Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Drowning Dreams & other poems

Drowning Dreams & other poems
Written by Ananya Sengupta
Published by Aparna Raman for  Timbuktoo Young Authors Publishing
Ages 10+

A secret wish.

But you see that this is not 
Even half the things I would possibly want

A litany of fantastical possibilities that the mind wonders about.

If a ghost rambled through your brain 
What would you do? 
Would you squeal, shriek or shout in pain?

A longing for a grandmother's home comforts - the house, the food, and small indulgences.

The space is of love and arguments 

Bewilderment and pain on a beloved uncle's passing away, as can be felt only by the young.

You may be gone in front of me 
But you aren't gone from here 

The unbridled joy of swimming with an imaginary friend who feels very real.

I agree with her and swim to the bay 
In the next minutes we are mermaids

Empathy for a young girl in a faraway land dying of cholera after her entire family has perished in an earthquake, the senseless loss of life.

A drop of the clean, clear pure 
And the many millions would not have sailed away.

These thoughts, and so much more in the 10 poems that make up this slim volume of poems by an obviously talented 11 year old, Ananya Sengupta, complemented well by the illustrations and design by Ayesha Adil and Aseem Gautam. Every poem offers something new. From the delight of a mind flying free, flitting from thought to thought, to the disdain of a younger sister over the older one's celebrity crush. They alternate between the charm of a tween's customary thoughts to a maturity belying her age. I've seen the birth of many poems, having a resident fledgling poet, and it is fascinating to watch the process -- everything is felt so keenly and often is translated on to paper quite effortlessly. This young poet shows a lot of promise, and here's hoping for stellar work from her in the future.

Image courtesy Aparna Raman.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher; the opinions expressed in this review are, however, my own.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Meet Annie Besant, the author of Whimsy

Written by: Annie Besant
Illustrations: Ruchi Mhasane

Published by: Karadi Tales

Written by Annie Besant and illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane, Whimsy is a charmingly rendered picture book from Karadi Tales. The tale is spun around two playful and fun characters - Mr. Prat and Ms. Fox and their delightful rendition of what whimsy means to each.

Whimsy is wearing a cat for a hat, feeding it with custard and cream in silver spoon, purple skirts, yellow parasols, riding unicycles wearing pink pantaloons and many more such delicious details that turn the text into a rich multi-sensory treat.

Ruchi's pencil and soft watercolor strokes lend a soothing feel, perfectly marrying the words with the pictures. The illustrations are indeed the real icing on the yummily whipped Whimsy cake.

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Annie Besant, the author of Whimsy. I had the pleasure of asking her a few questions to hear the inside scoop behind the Whimsy story.

1) Whimsy is a very different book from Mala's silver anklets. We would love to hear how the inspiration for Whimsy came about.

Quince! I doubt I even know how to pronounce that fruit (though it sounds lovely in my head!). I was dreaming of sweet juicy fruits one hot summer’s afternoon, when my mind wandered to quince. Not that I have eaten it in any form or shape…but something about the word was very enticing to me. Sharp, lemony…whimsical! I can almost imagine Quince to be a princess in shining armour, with curls that could poke your eyes out, wearing her boots front to back.

So quinces, naturally, led me to thinking of Edgar Lear’s poem The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and the famous line:
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.

And that is how the mad duo of Mr Prat and Ms Fox took birth on a page that was hastily torn from my very out-dated calendar diary. I’m not a proponent of page-tearing from books, but Mr Prat made me do it. So I wrote out the courtship of these mad creatures.

2) Please tell us about how your children's writing journey began.

It began years ago at one of my favourite independent bookstores in New York. I was living in New Jersey at that time and would often spend my weekends at this bookstore in New York with my favourite cup of caffeine. Ensconced in a corner, I would browse through book after book. It was here that I bumped into bookshelves sagging with children’s books.

I began reading them, though earlier I had had no interest in children’s or young adult books. They pulled me into their world – a complex world expressed in tiny word frames. I think it intrigued me that children’s writers have so many limitations to work with: reader’s age and vocabulary, complexity of theme, suitable content etc. Yet, a picture book’s few pages can contain an amazing wealth of colour, illustration, humour, warmth, cleverness, and kindness... the list of merits is unending.

I was a writer myself at that point, dabbling with short stories, poetry, with dreams of writing a grand novel. And when I read those children’s books, I read without thinking that I would one day write them.

Then I moved to Chennai a few years ago. One fine day, a little girl inspired me to write my first picture book Mala’s Silver Ankelts. When that got picked up by Tulika, I felt brave enough to write more. Next, Scholastic picked up my manuscripts, then Karadi Tales and HarperCollins.

At some level, I confess I’m surprised that I’m a children’s author. I never would have picked that path for myself … but I guess that’s why it’s called life!

3) Any other project in the works?

A few books that are waiting to see the light of day – and, happily, almost all of them with Karadi Tales! There’s a romp of a story titled The Dragon’s Toothache, which has our heroine bravely climbing into a dragon’s mouth to try and get to the root of its toothache. But when she gets swallowed in the process, what she finds waiting for her is truly hilarious. Then there is a series titled Gus the Bus – all about a bus set in fun-loving Chennai.

I’m also working on a sequel to The Pterodactyl’s Egg (HarperCollins, India)… and facing the challenge that any author who writes sequels faces – how to make the next book the mother of all sequels! I’m toying with an idea for a graphic novel and trying to figure out the next step.

4) Share with us a little more about Whimsy and how it was working with Karadi Tales on the project.

Whimsy is one of my personal favourites. Where most of my picture books are grounded in reality, Whimsy is pure fantasy. Writing it was sheer fun…and I loved coming up with ways for Mr Prat and Ms Fox to outdo each other. Making up things comes easily to me and so Whimsy was full of strange fancies and notions. In my own way, it was also a salute to Lear’s whimsical lovers – Owl and Cat (in fact, an observant reader may even have noticed them sailing by in a boat in one of the spreads).

However, if you look closely, there are other subtle elements in there that question and push stereotypes. The world still has strong views about who can fall in love with whom, how the very subtle dance of courtship should be conducted, and more importantly strong views about accepting or not accepting those who are different from the usual herd. I would like to think this book provides the opportunity for parents to discuss these issues with their children.

Working with Karadi Tales was a unique and collaborative experience. Shobha Viswanath and Manasi Subramaniam (the then commissioning editor at Karadi Tales) were both very hands-on from the word go. They questioned the story when they had to, challenged it when needed to, nurtured it at all times, babied it like crazy, and found an amazing illustrator (Ruchi Mhasane) for it. That is how I knew this book would be a success – because it passed the tests laid down by two of the most empowered and accomplished women it’s been my pleasure to know. I was also included in the illustration process. This helped ensure that there were no conflicting visions for the story. And what can I say about Ruchi’s art – bewitching!

5) Any thoughts on the importance of reading picture books that you would like to share with our readers?

My thoughts in the exact order than I’m thinking them:
1. Reading will not make you grow taller. But you may meet a giant who will carry you on his shoulders.
2. Reading will not help you with your math scores. But you may save the world with nothing more than your kindness.
3. Reading will not help you like the dark any better. But you may make friends with the dragon under your bed and find out its afraid of the dark too.
4. Reading will not fill your stomach. But you may be invited to a mad tea-party to answer unanswerable riddles and recite nonsensical poetry.
5. Reading will not help you stay the same forever…because you may find a giant peach, or stumble into a chocolate factory, or fly a Hippogriff.

So read! It will show you worlds that you will never want to leave. Read. Read. Read.

6) On a fun note, this question stems from knowing your love for Alice. What strange creatures would your wonderland have if you were to create one?

Mr Prat, for sure! Perhaps mermaids who wear top hats and tap dance? Oh, and a Wagabaloo. What is that, you ask? You’ll just have to jump down the rabbit hole to find out, or is it climb up the rabbit hole?

7) Do you conduct any book reading sessions or writing workshops in Chennai?

Yes, many and often! I love interacting with children of all ages, and more so with their parents who are often curious about how to get their sons or daughters to read more.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fifteen Picture Books to Have Fun with Words

Native English speakers take it in their stride. The quirkiness of the language with as many exceptions to the rule as there are rules is nothing to worry about. It all falls in place, beautifully! So what's to fret about, right?

A non-English-speaker who is eager to master the Queen's language might find it completely confounding. What with idioms, phrases, homographs, homonyms, not to mention the hodge-podge of foreign words adopted liberally, learning English can be both challenging and fun.

Just for the fun of it, since we like reading themed books back to back from the library, we recently checked out some picture books that turned out to be a delight.

I. Rhyming Epithets:

A Huge Hog Is A Big Pig
A Huge Hog Is A Big PigA Rhyming Word Game
by Francis McCall & Patricia Keeler

One of the favorite word games we play at home goes by a few popular names, one of which is Stinky Pinky. It is a game of answering the clue with a rhyming epithet - an adjective and a rhyming noun. For example, happy father is a glad dad; a clever cat is a witty kitty; an uncommon rabbit is a rare hare.

This book has 15 such Stinky Pinky clues with colorful photographs featuring children and the object in question.

I always wonder about the repeat-read value of such books - once we have read it, we know the answers and there is no incentive to read it again.

[ A version of this game available online]

II. Idioms & Phrases:
Raining Cats and Dogs
Raining Cats and Dogs
A Collection of Irresistible Idioms and Illustrations
by Will Moses

We've all heard of phrases which don't mean much when taken at face value, and may in fact be confusing and irrelevant to the situation. Idioms are a wonderful construct and discovering them as a youngster was a fun activity for me that I am now happy to pass on to my kids.

Monkey Business by Wallace Edwards was the kids' first introduction to idioms; the inimitable illustrations  plus a little spot-the-ape type activity tucked into the pictures kept the kids engaged.

With folkart style illustrations that are literal and funny, Raining Cats & Dogs states the idiom, explains the meaning, and gives an example usage. For example, the illustration for  "Feeling Blue" shows a man with a sad face with blue skin, and his pets are all blue as well; "Make a Beeline" shows a lovely country road with a line being drawn by a buzzing bee and a sign saying 'Buzz's Painting Company."

In A Pickle, and Other Funny IdiomsIn a Pickle: And Other Funny Idioms 
by Marvin Terban
illustrated by Giulio Maestro

Much like Raining Cats & Dogs above, this book has silly illustrations to help remember the meaning of the idioms. The explanation is a bit more elaborate here.

III. Palindromes:
Jon Agee's Palindromania
Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog! 
by Jon Agee

A master at wordplay, Jon Agee specializes in the silly, funny, and clever use of the language, with delightfully amusing pictures to boot.

What's not to like about palindromes? The illustrations are quirky and playful in both these books. Some phrases may not be easy for the very young to understand, but, 8+ year olds might appreciate the humor and cleverness of it all.

IV. Oxymorons:
Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp?
Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp? 

by Jon Agee

The only picture book I found at my library that introduces this weird feature of our English language helped the kids think about such expressions they might have come across and not realized. "Pretty Ugly" is one that jumped to their minds right away. All in all, a fun book that amuses the adult reader as much as it amuses the kids.

V. Tongue Twisters:
Orangutan Tongs
Orangutan Tongs 
by Jon Agee

Shared here already, the book is quite fun to try out the tongue twisters.

Oh Say Can You Say?Oh Say Can you Say
Fox in Socks
by Theodore Seuss Geisel

Two classic books that take wordplay to the ultimate degree and deliver immense satisfaction and joy to read aloud to kids. Nothing more to say about these, except, if one has not read these by now, please do so immediately!

VI. Crazy Collective Nouns
A Shiver of Sharks

A Shiver of Sharks:
A Compilation of Aquatic Collective Nouns
by PatrickGeorge

Collective nouns are bizarre sometimes, and it takes a while to get used to some of the zanier ones. This book collects aquatic animals. The stylized design of the illustrations makes the book a treat to behold. Also by PatrickGeorge are A Filth of Starlings, A Drove of Bullocks, A Crackle of Crickets

Have You Ever Seen A Smack of Jellyfish?Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish?:
An Alphabet Book
by Sarah Asper-Smith

Alphabetically organized books are always engaging for young kids. This books presents various animals arranged alphabetically (Ants to Zebras), along with their collective nouns . From Army of Ants to a Zeal of Zebras, we learn the collective noun, with full page illustration that is child-friendly.

A Zeal of ZebrasA Zeal of Zebras:
An Alphabet of Collective Nouns
by Woop Studios

Much like the book above, this book goes one step further and presents the collective nouns in alphabetical order rather than the creatures as the book above does. (Aurora to Zeal)

So we start with an Aurora of Polar Bears, a Bale of Turtles, and work our way up to a Zeal of Zebras. Of course, it is inevitable to not end with Zeal of Zebras as there aren't many 'Z' animals.

The illustrations are gorgeous, quite stunning.

VII. Homonyms & Homophones
The King Who Rained

The King Who Rained
by Fred Gwynne

Words that are spelled differently but sound the same and have different meanings can be confusing.
Although over a quarter century old, the book still has its appeal to this day. Fairy tails, king who rained... you get the idea. The pictures show the literal image, making it completely giggle-worthy for the kids.

The Dove Dove: Funny Homograph Riddles
by Marvin Terban
illustrated by Tom Huffman
The Dove Dove
Two words spelled the same way, but pronounced differently and have different meanings are quite a challenge for new readers. The riddle format is presented as a sentence with boldface for the homographs. Example, Living animals dwell here. The answer is Live/live - Live animals, live here. Another example, The bird of peace plunged into the water. The dove dove into the water.

A bit challenging for the seven year old, but the nine year old had fun with most of the riddles in this book.

VIII. Similes

Crazy Like a Fox: A Simile Story
by Loreen Leedy
Crazy Like A Fox

Rather than isolated listing of similes, incredibly talented writer, Loreen Leedy, presents an adventurous tale of Rufus fox who scares Babette the sheep by roaring like a lion; she then gets mad as a hornet... and so the story goes, with one simile after another adding spice to the story.

The figure of speech is explained, and kids are encouraged to come up with their own similes.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Five Picture Books to Celebrate Patterns in Nature

Bees, Snails, & Peacock Tails
Bees, Snails, & Peacock TailsPatterns & Shapes-- Naturally
by Betsy Franco
illustrations by Steve Jenkins

Author of Curious Collection of Cats and Dazzling Display of Dogs, Betsy Franco, has written over two dozen books for children, among other things. Plus, the kids and I are huge fans of Steve Jenkins. So, when we found this book in the library by two wonderfully creative and talented people, we had to bring it home to savor at our leisure.

In the day and the night,
on land and in flight,
tucked in hollows of trees,
in the tide pools and seas,
you'll find patterns and shapes--
from the snakes to the bees!

Thus starts this book which has Jenkins' trademark cut paper collage complementing the lyrical text.

We learn about Moth's kaleidoscopic shapes, spider's delicate tapestries, peacock's patterned train, and even the beautiful spirals on topshell snails. The text is elegant in its simplicity, highlighting the very aspect that is distinct and discernible in each creature.

Study a beehive and you will see
the mathematical genius of the bee.
The hexagons you'll find inside
fit side by side by side.
This math is passed mysteriously
from worker bee to worker bee!

Each page is a work of art, inspiring and stunning. Kids particularly liked the pufferfish page! The pages with ants marching diligently and the sea stars in a tidepool cannot be read in a rush.

Swirl by SwirlSwirl by Swirl
Spirals in Nature
by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Beth Krommes

From coiled up snake that is ready to spring, to chambered nautilus that grows bigger and bigger; from rolled up lady fern leaves ready to unfurl, to spiny sea horse's coiled tail that grabs on tight to seaweed so as not to drift away; and all the way to spiral galaxy, we are treated to the many aspects of spirals we see in nature.

A spiral is a snuggling shape.
It fits neatly in small places.
Coiled tight, warm and safe, it awaits...
For a chance to expand.

Full page scratchboard illustrations with just a hint of color from watercolor washes are gorgeous. Each example shows the many aspects of spiral shape that makes it unique and useful. With minimal text, the book conveys the idea gracefully - that no matter how we look at it, be it rolled up and full of potential or fully expanded infinite in the universe, spirals can be powerful and elegant.

Growing Patterns
Fibonacci Numbers in Nature
Growing Patternsand
Mysterious Patterns
Finding Fractals in Nature
By Sarah C. Campbell

With photographic illustrations, Growing Patterns introduces Fibonacci numbers in nature - starting with the number of petals in Lyle-leaved Sage and Calla Lily to Crown of Thorns to Trillium to Vinca to Cosmos.

The back of the book has  More About Fibonacci Numbers where we learn about Fibonacci, the man, as well as the fact that this series of numbers was known to ancient Indian scholars even before Fibonacci spread the word about it. Glossary explains the golden ratio and the golden rectangle.

From Pinecones and Pineapple to Sunflower Centers and Nautilus we see the beauty of Fibonacci numbers. But the book also ends with the note that not all numbers in nature are Fibonacci numbers, and encourages us to look for spirals, Fibonacci numbers, and other patterns.

We know spheres (oranges, tomatoes) and cones (icicles and traffic cones), even cylinders (pencils and cucumbers). But what do we call the shape of broccoli or branch of fern leaves? We didn't have a name for them until 1975, when Benoit Mandelbrot noticed patterns in these natural shapes.

Mysterious PatternsMysterious Patterns is all about fractals. Using a drawing of a tree - starting with the bare trunk, add a 'V' branch, then add a 'V' branch to each arm of the first 'V' branch, and so on till we get the shape of a typical tree, or broccoli - we learn about identifying the smallest unit/pattern which when repeated, gives the complex shape for which we don't have a single precise name, but call them fractals.

Leaves' veins and flower heads of Queen Anne's Lace are simple examples of this repetitive pattern that makes up some of the natural shapes in nature. The pattern of small rivers and streams that feed into one larger river, the lightning bolt, human veins,even human lungs are fractals.

The book ends by showing what patterns are not fractals - even though they are repetitive - like skin marking on swallowtail caterpillar or the outside of the pineapple.

Make Your Own Fractal section at the back of the book was a big hit with both the nine and seven year old. The Afterword suggests that Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak would have been made of fractals!

Echoes for the Eye
Poems to Celebrate Patterns in Nature
Echoes for the Eyeby Barbara Juster Esbensen
illustrated by Helen K. Davie

Organized in five sections titled Spirals, Branches, Polygons, Meanders, and Circles, the book presents examples of natural geometry and repetition of shapes in nature in the most unexpected places.

Tornado and spirals? From cochlea to bighorn sheep's horns, we see some examples of spirals in nature. Snowflakes and turtle shells show us polygons in nature. Meanders talks about the winding curving esses in nature like the slithering snake and sliding glaciers.

Like a frozen white river
locked in time
the glacier
inch by heavy
a heavy unfolding
ribbon of snow and ice.

Some knowledge of basic shapes and geometry is required to appreciate this book. The shapes are not explained, but the illustrations complement the poems to help the young readers get the idea.

[image source:]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Girls to the Rescue

Girls to the Rescue
Written by Sowmya Rajendran
Illustrations Ashok Rajagopalan
Published by Tulika Books
Ages 6-99

Most children grow up on a regular diet of fairy tales. Take any one of these fairy tales, and we usually have a sweet and fairly helpless female protagonist at large, saved from herself or her situation by the Prince Charming. The prince then asserts his rights to the lady and of course, we have a suitably happy ending.

Along comes this book that puts paid to these stereotypes. The author re-tells The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs(Grimm Brothers), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault). These girls are not the wilting, submissive, good girls of yore, but strong, real, and intelligent human beings who want to do their own thing, know what they want, and go ahead and do it. Busting of stereotypes is not limited to these princesses alone in these fairy tales placed firmly in contemporary times. So it is not the wicked witch who imprisons Rapunzel in the tower, but her father, a patriarch who had issues with his astronaut wife's chopping off her hair, without his permission, before she went on a mission to the moon.

The stories, as they are narrated, have a timeless feel to them, equally enjoyable to young readers, and to older ones - teenagers, young adults, and adults. Simple enough that a 6 year old might enjoy the narration, yet profound enough that older readers might find layers that mean different things to them. Case in point is the story of Red Riding Hood, that had my 14 year old initiating a serious discussion on the perils of charming but dangerous people, and the action the grandmother takes at the end. 

The cover page gives a foretaste of the quirky illustrations by Ashok Rajagopalan inside, that perfectly compliment Sowmya Rajendran's witty text. Just what one would expect from the well-loved creator of Gajapati Kulapati and the Thumb Thumb books.

A must-add to a little one's library that will be treasured well into adulthood.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher; the opinions expressed in this review are, however, my own.

Image courtesy: Tulika books.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Being Boys

Being Boys
Authors: Various
Tulika Publishers
Ages: 10+

The Indian family needs the unfamiliar”, says Samir Halarnkar towards the end of his short essay  in Being Boys, tracing his lifestyle choices  to the influence of the women who raised him. Halarnkar’s comment is aimed at the kind of mindset that finds his choices unnatural – he is a stay-home dad, who likes to cook and doesn’t consider household chores ‘women’s work’.  Replace the word ‘family’ with ‘reader’ and the statement still holds true, where the Familiar swings from standard retellings of mythological stories with their strongly patriarchal bent, to fifty shades of the same old , predominantly urban, Indian household.

So, while Being Boys  presents itself as an anthology of short stories with young male protagonists, what stood out for me was its inclusion of narratives that one would be hard pressed to find in mainstream Indian publishing. Sure, it has its share of regular schoolboys venting spleen over the usual suspects -girls, pimples, pesky younger brothers. But it also gives us a Dalit struggling  not just with abject poverty but the daily humiliation of casteist discrimination, a Sikh boy being bullied for his long hair, a transgender child struggling with identity , a sweeper’s son humiliated at wearing hand-me-downs. And, in what, for me, was the best story in the book by far, there are Kalmu and Karma, two boys with very similar stories, whose choices put them on opposing sides of a violent conflict.

Being Boys brings together a diverse range of authors, and an interesting mix of narratives – fables, memoirs, diary entries, historical fiction, even a glimpse into the beleaguered childhood of  Indian Supervillain No.1. Some , like Big Brother, Rinku’s Hair  and Kerr-rack are about boys trying to find their place in the pack, while stories like Man Up-its’s Football! and The Haunted Sampige Tree are true life accounts of facing casteism and racism. In General Apron Strings, a boy ridiculed for his interest in cooking becomes the savior  of his bullies on a picnic gone awry. Destroy, Boy, A Hero and Rave On  are light hearted looks at  the daily  tribulations of being Boy , and surviving acne, siblings and overbearing fathers. Guthli has Wings is a sensitive examination of alternate sexuality and joins  The Red Suit, Abu and On Founder’s Day (extracted from a speech given by Vikram Seth at his alma mater)in stressing the importance of embracing your individuality regardless of societal pressures. The Ugly Boy, the book’s sole piece of historically inspired fiction ,  gives us another side to the story of Emperor Ashoka, that of a boy ridiculed for being homely. It makes you wonder if the derision he suffered as a boy helped shape the ruthless warrior he grew into, before turning pacifist as a follower of Buddhism.

I would have liked to see more female characters in the book… barring some exceptions, these stories are almost exclusively about boys in power struggles of different kinds with other boys, with female characters relegated to the background or totally absent. Then again, most ten year old boys (and girls) I know do seem to move almost exclusively in packs of 'their own kind'.  Also … what, no comics!!! Given the growing popularity of graphic narratives in short story anthologies today, I was actually  surprised NOT to find one in this collection. Surprised and more than a little disappointed, given the presence of both Niveditha Subramaniam and Manjula Padmanabhan in the list of contributors. These minor grouses aside, Being Boys is an anthology that could get young readers thinking . More significantly, it suggests that sometimes, being a boy in India can be confusing and mysterious, as much a burden as a socially conferred privilege, as much about celebrating one’s feminine side as flaunting the masculine. 

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher; the opinions expressed in this review are, however, my own.

Image courtesy: Tulika publishers

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Juna's Jar

Juna's Jar

by Jane Bahk
illustrated by Felicia Hoshino

Little Juna loves adventuring with her friend Hector. Armed with an empty kimchi jar, the two friends would explore their neighborhood collecting bugs and rocks, much like any kid their age.

One day, Hector moves away, abruptly, without a chance to say goodbye. How Juna deals with it forms the rest of the book, told in a whimsical, fantasy-style presentation that comes across as Juna's reality.

From Lee &  Low Books website

Seeing Juna's sadness and her empty kimchi jar, her brother gets her a fish to cheer her up. Juna watches it swim in circles in her jar. And then, in the same breath, we are whisked away with:

Juna watched the fish swim in circles in her jar.
That night when everyone was asleep, Juna put on a diving mask and fins and dove into the water.
Juna’s fish took her everywhere. They swam with sea turtles, played with dolphins, and discovered a giant clam.
“Can you help me find my friend Hector?” Juna asked her fish.

Kids may not quite catch the subtlety woven in via Juna's nightly adventures. At some level, kids may understand it as Juna's imagination, but they might also be confused by the magical realism woven in, mistakenly assuming that Juna actually gets to go underwater and search for Hector, or that she is dreaming about it all.

Leveraging the power of threes, Juna gets a fish first, then a bean plant, and then a cricket. Each time, she is out on a nightly adventure with these, and at the end of her adventure the things outgrow the jar (or, Juna outgrows them), predictably, as Juna eventually makes peace with Hector's absence.

In the end, she takes her empty jar to the park, not knowing what to put in it, when she comes across another girl looking for a jar to put her inchworm in.

The dreamy watercolors in greens and yellows add a freshness and capture the mood well.

Asian American (and Hispanic) elements are woven in lightly in this book; at the same time does not isolate the cultural identity of Asians thereby excluding kids of various heritages besides Asian to enjoy this story. If we replace Juna and Hector with a non-Asian Ana and non-Hispanic Victor, and replace the kimchi jar with a typical Mason® jar, the story will still hold together, thanks to the universality of friendship and imagination.

The fact that kids' books still are not diverse enough makes books like these all the more needed. Kids will pick up books with which they can identify better.

Being of mixed heritage, the resident nine and seven year olds have been exposed to as many multicultural books I can get my hands on, right from their toddlerhood. They were quite ambiguous about this book, reluctant to finish the first read, let alone ask for repeat reads. The seven year old was confounded by the fuzziness of logic as well as the monotonous repetition of the pattern of Juna's nightly forays with no surprises or satisfying resolution of Juna's friendship with Hector.

And that is okay - some stories/situations do not have a tied-up-in-a-neat-bow type of resolution. The book is about how Juna fills the lacuna left by Hector's disappearance, leveraging her power of imagination.

Winner of Lee & Low's New Voices award, Juna's Jar presents a young Asian American protagonist who cares about nature, values friendship, and is not easily devastated by life's setbacks - she uses her imagination to come to terms with reality.

[image source: Lee &  Low books]

[Disclaimer: The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Lee & Low, but the decision to share this review and the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Bhil Story

A Bhil Story
Sher Singh Bhil and Nina Sabnani
Tulika Publishers
Ages 5+

A Bhil Story, Tulika’s latest  picture book, is based on a traditional origin myth  of the Bhil tribe from Jhabua, central Madhya Pradesh. Released just ahead of  World Water Day –which is today, good reader – it makes a striking addition to Tulika’s collection of water-themed books, and the inventive collaborations writer/ illustrator Nina Sabnani  has struck with various folk artists.  It also introduces its  readers to Pithora painting, a folk tradition  kept alive by tribes in central Madhya Pradesh. Pithora, for its exponents, isn’t art so much as a sacred ritual, and each colourful daub of paint is said to represent an ancestor invoked to bless and safeguard the community. Originally executed only on walls, Pithora has (like Gond art and Mithila painting) made a smooth transition  in recent years to  other media, thanks to the work of artists like Bhuri Bai and the efforts of  institutions like the Manav Sangrahalaya and the Adivasi Lok Kala Academy.

The rooster’s throat is so parched from thirst, he can scarcely do his job – announcing daybreak in the village of Jher. But what little water remains in the pond is being fought over by the other residents of the village – human and animal – and poor rooster finds himself tossed aside in the melee. Wise old Bhuri Bai suggests they find a badwa , a priest or wise man, traditionally approached for help  during times of water scarcity, and who usually initiates a sacred pithora, that is believed to draw rain. After a false (if hilarious) start involving an imposter, they are led to a badwa  - but will he help? Will the people of Jher succeed in finding water? And what of our poor rooster  - will he wet his throat, only to lose his life as a sacrificial offering?

Pithora artist Sher Singh Bhil’s art is vibrant, brimming with simple but intricately decorated forms . Each page is beautifully composed and packed with colourful detail  that I quite enjoyed poring over. In fact, the lack of variations in the patterns used (dots and lines against dark backgrounds) actually works in the book’s favour -  as the book has been laid out digitally,  the densely patterned art has been scaled down and collaged in several instances, making each page a stunning visual experience. I suspect this wouldn't work as well with Gond art or Mithila painting, where the detail is everything.

A Bhil Story combines humour with lots of action. It reads as simple enough, yet I discovered layers to it over several readings. The story’s  message for water conservation is obvious; it also emphasizes the importance of learning from nature – birds, snakes and turtles are critical characters in the book, leading the villagers towards water and ways to hold onto it.  No creature is too small or insignificant - brave rooster grows, through the course of the story, from a timid and fearful bird  into a community hero, offering his life for the greater good.  I was also struck by the story’s quiet stance against blind faith – the imposter talks of rituals and appeasing gods for their favour; the real badwa silently shows the villagers how to take control of their own lives and environment. In a very contemporary stroke, Sher Singh Bhil writes himself and his mother into this origin myth too, a la Alfred Hitchcock!

A  Bhil Story is a good book to use, to introduce  a variety of environmental themes and concepts to young readers . Much like its art – small strokes and simple lines, combined to make a stunning whole – it underscores the powers of collective action to make a change in our lives, and the world around us. 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher - the opinions expressed in this review, however, are my own.

Saffron Tree had also sent a few questions to Nina Sabnani on the making of  A Bhil Story that she promptly answered...

1.How does the collaborative process work, especially with an artist with no prior experience of the print media? 

Collaborations can be and is beyond know how. The artist is well versed with image making on paper exercises full control on how he imagines the situation or the elements concerned. So our process involved working with images already created by the artist on various themes. The usual imagery of their paintings includes festivals, rituals, specific characters and objects, environment and activities. On our part we composed the elements together adhering to the artist's aesthetics of space, counter space etc. When we shared the composed image with the artist he was excited and also made valuable suggestions and modifications that we incorporated. He adapted to the technology very easily and suggested changes in size in an image in Photoshop rather than repaint it.

2. Is the story inspired by from traditional folktales of the region ? What came first - the story or the drawings, or did they evolve together?

The story is inspired by an origin myth recounted to us by the artists. They paint because it brings rain and therefore the act of painting is revered as a prayer, for a good and peaceful life and to honor the ancestors. The images and text evolved together but the story was the starting point for the book and film.

3. There is a Bhuri Bai mentioned in the book, and on the back cover as the artist's mother. Is this the famous artist Bhuri Bai ?  Did she have an influence on the book's creation?

There are two Bhuri Bais and Sher Singh's mother is not the famous one from Pitol, our Bhuri Bai is from Jher. She is equally gifted and articulate but we chose to work with Sher Singh because his art had a refreshing feel untouched by fame or fortune. Secondly, in our effort to collaborate we wanted an equal participation from the artist, to be able to tell us off if and when needed. Sher Singh was comfortable arguing, sharing and participating. We traveled with him to Jhabua, to all the places he holds dear and sacred and which then found their way into our visualization. This may not have been possible with his mother, I am not sure though. But Sher Singh could travel easily with us around Jhabua and then came to us in Bombay so the level of collaboration was a desired one.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Curious Collection of Cats, A Dazzling Display of Dogs

A Curious Collection of Cats
A Curious Collection of Cats,
A Dazzling Display of Dogs
Concrete Poems by Betsy Franco
illustrations by Michael Wertz

Concrete Poems are a favorite at home - some are ingenious, some are a bit sketchy, some are hard to read and comprehend, while some are subtly funny. The words in this poetic form are carefully arranged on the page to convey the subject of the poem. The interplay of textual and graphic elements challenges the reading experience.

A favorite book of concrete poems is A Poke in the I by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrations by Chris Raschka. Another favorite in this series by the duo is A Kick in the Head which is a fantastic introduction to poetic forms. The last in the series, A Foot in the Mouth, is a collection of fun read-aloud poems. One of my favorites is "Tennis, anyone?"  where the words are arranged to go back and forth between the courts, as Raschka shares in the mini documentary.

Recently, I came across A Curious Collection of Cats at the library and had to bring it home for the kids. Cohabiting with distinctly individual felines from their infancy, both the 9- and 6- year old are familiar with cat-antics and enjoyed quite a few of the poems in their own way - "Lenny vs. Patch", "Q-tip and Rosie", "Veronica goes Wide"... My favorites were "Bingo's Birthday Party", "Techno Cat" and "Cat Door" - clever and deceptively simple!

text copyright 2009 Betsy Franco
illustration copyright 2009 Michael Wertz

A Dazzling Display of Dogs, Concrete Poems by Betsy FrancoAlso by the same team, A Dazzling Display of Dogs, is a collection of concrete poems about dogs. It was the monthly book pick for August 2013 by the Children's Poet Laureate, Kenn Nesbitt, featuring an interview with the author/poet Betsy Franco.

Every dog has a favorite ball to play fetch - partly chewed, covered in saliva, possibly muddy (but who cares?). "Emmett's Ode to His Tennis Ball," shows the text enclosed in a tight circle held firmly in the dog's mouth. It begins, "Slobbery, sloppy, slimy, sphere—oh, tennis ball, I hold you dear" which will instantly bring a smile of recognition.

A haiku about a pup peeing on the newspaper, a dog with a white medical collar, a garbage-eater... the book showcases many quirks that dog-lovers will easily identify with.

Typically, concrete poetry books tend to be a collection of poems on various topics, but, these two books are each on a dedicated topic that is sure to entertain and engage the young pet lovers.

[ has a lovely portfolio of the illustrator's art work]

[image source:,]

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Petu Pumpkin Tooth Troubles

Petu Pumpkin Tooth Troubles
Written by Arundhati Venkatesh
Illustrations Shilpa Ranade
Published by Duckbill
Age: 4-8 years

We have already met Petu Pumpkin a.k.a. Pushkin in Arundhati Venkatesh's earlier book, Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief. Petu, we know, is so named because of his love for food. His own tiffin would not be enough for him; he would eat his friends' tiffins too. These friends, Jatin, Sachin, Nithin, and Kiran, decided to play a trick on him to get him to stop stealing their tiffins, and of course, it worked! By the end of the year, the five were firm friends. Here they are back with a new adventure.

It is the second grade, and Jatin has (a bit foolhardily, of course) challenged the fourth graders to a football match. Kiran calls an urgent meeting of the Gap Club, of which the foursome are the only members. Pushkin (Petu) has been unable to gain an entry to the Gap Club. Reason - he has yet to lose any of his teeth. But there is hope. One of his teeth is shaking. How soon can it fall? Is there anything that can be done for it to fall? Maybe eat hard things?

But I digress. The urgent meeting of the Gap Club members is because there is a serious problem. They are sure to lose against the fourth graders because they do not have a proper football with which to practice. So what can be done? How is it tied up with Petu's aspirations of becoming a member of the Gap Club? And how is the gap in Petu's teeth destined to finally lead to their win?

Arundhati Venkatesh, who has gone from strength to strength with four published books already under her belt, doesn't fail to entertain in this second one with Duckbill books, a publishing house that has given us wonderful children's books in the past few years, with fresh voices, and original stories set in India. This is one of their hOle books series, perfect for younger readers.

I have read both the Petu Pumpkin books to my children at the special needs school I volunteer at, and they have given a unanimous thumbs-up to both of them. Worth a mention are the illustrations by Shilpa Ranade, which bring forth the playfulness of the text wonderfully well.

Here's hoping for more books from this author, also a member here at Saffrontree.

Image courtesy Duckbill books.

Related Posts with Thumbnails