'Dell Award. There is also a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, that is worth picking up.

Today, 6th August is the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Japan.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Farmer Falgu & an Interview with author, Chitra Soundar

Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip is an amusing treatise featuring a silence-seeking farmer. As Falgu sets off on his bullock cart, to free himself from the clamor his farm animals make, he meets a string of musically-inclined people - an old man who sings, a snake-charmer who can play the pungi, and a dance troupe, all of whom show him the many joys music and sounds can bring. This in turn leads to some solid introspection,which eventually steers the story to a happy ending.

The effortlessly woven-in onomatopoeic words are the real stars of the book. Crystal-clear writing by author Chitra Soundar is a breath of fresh air. Kanika Nair's vivid and vibrant illustrations capturing rural flavors and colors are an absolute pleasure to behold.

While farm-themed picture books are a fairly new concept in contemporary picture books from India, the story's unusual plot of silence and music was enough to pique my curiosity. Rhythm and music have always been the forte of Karadi Tales. Farmer Falgu with its rhythmic narration is sure to charm its way into the minds of little readers, who no doubt will demand more of Falgu and his simple, every-day adventures. We can't wait indeed.

And that's not all. I decided to ask Chitra Soundar a quick set of questions on what inspired Farmer Falgu. It's always a pleasure to have authors talk about their creations. That's what excites us most whenever we choose to review a free copy from the publisher.

Thank you Chitra for your enthusiastic responses. It's great to have you on Saffron Tree!

1) What was the inspiration behind the rhythmically narrated Farmer Falgu story?

I had two thoughts in my mind - Noise is not all that bad and the world is never quiet. The first thought came from my own relationship with sound – I craved silence as much as I enjoyed company. But my silence was never silent – I was either listening to music or reading a book by a train track.

The second thought was my observation of nature in the middle of a big farm in Pennsylvania – the night was never quiet, even in the coldest of winters.

When these two thoughts collided, Farmer Falgu came uninvited.

2)You have written a couple of books for Tulika. Farmer Falgu is your first one with Karadi. Is it going to be part of a series?

Yes, Farmer Falgu is going to be a 4-part series.

In each of the books, Farmer Falgu is going somewhere and in each of his trips, you can see his unflagging spirit and resourcefulness.

3)Tell us something about your childhood. Were you boisterous and noisy, or the quiet one who’d run away from all kinds of din, like Farmer Falgu?

I was a certified bookworm. I read everything with printed words on it. I found corners and crevices to hide and read in. I loved it when others were making noise – but preferred not to join in. I think I’m still that girl – I prefer to watch than join in – although Farmer Falgu has given me the courage to jump around and make noise in front of toddlers and young people.

4)When and how did you realize children’s writing was what you wanted to do?

When I was growing up, I was the family babysitter. We all used to gather at my grandpa’s big house during the holidays and I used to keep the younger ones occupied with made-up stories.

I moved to Singapore in 1999 and couple of years later, when I wanted to write books, instead of just diaries and journals, my sister suggested I should write down the stories I used to tell them.

One thing led to another and there I was writing stories for young people. I wrote business articles for newspapers and such for a year – but didn’t enjoy it as much as I did writing my own stories.

I rediscover my own childhood when I write for children. It is like picking up a seashell on the Marina Beach and imagining a story about the people under the sea. Only kids can do that. Adults kick it back into the waves. I still pick up sea-shells and smooth pebbles and keep them in my muse-box. And I hope the world will continue to fascinate me as much as it did when I was a child.

5) What are your favorite books from your childhood? Any current favorites in picture books that left you in awe?

Too many to list. But some made an impact. The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton was my big favourite for a long time. The tree became my refuge from real-life. When I made up stories, I created little people up a big tree too.

I loved Ruskin Bond and R K Narayan. Malgudi Days was one of my favourites, both in print and on television.

Other than books, I read a shed full of comics – Amar Chitra Katha in particular, Tintin, Asterix and magazines like Tinkle and Target. I had a lending library membership 10 miles away from home and my mum used to take me there every week to bring back volumes of comics.

I loved mysteries even as a child and read every Famous Five, Secret Seven, Nancy Drew ever written.

Some of my current favourites are
The Growing Story by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by the wonderful Helen Oxenbury
The Cloud Spinner by Michael Catchpool
How do Dinosaurs say Good-Night by Jane Yolen
Gruffalo and all other books by Julia Donaldson

6)What are your upcoming projects?

I’m working with Karadi Tales on the Farmer Falgu series, which is just about complete. We are also working on another project together.
Apart from these, I’m also working on a picture book and a chapter book. The picture book is about how bedtime stories were born and the chapter book is for 7+ ages about Aurora Watts, a junior inventor who loves chips (crisps in the UK).

Couple of stories, which are in their early stages with UK publishers, will hopefully become real projects soon.

Thank you to Saffron Tree and Prabha Ram for introducing me and Farmer Falgu to your audience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Conversation Between God and Man

Title : Conversation Between God and Man
Author : G.Venkataraman
Publisher : Media Division, Sri Sathya Sai Sadhana Trust

There comes a time when strongest of the strong anchors give way, leaving the yet inexperienced boats and ships that are tethered to it, bobbing in the open waters. The sheltered life comes to a halt abruptly and the unsettled boats are thrown exposed to the meddling of winds and waves. Human life is no different and one inevitably finds oneself in a situation where the most trusted of the relationships reveal their transient nature. That is the situation when one is left confounded and robbed off - of enthusiasm and even the will to move forward. What for? Why? How? - questions pose a big threat to the natural flow of life on those junctures. One gets acquainted with the feelings which know no language or expression. An amateur human mind may interpret it as insatiable hunger, unquenchable thirst, inadequate sleep, untreatable pain or irreparable broken pieces of heart. But it is far beyond that, it is an absolute vacuum, a bottomless abyss and deep dark tunnel with no light in sight. Where does one go? How does one progress? Even if one starts moving, is it progressing or retrogressing? Who will hold the hand at that time?

While being in that abysmal state for a few months, I often wondered, how a human could equip him/herself to maintain sanity and equanimity during such phases. And as  a parent what can we do to help our children tide over such situations as and when they happen to confront them. After searching unsuccessfully for answers everywhere, one realises that perhaps there's only one way to seek the peaceful state - embarking on the journey towards one's inner self - where the seat of the soul actually is. It may be termed as almighty, omnipresent, all pervasive or by any name that one feels comfortable with. The connect with the supreme authority or one's own true self can be the only permanent anchor and support.

When we so painstakingly pick the best schools, hobby classes, books, besides the regular things of basic needs for our children, shouldn't we be conscious of the fact that they would need a big store of their inner strength as well for all crests and troughs in their lives. Contrarily, who are we to teach them because the spiritual age of an individual may not have any connection with the worldly years that one keeps piling on. Nevertheless, we can do our bit by encouraging them to read in order to build that store house.

'Conversation Between God and Man' is one of those books which can/should be read along with children or to them starting from the primary section itself. It is a simplified version of the conversation that happened between Lord Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra - the essence of Bhagvat Gita. After seeing his family and friends in the rival camp, Arjuna lost all interest to fight the battle and the feeling of futility of the whole bloodshed overpowered him. He was ready to accept defeat over triumph because the victory would come by killing his own kith and kin. Lord Krishna then taught him the mystery of reincarnation and the philosophy behind being a true action-oriented (Karma yogi) person. A karma yogi is the person who can stay in the moment without letting the past or future interfere and that is how one can hope to dedicate oneself to that moment entirely. Reincarnation which is often compared to change of clothes by the soul reinforces the cause and effect theory - as one sows so one reaps. As a soul continues its journey from one life to another, it learns, it enriches and purifies itself to eventually merge with the supreme power.

Dedicated chapters on happiness, conscience, awareness, rebirth, surrender to God and purpose of life convey the timeless teachings of Bhagvat Gita - the voice of Lord Krishna. The connection that it establishes between mind, soul and body brings a lot of clarity and peace. Special emphasis is laid on the importance of one's duty and submission of all that one does to the supreme authority.

'The Gita is not, as is commonly imagined, merely about Krishna giving advice to Arjuna to shed his doubts and get on with the fight. Nor is it specific to any particular religion or school of Spiritual philosophy, as many seem to believe. Rather, it is all about a LIFE BOAT, which, if availed of, can save individuals, entire communities and indeed the whole of humanity, from being drowned by the innumerable difficulties that plague today's society at the macro as well as the micro level.'

I am sure there is sufficient reading material available in all sects and religions and comparing them or picking one over others is not the objective here. The aim is to study enough and to understand enough in order to enjoy the peaceful blissful state - which is the true nature of an individual. I would like to pick many books written by enlightened souls across various religions to read myself and to read to the children so as to see which path makes the understanding easier and lays long lasting impression on the minds.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Wanting Mor

 Wanting Mor
Author: Rukhsana Khan
Duckbill Books
Ages: Young Adult

Characters of colour remain  under-represented in mainstream  literature; Muslim characters, even more so. To the outside world, the closed culture of Islamic societies remains an enigma - often misunderstood, too easily stereotyped.  Pakistani-Canadian author Rukhsana Khan is one of the few writers of YA fiction today writing about ordinary Muslims and their everyday problems, demystifying that enigma for us, one book at a time. Through her novels, and picture books as diverse as Big Red Lollipop, King of the Skies and the haunting The Roses in my Carpets, she has led thousands of young  readers into the lives of Muslim children, showing them the many ways we are all different, and yet, the same.

Wanting Mor, first published in 2009, won the Middle East Book Award for Youth Fiction, and is now available in an Indian imprint as part of Duckbill’s Not Our War series. It is one child’s account of struggling to survive harsh circumstances in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It  also voices complex sentiments  the’ free world’ has traditionally had trouble understanding  – those of a devout Muslim  resentful of so-called ‘American’ values  (and the gender equality that goes with them) while willingly submitting to  what seems like acute discrimination, in the culture of her choice.    The book is all the more poignant for being based on the true story of a girl living in an orphanage the author is associated with.  
Jameela is an illiterate girl in rural post-war Afghanistan , whose life falls apart after the death of her beloved Mor (Pushto for ‘mother’).  She is then uprooted from the only home she has ever known and forced to follow her father to Kabul where he hopes to better his prospects. Things go even further downhill for her when he spends all their money on alcohol , and then rushes into a marriage with a well to do widow who treats her like a slave.  Jameela toils in the house, endures hunger and humiliation, and struggles to please her stepmother. For her pains, she is abandoned in the marketplace by her own father.  The kindness of strangers saves her, however, and Jameela eventually reaches an orphanage for girls where she finds refuge, companionship and an education.  More significantly, a simple operation for her cleft palate finally frees her from having to hide her face from the world.  But just as she contemplates building a life for herself, circumstances bring her father back into her life. Will Jameela have the courage to live her dreams?

The narrative style of the book (told in first person and the present tense, a device the author seems partial to) lends a touching immediacy to the story, and makes you feel the pain and loneliness  Jameela suffers. The memory of Mor and the values she has instilled in Jameela, remain the mainstay of the child’s life. Mor's homily - If you can’t be beautiful, you should at least be good. People will appreciate that.- becomes the child's anthem, and it is heart breaking to see her throw her energies into housework, struggle not to give in to her anger, and cling to the rituals of prayer in the face of ever-increasing hardship.

Jameela could so easily have been written as a saintly do-gooder. It is to author Khan’s credit, that she lets her heroine be flawed and prickly, brimming with resentment one minute, grudgingly  grateful  the next, and  always struggling with herself to be more like Mor.  She burns with jealousy when her friend Soraya marries her step brother Masood, one of the few positive male characters in the book. Though she has herself been abandoned, Jameela finds it hard to empathize with children like Arwa, a clingy younger inmate of the orphanage. She is less than enamored of the American goodwill that she encounters at the orphanage, and distrustful of Christian missionaries. And while she is her own harshest critic, I couldn’t help but feel that she is far more judgmental of women than she is of men – the orphanage director who seems shamelessly forward with American men, girls who are careless with the rituals of prayer or their conduct outdoors, domineering women like her stepmother and Agha Akram’s wife who mange to manipulate their respective husbands into abandoning her.  Despite her strained relationship with her father and his betrayal of her, she never stops yearning for his return – until, of course, he does, and brings her to the biggest decision of her young life.

The book’s stance on gender equality is likely to furrow a few brows, leaning as it does towards the conservative. The male characters in the book feel oddly undeveloped; all three (Jameela’s father, her stepbrother, the kindly Agha Akram who rescues her in the market) are written as weak, well meaning men who are controlled by their wives. Now all three have suffered the trauma of war, and Jameela’s father has clearly taken Mor’s death hard. Yet they are never given a chance to tell their story. “Men are supposed to be the caretakers of women, Jameela chillingly declares, ’ not the other way round.” 

Jameela’s epiphany comes to her cloaked in betrayal and disappointment. She learns, the hard way, that she will have to fend for herself and make her own fate.  She decides to embrace Mor’s homily, dedicating herself to a lifetime of service. For centuries now, girls across cultures have been conditioned into believing they can only be defined by physical beauty and/ or a selfless devotion to service, with no entitlement to the liberties boys are encouraged to take for granted. This conditioning is the very reason Jameela had remained illiterate, ashamed of her face and bound to the hearth, lacking even the sense to get the medical help that might have saved Mor.  While I loved that she takes charge of her own life, I do wish she could have at least questioned the codes of conduct she chooses to bind herself in.  But that is still a minor gripe - this is a book that had me hooked from page one, and is definitely on my re-read list for its compelling story and memorable heroine.

 Image courtesy: Duckbill Books 

I received a copy of this book from Duckbill for review purposes; the views expressed in this post, however, are entirely my own. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Trout, Trout, Trout!: A Fish Chant

Trout, Trout, Trout!: A Fish Chant 
Ant, Ant, Ant!: An Insect Chant
by April Pulley Sayre
illustrated by Trip Park

Bird, Bird, Bird!: A Chirping Chant
by April Pulley Sayre
illustrated by Gary Locke

April Pulley Sayre is the author of many popular non-fiction animal picture books. Some of her books we liked are shared in the Non-fiction Animal Picture Books post. Her commitment to accuracy of facts and her talent with lyrical text makes many of her books popular with the kids, especially for read-aloud sessions.

What's not to love about American freshwater fish? Being in trout and salmon country here in the pacific northwest, the younger kid has been learning about fish and other sea creatures as and when they catch his fancy.

As the title says, it is a fish chant. The rhythm sets the pace, making it addictive after the second read.

Threespine Stickleback.
Freshwater Drum.
Lake Chub. Creek Chub.
Chum, chum, chum!

Sockeye salmon. Arctic Char.
Mooneye, Walleye,
Gar, gar, gar!

The book is filled with freshwater fish names some of which are quite silly - makes one wonder how they got their names. The illustrations capture this silliness of the names while not straying far from what the fish really look like. There is a certain wild humor woven into the pictures that my kids easily picked up on and enjoyed heartily.

At a certain level, it is possible to dismiss it as just a gimmick of listing names of fish in some enchanting order, but at another level, it is pretty clever and multi-layered for learning and read-aloud fun.

What's the point of a good formula, if there aren't more along the same lines, right? So, we came upon Ant, Ant, Ant!: An Insect Chant. Unlike some sequels that disappoint, this one is a winner again, at least with the 6 yo.

Employing a similar catchy rhythm, Ant, Ant, Ant! lists various insects,some of which I had never heard of until now. And by the third read, we get curious and start researching these new insects.

Billbug, bed bug,
bark beetle, bee
Painted lady butterfly,
flea, flea, flea!

Cockroach, Earwig.
Like them? Can't!
Firefly, Flower Fly,
Ant, Ant, Ant!

Again, Trip Park has cleverly integrated some subtle humor that kids pick up on. For example, one of the pictures shows an insect reading Trout, Trout, Trout! and a Perch leaps out of the water to make a cameo. Enough to make the resident 6 yo squeal with delight at the discovery.

While Bird, Bird, Bird! is not illustrated by Trip Park as with the other two books, it still has the same lilt and charm and eye-catching popping-out-of-the-book caricature-ish appeal.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,
picture that!
Chachalaca, Chickadee,
Chat, Chat, Chat!

Kingbird, Kingfisher,
Kinglet, Kite,
Frigatebird, my word,
what a sight!

While most of the birds were familiar to us, there were quite a handful that we enjoyed learning about.

The only thing that the 6 yo objected to: The inconsistency in title of the 3rd book! While the first one is "Trout! Trout! Trout!" - a particular fish, and the second one is "Ant! Ant! Ant!" - a particular insect, the 3rd book should have been "Chat! Chat! Chat! A Chirping Chant" --OR-- Keep the 3rd the same, and the first should have been "Fish! Fish! Fish! A Bubbling Chant" and the second should have been "Insect! Insect! Insect! A Buzzing Chant" to be in alignment with "Bird! Bird! Bird! A Chirping Chant".

[Teacher's guide for Trout, Trout, Trout!]
[image source: April Pulley Sayre website]

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Curious Sameer series

Written by Nandini Nayar
 Illustrated by Francesco Manetti
 Karadi Tales
 Ages 3 to 6

I’ve always enjoyed Nandini Nayar’s picture books - spare text, minimal characters, and always some simple prop or idea that sends those characters  (and us readers)  off on imaginative journeys.  The Curious Sameer books , a series starring a little boy and his wise mother, follow much the same trajectory. 

What Will I be? begins with our little hero and his Amma  playing hide and seek. Petulant at being found almost at once, Sameer declares he will run away, become a train driver and travel somewhere his mother will never  find him. But I will, she assures him, and explains how.  Then I will be a pilot, says Sameer, and  never be found among the clouds. Think again, says Amma,  and explains how she will track him down . Again and again , Sameer  thinks of something new to be, that will take him far away from her.  And again and again, Amma cleverly proves she will still know where he is -  until an unexpected twist  that has our little hero reconsider his lofty  plans. The book  charmingly explores the world through Sameer’s eyes, as he flits from puffy clouds to  candy mountains to subterranean mines.   As a parent,  I couldn’t help chuckling at Sameer’s increasingly ambitious plans to prove his independence, only to be gently reeled in by his Amma  every single time.  

What  Could it Be  is all about the power of creativity. The book has Sameer trying to solve a mystery – what lies inside the blue package waiting  for him when he gets home from school? Amma knows, of course, but  keeps Sameer guessing, only willing to tell him what the gift isn’t. Is it a doll, he asks, which will be my friend? A friend, yes, says Amma, but not a doll. A kite, perhaps, asks Sameer, that will make me soar high? You will soar high, says Amma, but it is no kite.  What follows is a wild flight of fancy, much like What Will I be?, as Sameer  imagines what the gift could be, while Amma’s answers  gets increasingly more profound and mysterious.  I especially enjoyed the pacing of the book – it builds up  the suspense neatly, has us pause with Sameer as we consider all of  Amma’s cryptic clues, before presenting us with the answer in a colourful flourish.

Francesco Manetti’s art captures  the charm of Nandini Nayar’s little stories – his illustrations are playful, beautifully textured and  bring Sameer’s imaginary worlds  to life . Each colourful spread is a delight to  the eye, full of interesting details and humorous depictions of Amma’s relentless pursuit of little Sameer.  Cities of blocks with wavy clothes lines,  faraway moon colonies,   candy mountain peaks – and my favourite image, Amma flying towards mountaineer Sameer on a folded newspaper  ‘plane!   My one regret is that Sameer didn’t consider a career as a deep sea diver – I would have loved to see Fransesco’s  depiction of his underwater capers!

An electronic version of this book was sent to me by the publisher for review; all views expressed, however, are my own.
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