Unlike her phenomenally successful series Harry Potter, published between 1997 and 2007, JK Rowling’s new book The Ickabog (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers / Hachette India, Rs 1299) has an element of a collaborative effort and has touched the lives of millions of families even before its launch. But with its old-fashioned sensibilities, the story strikes a jarring note for today’s young readers who are exposed to much more inclusive worldviews than previous generations.
The story of how Rowling had the idea for The Ickabog over a decade ago is now the stuff of Twitter threads. She would make up chapters to read out to her two younger children as bedtime stories each night. However, the book later ended up in her attic as she began focusing on a book for adults. “Even though I loved the story, over the years I came to think of it as something that was just for my own children,” she says.
Then, Covid struck and families around the world were stuck home during the 2020 lockdown. Realising how hard it was for children in particular, Rowling brought out the stories from her attic, rewrote parts of it, and serialised it for free online to entertain children everywhere.
“I also thought how wonderful it would be if children on lockdown illustrated the story for me,” she says. And hence the Ickabog illustration competition was launched, judged by book editors and book designers from the publisher along with Pam Smy of the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University. Rowling was not a judge of the competition and did not influence the choice of winners, but she did share and comment on children’s artwork on social media all through summer.
Over 18,000 entries poured in from children aged seven to 12 based in India, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. The 34 winners include eight children from India. Their illustrations are now part of the new exquisite hardback edition of The Ickabog, designed for gifting just before the year-end holidays. This back-story of the book adds spectacularly to its allure, and the India connection makes it very special for readers in this part of the world.
The story of a mythical monster called the Ickabog (inspired from the word ‘ickabod’ which has Hebrew origins and means ‘departed glory’), the book describes the adventures of two children in the imaginary kingdom of Cornucopia. Unlike the innocence of Enid Blyton books and the political correctness of Rowling’s own Harry Potter series, The Ickabog does have bits that may offend modern sensibilities – such as patriarchy and body shaming. The book is also thematically darker, with murders and violence, which may need parental guidance and may not be suitable for very young kids.
But eventually, as all Rowling books go, the power of hope and friendship comes out supreme. And since one knows that all the royalties from this new book will be donated to her charitable trust, Volant, to assist vulnerable groups affected by the Covid pandemic, one may even forgive these tone-deaf lapses as the book was no doubt compiled amidst huge challenges and in a very short period of time during the lockdown.
After all, this is JK Rowling we’re talking about here. The Scotland-based award-winning author’s Harry Potter books have sold over 500 million copies, been translated into over 80 languages, and made into eight blockbuster films. She has written three companion volumes for charity, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which sparked a new series of films.
Her work for adults is also notable. She co-wrote a stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with playwright Jack Thorne, which was directed by John Tiffany. Her series of Cormoran Strike detective novels published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith are also bestsellers, and she is also the founder of children’s charity Lumos.
Her new book is special to us in another way: for the little Indian kids whose illustrations feature in it. Stay tuned for an exclusive look at their work in eShe’s upcoming December 2020 issue.