Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Nayanika Mahtani, after being an investment banker, has been following the right side of her brain and is a copywriter by day and a storyteller by night.

She has just penned Ambushed , published by Puffin. An adventure story set in tiger territory in the Himalayan foothills, it is meant for the 9+ reader. The foreword is written by Valmik Thapar, who suggests this book should be part of school reading.

All royalties go to Tiger Watch, an NGO in Rajasthan, for a school set up for the children of tribal (ex) poachers, to give them a window to alternate livelihood.

Let us begin with the title of the book- 'Ambushed'- a great pun given the spotlight on tigers and the storyline of the book. Tell us more!

This wasn’t actually the original title of the book, but we needed to change the earlier one as it was similar to a title that had just been launched. The credit for choosing this out of all the options I gave, goes to the Puffin team!  The title ‘Ambushed’ held the thrill of not knowing what’s lurking around the corner. City-bred gadget geek Tara is ambushed when her Dad springs the surprise of going on a tiger tracking vacation in the Himalayan forests, and maybe even moving there for good! Tara’s socialite mother orchestrates her own ambush when she springs her surprise(s), sometimes unknowingly! A group of tigers is also called an ‘ambush’; and it also of course refers to the technique used by the tiger to catch its prey. Satya, the 13 year old son of a poacher, who has tracked tigers all his life, is a master at this craft. And without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say that there are several ambushes quietly waiting to happen as we go!

The mother is a bit too flaky/pretentious to begin with. Is she based on someone you know? (No names needed of course!!)

Hmmm…maybe not one person in particular, but I have definitely encountered the likes of Sushma “Call me Sue” Tripathi! In fact, though she may be an over-the-top specimen, I think she reflects so many of us who choose our experiences based on how impressive they will appear, on say Facebook, to our peer group.  And this holds true even in the context of some of the bigger life choices we make. Which is why Sushma is aghast when her banker husband wants to quit the City to go and live in a forest. For Sue Tripathi, life is a race -with no forests near the finish line!

You have drawn from conservationists for the book but did you meet any ex-poachers as part of the research for the book? How was the experience?

In all the school sessions that Puffin arranged, I told the kids that it was a poacher (and a tiger) who compelled me to write this book. And it was true! The seed for this story came from an article in the National Geographic that had the photograph of a jailed tribal (Moghiya) poacher and a tiger – and that image just wouldn’t leave my head. To me, they both – the tiger and the tribal poacher- were hopelessly trapped. I started researching Moghiya poachers. To start with, most of my research happened online. I spent days reading about the history of the Moghiyas – and how they retreated into the forests when Emperor Akbar besieged Ranthambhore. Today, they are the world’s best tiger trackers – employed (for a pittance) to kill tigers by an international illegal wildlife trade mafia.  They remain a marginalised tribe with no other means of livelihood.

Last April, I met with ex-poachers’ families at Dhonk, a craft collective run by Divya Khandal, to offer alternate employment opportunities to Moghiyas. It was an incredibly moving experience, to say the least– and the hope in those eyes will stay with me forever.

The unlikely friendship and collaboration between kids from completely different backgrounds- do we as parents let it happen in real life?

Not easily, in most cases! In today’s world, I find that not only our kids, but even we as adults, end up interacting with those who have such similar backgrounds, education and outlooks, that, in my view, it saps creativity, originality and makes for very dull conversation!
As a family, we have lived in India, Africa and now in the UK and our daughters have interacted with children from completely diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and been the richer for it, I think.

The tribal boy in the book (Satya), is based on a little boy called Satto-who is the son of the lady who used to come to clean our house. Despite our best efforts, he refused to go to school. So I started seating him along my (then pre-school) children and keeping them occupied, while his mother did her work.

Satto never ceased to amaze me! He had spent his early years in the village where his grandfather was a carpenter – and could whittle a block of wood into almost any shape you named, whistling nonchalantly. He found the lot of us pretty unimpressive I’m sure, but the one thing that earned his unadulterated awe was the computer. He would watch it entranced by the unlimited possibilities it held!

How did the association with Tiger Watch come about?

The person who heads up Tiger Watch is a reluctant tiger hero, a conservation biologist called Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, who has dedicated his life to the cause of the tiger. (His equally committed wife Divya runs Dhonk – as I mentioned earlier). It was his interview in the National Geographic -that I mentioned earlier -that set me off on this journey.

After I finished writing the first draft of the book, I felt I just had to visit a tiger reserve to experience first-hand what Tara feels on seeing a wild tiger. I had been to several tiger reserves over the years, but had only seen tiger tracks and tails, never a tiger.

Over the Easter holidays last year, our family headed to Ranthambhore.

We saw not one but 8 wild tigers in 3 days – including a tigress who had very recently given birth to 3 cubs (who have found their way into the book too!) It was as if the tigers had allowed me into their world. And I felt I had to honour that. And the only (small) way I knew was by donating my book’s royalties to the school Tiger Watch had set up for ex-poachers’ kids, to give them a window to alternate livelihoods.

What next from your pen/ keyboard?

Am currently finishing work on a film script in a completely different genre. And on the book front, there are a dozen different crazy ideas jostling for space in my head. I’ll wait for one of them to nudge out the rest and refuse to budge and then take it from there, hopefully!

What are your favourite books on the theme of conservation/ animal rights for kids?

Some that have touched my heart include Born to Run, Running Wild (in fact so many others as well by Morpurgo), Watership Down, Black Beauty and Charlotte’s Web.
As Strawberry, the rabbit in Watership Down, says:
“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”

That, for me, says it all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Architecture According to Pigeons

Yes you read that right! Pigeons indeed!

Think about it. Pigeons are everywhere. They don't soar high up in the skies like hawks and eagles, and are not earth-bound either. In fact they are built to fly just high enough to be able to land on most man-made buildings and perch up there. So why not view some famous works of architecture through their eyes?

Our winged narrator from London, Mr Speck Lee Tailfeather, starts by introducing himself and tells us the story of symbiosis of our two species, albeit not always a pleasant one. He says he wants to set the record right - they are not necessarily pests, and would like to take us on a journey to nineteen structures from a bird's POV. A bird's eye view, in other words.

Mr Tailfeather heads south to Canterbury Cathedral, a towering structure first built in the 6th century, and the seat of the Church of England ever since. He talks about why a cathedral is built the way it is, the history of this particular place of worship and also a snapshot of 21st century life around the place.

He then flies straight over the Channel to Eiffel Tower. The Parisian skyline fascinates him and he talks about the city's past and present, smoothly weaving in the story of Gustav Eiffel's masterpiece. He also visits the Pompidou Centre which is an 'inside-out' building - all the staircases, plumbing, service conduits are outside the building!

After stopping to admire a medieval church in Eastern France, he heads to Barcelona. And you guessed it, he stops atop La Sagrada Familia! Having recently been there, I can completely relate to the awe this work-in-progress evokes from our speckled friend.

On to Venice and to the many wonderful architectural gems this watery warren offers, like San Giorgio Maggiore. My own memories of this place are centred around a beautiful old church near the Grande Canal, where we were lucky enough to attend a concert by a string quartet. Never has Vivaldi's Four Seasons been played in a more appropriate setting!

Mr.T now heads to Rome. How can you go to Italy and not go to this absolutely stunning city?! In my opinion, the entire place is a museum. Every street has something fascinating to gawk at. Our friend tells us about the Colosseum and its gory past.

He now takes a break from all that flying and decides to take a lesson on bridges. Various types, with examples. The civil engineer in me wishes we had this book back in the B.Tech. days. Bet Prof Kalyanaraman would have completely fallen in love with it!

The next leg of our journey takes us to the 'mysterious mathematical miracle a.k.a The Great Pyramid of Giza', and to the Sphinx.

On to India, because how can you ignore that 'tear on the cheek of time' as Tagore described it, when you are talking about architectural marvels?! It is the one man-made structure that you can describe as 'beautiful', so perfect are the proportions of its different parts. Tailfeather's reaction is exactly the same as countless visitors to the Taj - whether it is visiting heads of state or the common tourist - of open-mouthed wonder.

We then head north to the Great Wall of China, and then to Japan to rather quirky church - one I'd never heard of, the Church of Light. Simple concept but so brilliant!

Further east to the Sydney Opera House or the 'Hungry Beaks Hall' as Tailfeather calls it. Here too I read facts about this structure that I did not know of. Often the back-stories of places make it even more interesting!

Over and across the Pacific, and you land on the Americas. First stop Brazil. Next a lesson about the various skyscrapers that the continent is famous for, and a comparison with others from around the world. Then to the unusual 'Fallingwater' in Pittsburg, the Chrysler building in New York and finally the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA.

Having covered the entire globe, Tailfeather bids us farewell with a parting gift - a few more pages of facts about the buildings we have covered. These pages are like a synopsis of sorts and make it a complete book.

The author Stella "Pigeon Whisperer" Gurney's narrative is friendly and is bound to evoke chuckles and guffaws, and at the same time it is packed with facts. The illustrations by Natsko Seki are a clever juxtaposition of photographs and watercolours and CAD drawings, with cartoons and speech bubbles. This quirky book will make a wonderful gift to anyone - child or adult.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Grandfather Gandhi

Grandfather Gandhi

by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus
illustrated by Evan Turk
published by Simon and Schuster

Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, gave a talk that Bethany Hegedus attended, just after she was trying to find her bearings post-9/11. She was immediately inspired by the stories, one in particular about channeling anger; she wanted to bring it to the kids. So, she wrote to Arun Gandhi and thus the literary collaboration was born to bring us this amazing book that offers multiple layers and lessons.

And, Evan Turk was only 12 years old when the collaboration began. By the time the book was acquired for publication about a decade later, Turk had fortuitously graduated from the Parsons School of Design in NYC and presented the winning sample that completed the book's visual presentation.

The story is set in Gandhiji's Sevagram where 12-year old Arun arrives for a visit. He is nervous about his much-revered grandfather and resents that the life there is without electricity or plumbing, and that the food is just bland boiled pumpkin. But most of all, he resents that he has to share his grandfather with so many people who always surround him.

When playing a soccer match with the local kids at the Sevagram, Arun is shoved by an older boy, making him miss the goal. An infuriated Arun picks up a rock with full intention of using it, to return the hurt that the older boy had inflicted, inadvertently or not. Arun imagines the puzzled stares of his fellow players wondering how, being Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, he could get so angry. This is the turning point in the story that leaves us with a lasting lesson.

When Arun finally gets to talk to Mahatma about this incident, full of guilt and shame, Gandhiji surprises him by saying that he gets angry too, and that anger is like electricity. "Anger can strike, like lightning, and split a living tree in two. Or it can be channeled, transformed. A switch can be flipped and it can shed light like a lamp." Arun is amazed at the realization that when his grandfather gets angry, he doesn't lash out but works to make lasting changes. "...anger can illuminate. It can turn darkness into light."

The illustrations are full of emotion, bold, raw, and complex, brilliantly complementing the story and bringing symbolic imagery. The mixed media collage uses fabric for clothing Gandhiji and Arun in the pictures- clean, white and simple; the communal eating scene has shiny foil for pitchers and plates and utensils; Arun's anger when he picks up the rock comes across as a tangled mass of yarn in black, almost living, vicious. The page showing a fluffy strand of fiber being spun into yarn in a charka, with threads everywhere and other people laying down, with the charka spokes making them look like the Vitruvian man projects a harmonious movement and cooperation.

Both the seven and ten year old really liked this book and its message. "Why did Arun pick up that rock?" is a question they kept asking, not wanting to believe Arun was capable of hitting someone with it. "Why did they not have electricity? Why did they eat only pumpkin mush? Why did his dad have to clean everybody's toilet?" While they did not grow up with a reverence and affection for the Mahatma like I did, they have heard enough stories about him from me regarding Indian Independence Movement that they were happy to see the softer, familial side of this person who is larger-than-life even today.

[image source:]

The Fourteenth Goldfish

Title : The Fourteenth Goldfish
Author : Jennifer L. Holm
Age Group : 8 to 12

We all identify with some form of inertia of change, quite often in our lives. The comfort that familiarity of things extends, is incomparable and sometimes it takes a lot to step out of the cocoon of the comfort zone. Eleven year old, Ellie is experiencing just the same inertia when her life in middle school is turning out to be nothing less than overwhelming. She misses everything about her fifth grade from her best friend Brianna to her dear goldfish.

One fine day a strange teenage boy shows up in the house along with her mom. He is quite bizarre and authoritarian but strangely resembles her maternal grandpa Melvin, who is a scientist. Has grandpa Melvin actually found the secret to mortality? One can imagine how the narrative would progress when a septuagenarian mind resides in a teenage body. He needs to be driven to places, he needs to attend the middle school along with Ellie, but he also wants to pursue his research to make his scientific community recognise his discovery - worthy of at least a Nobel prize. But the problems are aplenty. His lab is no longer accessible to him and the lab's security guard will not allow any weird looking teenager near the premises. How will he get his sample from the lab refrigerator? He created this sample from T.melvinus, a unique species of jellyfish.

The author Jennifer Holm has tried to work on various different themes through the narrative. The treatment has been light but some very relevant topics and issues are being discussed in the story - eternal desire to remain at the peak of one's life, harmonious separation between parents, single parent homes, changing equations among friends and friendships, identifying one's passion, school issues and so on.

Ellie the protagonist is sketched as a believable character who seems to have adjusted well to her parents' amicably parted ways. While going through accelerated pace of changes in her own life post elementary school and understanding reverse changes in her grandpa; she gets introduced to her own natural passion for science. She starts enjoying the opening up of the whole new world to herself when she experiences science pervading every mundane stuff and activity.

The highlight of the book is how Ellie progresses from being resistant to change to accepting the same graciously and finding it rather interesting. Being a sensible and sensitive girl, she realises how even her mother needs to move on from past experience and to open up doors to what new the life has to offer. She beautifully manages to convey to her grandpa the futility of his discovery, of holding on to one stage of life. Subtle mention of (im)mortality, life and death, fear of ageing - make the narrative quite rich at various levels, but all these are dealt with in such an unassuming manner that one tends to fall in love with how it is done. New body, old mind in one character of Melvin makes for a hilarious and interesting read -  he fumes on the late return of Ellie's mother, spends extra time in bathroom, wears ponytail holders borrowed from his granddaughter, looks for acne cream in the bathroom, doesn't have to any old-age issues with his sight and teeth and so on. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold

by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Rick Allen
published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Filled with vivid illustrations and exuberant form poetry, the book is a delight to behold and experience, as it takes us on an excursion into the winter life of the creatures living in the extreme north.

Joyce Sidman, a master poet, has invited the kids to experience the magic of winter, as well as its harshness.

I’m a big brown moose,
I’m a rascally moose,
I’m a moose with a tough, shaggy hide;
and I kick and I prance
in a long-legged dance
with my moose-mama close by my side.

We instantly love this baby moose who is not afraid to tough it out in the tundra.

Chickadees song in collective voice is energizing.

From dawn to dusk in darkling air
we glean and gulp and pluck and snare,
then find a roost that’s snug and tight
to brave the long and frozen night.

Image Source: HMH Young Readers

Not just animals, but plants are celebrated as well - skunk cabbage gets a dedicated triolet.

Skunk cabbage peeks up through the snow:
the first flower in the wood.
Wreathed in an eerie purple glow,
up through the slick of soggy snow,
smelling of rotten buffalo,

Even the snowflake!

Snowflake wakes,
arms outstretched,
lace sprouting from fingertips

Leaps, laughing
in a dizzy cloud,
a pinwheel gathering glitter

The Whole World is Melting leaves us with the warmth and hope of Spring.

Printmaker extraordinaire, Rick Allen, adds intricate detail via the linoleum blocks cut precisely to present the exact image that livens up the poems. The hours of work involved in making these block prints is astounding but even more astounding is the results! Each page is a work of art that is simply brilliant!

Sidebar on each page provides notes about the animals.

We dream of housing a copy of this book on our bookshelf soon. Also by Joyce Sidman, the Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night is a treat to read as well.

[image source: houghton mifflin]

Friday, May 08, 2015

Four picture books about loss

How do you explain death to a child? And how do you help them deal with the pain and grief that follows the loss of a loved one? Here are a handful of books that take very different approaches to the idea of death and coming to terms with loss.

The Heart and the Bottle
Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: Harper Collins Children’s Books
Ages: All

I’ve loved every one of Jeffers’ books till date, and this one bowled me over too. The Heart.. is about a little girl, filled with curiosity and a love for exploring the world around her. When the elderly relative she is attached to, dies, she deals with her grief by putting her heart in a bottle. It takes the pain away, but also her curiosity, her sense of wonder , her love for learning. She grows into adulthood this way, feeling nothing but the growing weight of the bottle around her neck. Until one day, she meets a little girl much like the one she used to be, who nudges her awake. But is it too late - will her heart ever be free of its bottle? With just a handful of words, and delightful minimalist spreads, Jeffers gives us a story about the healing powers of love and hope. For me, it was also a book about the importance of feeling grief, learning to deal with it - and the redemptive, utterly lifesaving powers of parenthood as well.

Always and Forever
Written by Alan Durant
Illustrated by Debi Gliori
Publisher: Doubleday
Ages: 3+

If only someone had given this book to the little girl from The Heart and the Bottle

Fox, Otter, Mole and Hare share a house in the woods, with Fox as the gentle paterfamilias. But then he falls ill, and passes on. Otter, Mole and Hare are heartbroken; they recede into their grief and as winter approaches, the little house is gripped by silence and sadness. Then Squirrel pays a visit and somehow, the conversation turns to all the funny things Fox used to do. As they three housemates laugh together for the first time in ages, they find their grief lift, replaced by warm memories of the friend they have lost, and think up ways to keep him alive in their memories – a special garden in his honour, a bench in his favourite spot, a pie he loved. A lovely book about hope and the light at the end of the tunnel that is heartbreak, all brought to life through Debi Gliori’s wonderful watercolours.

The Sad Book
Written by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Ages: All

Written by Michael Rosen after the death of his teenaged son, The Sad Book is devastating in its siply-worded portrayal of grief. Rosen honestly opens up about his suffering, about the things he does when sadness strikes, the anger that engulfs him, the brave face he must sometimes fake so people will not pity him. Sometimes I'm sad and I don’t know why.", says Rosen.  It's just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.”  I liked the way the book affirms the need to grieve, even as people around you tell you to 'put a brave face on it'.  Grief, he adds, does not go away. You can never really be free from the loss you have suffered. "Sad is anywhere”, says Rosen."It comes along and finds you.” His sorrow  is reflected in Quentin Blake’s bleak pen and ink illustrations, and it is hard not to be moved by the poet's words. And yet, by the end - and what a lovely, unexpected end it is! - even Rosen discovers hope. 

Shaker Lane
Written and Illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
Publisher: Viking Kestrel
Ages: 6+

Shaker Lane isn’t about the death of a person, but something even greater and, therefore, sadder – it chronicles the slow demise of a  community.  Considered one of the Provensen’s finest books, it  is based on a real life community near the area the book’s creators lived in, one they watched change over thirty five years. At first, second and even third glance, Shaker Lane really doesn’t impress- its residents are dirt poor, their houses are shabby, the yards strewn with rubbish, mangy dogs and weeds. “Aker, baker, poorhouse shaker!” yell the kids from the passing schoolbus. It doesn’t even mean much to the rest of the town. But then, one by one, the book introduces us to its residents – old Mr. Van Sloop and his army of stray dogs; the Whipple twins who help out with yard work; Big Jake, the handyman; the kids, dogs, pet ducks. And just like that, you see the quiet heart that beats under Shaker Lane’s shabby hand-me-down skin. It’s also, sadly, a heart without much of a fight left  in it – when the city council takes over the land to build a reservoir, the residents quietly give up their ramshackle houses and their lives and move away. Time moves on; water, progress and middleclass suburbia move into the place that was once Shaker Lane. And you wouldn’t know the place, except…

Spare text, beautiful spreads and with a surprise ending I didn’t see coming, Shaker Lane is a wonderful book about change, loss,  new beginnings – and resilience as well.  Read this in tandem with Window and Belonging, Jeannie Baker’s stunning wordless chronicles about changing communities.

Three Wordless Picture Books

Fox's Garden
by Princesse Camcam
published by Enchanted Lion Books (2014)

A (soon-to-be?) mommy fox wanders to the edge of a snowy forest hoping to find shelter in one of the homes bordering that area. She is chased away repeatedly by grown-ups.

A kid watches all this and notices the fox entering their greenhouse. He takes a basket of food and offers it to the fox, who is now nursing her four pups.

He goes back to his room. A nice touch here is a picture showing the drawing of a fox on the kid's wall by the bed, not to mention the vintage decor.

The fox is finally ready to move on, followed by her four pups. She leaps into the kid's room (when he is not there) and leaves a surprise garden for him right on his little rug.

When I read that Princesse Camcam (aka Camille Garoche) assembled cut-paper dioramas and lit it strategically and photographed it to make the pictures in this book, I was blown away. It looks hauntingly magical, yet softly transcendental, as the power of a simple act of kindness dawns on us.

by  Raúl Colón
published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (2014)

A boy sits on his bed in his room, a book in hand which simply says 'Africa' with an African Elephant on the cover. A large sketchbook is by his bed. We gather he might be home sick when we notice the medicine-like bottle on his night stand.

Next we see him, still on his bed, sketchbook on his lap, intently drawing. Five identical pictures of varying sizes zooming towards us alerts us to the possibility that something magical might be happening in the next pages.

Sure enough, with his easel and sketchbook and art paraphernalia, plus a canteen of water and some sandwiches, his signature safari hat on his head, the kid is in the African savanna waving to a friendly elephant.

Over the next pages, the story unfolds as the kid draws the animals he encounters, with the elephant being his friendly transport. The apes posing for him brings a smile, especially when the one sitting for the picture has the safari hat and sandwich that the kid had on the previous scene.

The exciting part is when he tries to draw the charging rhino. Then, things go a bit haywire. But all's well that ends well: we see the kid posing for the baboons with his trademark hat and a sandwich in hand. The picture drawn by the baboon is sure to evoke chuckles.

The power of imagination is beautifully explored and presented in this wordless picture book wherein every spread is a work of art.

The Farmer and the Clown
by Marla Frazee
published by Beach Lane Books (2014)

The Farmer and the Clown CoverA farmer is toiling in a desolate landscape, clearly unhappy. Along the horizon rolls a circus train from which a baby clown is ejected out. The farmer reluctantly goes to investigate. He meets the baby clown wearing a perpetual painted-on smile.

Into the muted tones of the farmer's world enters this one bright spot, all in red, even if the farmer sees it otherwise.

He grudgingly takes the baby clown home. Over the course of a day, we see them shed their outer facade and learn a bit more about each other.

When the farmer sheds his dull black overalls, he reveals a red pair of long-johns. When the baby clown washes up, we see the sadness underneath the contrived smile. This is a priceless scene where things take a turn in the story.

 The farmer does his best to amuse and entertain the kid who simply remains unmoved, but maybe a bit hopeful. The spread where the baby clown helps the farmer with his chores is delightful. They even have a picnic together. That's when they notice the circus train yonder by the horizon coming their way.

They both hurry to the train. The baby is united with his family and the farmer waves goodbye to all of them as they speed away. Just like that.

The brilliant touch is the last page where we see the farmer, feeling lonely again, is walking along and unbeknownst to him, a circus monkey follows him, finger to his lips and a twinkle in his eye, appealing to us to keep his secret.

[image source: enchanted lion books,, simonandschuster]

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Books that made me go "Hmmmm!"

Every now and then, I come across a book that leaves me gobsmacked in awe at the sheer ingenuity of its creators. You know what I mean, fellow book devourers, the kind of book that defies easy definition, cheekily flouts conventions about how proper books should behave, leaves weird ideas in your head,  keeps you up at night wondering if they were illustrated novels or picture books or.... but I digress.

Here are some ingenious books I have had the pleasure of meeting recently.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburgh
Publisher: Andersen Press
All Ages

This unusual picture book is really a collection of fourteen mysterious drawings, with cryptic captions attached. This is less a book than a puzzle, inviting you the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, create their own stories. Adding to the mystery is a teasing note the author prefaces the book with, explaining  how the drawings came into the possession of the publisher. Chris Van Allsburgh’s drawings, rendered entirely in pencil, are stunning – some are filled with smoky shadows, spooky lights, inky darkness, the promise of menace lurking in the background. (“He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.”)  Yet others capture a moment of joy ( two children playing in water, a boy discovering a harp by a magical stream), parting, impending doom, adventure. My favourite picture - a nun in a chair hovering midair in a cathedral; the caption reads ‘The Seven Chair: The fifth one ended up in France.’  - leaving me wildly imagining the fate of the other six chairs and the people sitting in them.

My Secret War Diary, by Flossie Albright
Written and Illustrated by Marcia Williams
Publisher: Walker Books
Ages: 8+

Now here’s the kind of history book I wish I’d had growing up! Cleverly designed (or disguised) as a diary, it chronicles the life of little Flossie Albright through the tumultuous years of the Second World War. Through her meticulously handwritten diary entries, drawings, notes and photographs ‘pasted in’, we follow the daily trials and tribulations of being a young English girl on a farm, raising her baby brother while her father is away at war as a conscript in the British Army.  Flossie is a delight from the word go, brimming with fun, anger, anxiety.. and a propensity for using the word ‘Flipping’ a lot. The diary records the highs and lows of her life through the war, of course, but it is  also a cleverly told history of Britain in World War II, as experienced first- hand by Flossie, as she records bits of news, illustrates happenings, even draws little cartoons mocking Hitler. She tells us how, with the men away at war, the women take over farming and manufacturing work. Even children get pulled out of school to help with the harvest. Jewish refugees pour into the country, and are given refuge in homes like Flossie’s.  Rationing, bombing threats, blackouts all become part of the villagers’ lives – even their pots and pans are requisitioned by the government for aluminium. Birthdays come and go, loved ones lost, and Flossie finds her family – and her dreams – growing in ways she had never imagined. Friends and wellwishers begin to contribute to the diary as well, sometimes from as far away as Egypt.  What I loved most about this little girl was her humanity – she scolds and taunts the nasty ‘Huns’, and mocks the evil Hitler and Rommel, but she is also capable of feeling genuine sympathy for the innocent civilian victims of the war in Germany and Japan.  Exuberant and touching by turn, bristling with fold-out notes and letters, bursting with detail – this is a book it is impossible to do justice to with a single reading! An interesting detail I discovered, after reading the book - it is actually a sequel to ‘Archie’s War’, 'written' by Flossie’s father Archie Albright as an East London boy during the First World War. 

Letters from a Lost Uncle
Written and Illustrated by Mervyn Peake
Publisher: Methuen Fiction
Ages: 10+

First published in 1948, Letters…. is designed to look like a journal, with yellowing typewritten notes pasted in over pencil illustrations, meant for a nephew their writer has never seen. We never learn the uncle’s name (or  find out what happens to him after the last letter), but discover, through his letters, that he is an explorer living out in an igloo somewhere in the North pole with a strange bipedal, beaked creature called Jackson for company. Oh, and he is fat, bearded, wears a bowler hat and has a spike in place of a leg. The letters recount the uncle’s youth growing up in London, beforehe decides to give up everything and sail away in search of adventure, a la Peter Pan . At home in the Arctic in a way he never was in England, the uncle then  chronicles his adventures, hunting expeditions - and occasional rants against his man Friday, Jackson- as he searches for the mythical White Lion.  The book is both funny and touching, and I loved the little touches that make it so authentic - coffee, ink and bloodstains mark the odd page, corrections and additions  penciled in, some drawings moodily inked over. 

Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes
Written by Margaret Atwood
Illustrated by Dušan Petricic
Bloomsbury Paperbacks
Ages: 6+

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors, but even I would never have associated the writer of such grim, dystopic novels as 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Oryx and Crake' with this laugh-out-loud literary romp that absolutely demands to be read out loud. The plot of the book is simple enough; what makes it unique is the language - Atwood  makes it a celebration of the letter 'R'. So our hero, Ramsay, turns out to be red-headed and living in a ramshackle residence, with a bunch of revolting, roly-poly relatives with names like Rollo, Ron and Ruby. Chased out of his home, he meets a friendly rat called Ralph, discovers a field of unusual radishes, and finally finds a friend - all this, of couse, in wonderfully alliterative prose. Dusan Petricic's moody pencil and water colour illustrations had me poring over this book for hours.

Meerkat Mail
Written and Illustrated by Emily Gravett
 Publisher: Pan Macmillan Children's Books
Ages: 3+

Now, pretty much any book by Emily Gravett is a visual treat guaranteed to suprise and delight , and this one is no exception. It follows one week in the life of Sunny, a meerkat who feels so claustrophobic at home in the hot Kalahari desert that he sets out visiting his cousins across the world. Only, he never quite feels at home, does he? And meanwhile, whose is that menacing shadow stalking him through his travels? 

The story is told to us through beautiful full-page illustrations and the lift-the-flap postcards our intrepid traveler sends back home, and his increasingly beleagured expression tells us all we need to know about his experiences. Packed with visual jokes, the book is at once a lesson in geography, biology and a sweet reminder that often, the best thing about a journey is coming back home.

Big Foot is Missing!

Big Foot is Missing!

by J. Patrick Lewis and Kenn Nesbitt
illustrations by MinaLima (Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima)
published by Chronicle Books

Humans have had a fascination with cryptids long before the term "cryptids" was coined to describe the fantastic creatures whose existence is yet to be proven.

Cryptozoology, the study of animals rumored to exist, has found many followers over the past decades. And for those who claim they don't believe in Bigfoot, these ardent scholars retort with a "Don't worry, Bigfoot doesn't believe in you either!"

Former and current Children's Poet Laureates have teamed up to present a book to explore several of these cryptids from around the world. Some of them, we are quite familiar with, like: Bigfoot, Kraken, Lusca, 'Nessie' the Loch Ness monster, Chupacabra, Bunyip and so on. And, others are just as fascinating, with matchingly mysterious names like Ngoubou, Dingonek, Mokele, Nandi Bear and so on.

MinaLima, the team on the Harry Potter films known for making maps, newspaper clippings and suchlike, have brought an extra dimension to this set of poems that are clever, funny and creepy at times.

Rather than presenting the text and an illustration of the creature, each page is designed to look like a Wanted poster, or billboard, or newspaper clipping, or milk carton ad, or page from an arcane book.

For example, Bigfoot appears on the milk carton; he is missing, of course.

bigfoot is missing poetry book review saffron tree kenn nesbitt
Chronicle Books Kid-Approved Verse for National Poetry Month

The Loch Ness monster has a double page spread of rolling Highland hills and the famous lake in the background with the familiar curves of Nessie; and the foreground shows the typical warning sign:

No Lifeguard on duty
No Horsing around.
Stay Out of the water
Or Risk being drowned.
No Diving, No Swimming,
Or Things could get messy.
Sincerely, The Management,
aka "Nessie."

An amusing look at these Schrodinger's Cat-like creatures which don't exist until we observe them.

[image source: Chronicle Books]

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Celebrating Gond Art: Two Gems from Tara Books

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail
Writer: Unknown
Illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti
Designed by Jonathan Yamakami

I first read this poem in some dusty school library, and remember being both utterly charmed by the powerful, somewhat surreal imagery, of its words, and befuddled by its meaning. Nonetheless, this and the equally befuddling ‘Romance’ (“..Chimborazo, Cotopaxi; took me by the hand…”) were the two mainstays of my mystical poetry-obsessed teen years. Written in the 17th century by an English poet who has never been traced (which only increases the poem’s air of romance and intrigue, methinks), I Saw…  is a form of trick verse, its meaning evident only to those smart enough to decipher the  pattern within it.  I subsequently learnt that I Saw... was a popular folk poem. Yet for some reason, the poem has always conjured up images of India in my head ( peacocks with fiery tails, raging seas, elephantine ants) , and I always imagine its anonymous creator being some English sahib or memsahib in a distant outpost of the British Raj, struggling to verbalize their enormous fascination with India. With a feathered quill, of course, in the flickering light of a paraffin lamp, while in the dusty, heat-smothered background, a puny punkha boy slowly loses his duel with the Indian summer .. But as always, I digress. 

My overly extended point here is that this is probably why Tara Books’ version of the poem feels so right – it marries the verses with distinctively Indian visuals. The book stars the stunning black-and-white illustrations of Gond artist Ramsingh Urveti and, coupled with Brazilian graphic designer Yamakami’s innovative design, they bring the poem – and its secret – to life. Sly die-cut perforations on each page, along with some truly ingenious layouts utterly change the way one reads the poem. I enjoyed the way the book literally puts ‘the controls’ in the hands of the reader, allowing one to read it either one page at a time or in pairs, revealing the poet's trick.

My one grouse - A brief write-up in the beginning of the book explains the trick in the verses, which is rather a party pooper. Moving it to the back of the book would at least have given the reader a chance to browse through the poem and attempt to ‘crack the code’ herself. Some of the mystery of the book is lost when you approach it forewarned. Still, this is a book one is compelled to return to time and again, for the lush detail of the art on each page, and the timeless beauty of its words.

Do check out this  interview with Jonathan Yamakami for an insight into  the production of the book.  Even more praise,  here.

Signature: Patterns in Gond Art
Artists: Various
Edited by Gita Wolf, Bhajju Shyam and Jonathan Yamakami

Ramsingh Urveti is one of  several Gond artists featured in the beautiful Signature: Patterns in Gond Art, a fascinating look at the creative processes that drive their art. Now Gond art, like most other forms of tribal Indian art, is based on decorative motifs and symbols, often repeated in different combinations and scales, to create  dense ‘textures’ in the painting. What is perhaps unique to Gond art is the fact that each artist, over time, develops a distinctive ‘signature’- a distinct motif that features prominently in their work, inspired from their own observations of the world around them. So Kala Bai Shyam uses an intricate weaving pattern like the threads in cloth, to depict a lizard’s scales, while the semicircular marks that Sunitha Shyam sees in the dung plaster on the walls of her home, become integral to her art. Fish scales inspire Gangotri Bai Tekam, while  the marks of the plow tilling the earth transform into motifs in Mansingh Vyam’s painting.  Leaves, water drops, footprints, ears of corn – everything inspires pattern and finds its place in Gond art.

Also designed by Jonathan Yamakami, the book's minimalist page layouts allow the art to speak for itself. Signature is a fascinating resource on tribal art. Its also a good book for the novice artist, as it encourages you to seek creative inspiration in the ordinary everyday.

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