By Neha Kirpal
“Catch ’em young” is what I believe in, and did, with my daughter Kaavya. I began reading books to her since she was just six months old. This small effort has certainly paid off, and I often find my now four-year-old lost in her universe of amazing books – having memorised several of them, and now actually even ‘reading’ some words phonetically.
My nephews, 10-year-old Neel and seven-year-old Kunal, are avid readers too. Lately, they have been sending Kaavya videos of themselves reading aloud some of their favourite books. Needless to say, there are lots of book exchanges perpetually going on between the three of them.
To the modern mind, colonial-era ‘fairy-tales’ appear insensitive and politically incorrect for all their violence, sexism, racism and villainisation of the ‘other’.
Instead, my family and I are always looking out for engaging, gender-neutral, environmentally conscious and educative children’s storybooks. Here’s a list of 22 beautiful books for kids and tweens that we discovered recently.
Leopard in Mumbai (Karadi Tales, 4 to 8 years): Written by Lubaina Bandukwala, this is a story about a leopard who steps out of his abode, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Even as the leopard is baffled by people’s reactions around him, the reader travels along with him through his Mumbai adventure. The book is filled with eye-catching illustrations (which my daughter can spend hours staring at!) by Berlin-based artist Allen Shaw.
Vatsala Loves Snakes (Karadi Tales, 6 to 9 years): Written by Arthy Muthanna Singh and Mamta Nainy and illustrated by Divya George, this is a story about Vatsala who is fascinated by snakes much to the horror of her mother and best friend. And then, she happens meet another snake lover like herself. Besides sharing information about various kinds of snakes, the book busts myths about these creepy creatures.
The Magic in My Fingers (Karadi Tales, 6 to 9 years): Written by Nandita da Cunha, this book is about Roohi who loves to fly kites, and secretly learns to play the sitar while her father teaches her brother – who wants to be a cook. When her father hears Roohi play the sitar, he decides to teach her too. With beautiful illustrations by Nayantara Surendranath and production designer Kanimozhi A, this is the real-life story about the young Annapurna Devi, the daughter of Allauddin Khan, one of India’s most prominent teachers of classical music.
Waiting for Turtles (Karadi Tales, 6 to 9 years): An excited Samrat is embarking on his first field trip with his sea-turtle-researcher mother to the Tarmugli Island. Here, they wait to observe nesting turtles on a beach under a starlit sky – even a massive green sea turtle laying more than a hundred eggs! This exquisite book written by Pankaj Sekhsaria and illustrated by Vipin Sketchplore shares many facts about these elusive creatures that are found in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, along with the major threats to their survival.
Aai and I (Pickle Yolk Books, 4 years+): Written by Mamta Nainy, this tender tale with lovely illustrations by Sanket Pethkar follows Aadya who is waiting for her Aai (mother) to return home from the hospital. But when she returns, Aadya is disappointed to see her walking slowly, smelling different and without her long, thick locks. Aai refuses to wear a cap, a scarf or a wig, and Aadya keeps wondering about her hair. After a lot of thinking, she decides to chop off her hair too.
Little Girls Are Wiser Than Men (Tara Books, 10 years+): Two young girls dressed in new clothes find a large puddle between their homes. They begin splashing about and splatter themselves with muddy water. Their mothers get angry and soon a huge quarrel breaks out in the village. While the men fight, the young girls make a channel to let the water flow into a nearby creek with the help of wood and stones. A tale about conflict and resolution, the book is adapted by Gita Wolf from a poetic short story by Leo Tolstoy, and illustrated with classic linocut art by Lebanese printmaker Hassan Zahreddine.
Tail Tale (Tara Books, 4 years+): Cat is fed up with her tail and wants a new one that does what it’s told. She is fascinated by Dog’s tail (which wags madly when it’s merry), Mouse’s tail (that helps him lose heat), Pig’s tail (that coils like a spring) and Snake’s tail (that lets him slither around)… until she finally decides to keep her own tail, which waves in warning when she’s teased, stands up straight when she’s pleased and helps her land on her feet with ease. Written by celebrated children’s poet Anushka Ravishankar, the book has stunning illustrations in the Warli style of painting by two young indigenous artist brothers, Tushar Vayeda and Mayur Vayeda.
The Germ Academy (HarperCollins, 4 years+): Written in lyrical prose by Mumbai-based writer Rea Malhotra Mukhtyar and illustrated by Shahena Zaveri, this is a topical book that aims to educate young children about Coronavirus. Covie, who has made it to the hall of fame as the worst germ, is on a mission—to get people sick. Finally, the Soap Squad steps in, comprising Han D’Wah, Mr Foam, Grandma Gel, Lady Loofah and Senor Soap Dish!
Blackout (HarperCollins, 13 years+): Chance encounters, childhood best friends, exes-to-friends, friends-to-lovers, insta-love, love triangles, questions of LGBTQ+ identity and more… Six of the biggest authors of young-adult (YA) literature – Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon – come together to create these unique interconnected stories that are set against the backdrop of a power outage in New York City. Dedicated to Black kids everywhere, the book is also a fitting tribute to NYC, describing its sights, sounds and smells along the way.
India at the Olympics (HarperCollins, 9 years+): With India’s highest medal tally ever in the recently concluded Olympics, this timely book celebrates a century of Indian athletes participating in the world’s biggest sporting event. Written by Seetha Natesh and designed by Ashish Verma, this book, filled with rare pictures and illustrations, traces the history of the historic games down the ages, highlighting India’s achievements and records over the years.
Amar Chitra Katha Folktales Collection (HarperCollins, 8 years+): The stories in this lovely set of three books (Buddhist Stories, Tales of Wit and Wisdom, and Funny Folktales) have been adapted to the chapter book format from the original comics for the first time, bringing together some of the greatest folktales in the Amar Chitra Katha catalogue. A king who can’t think beyond food, a carpenter who works on a single piece of furniture for decades, a disciple who hates his name, a jackal who tries to trick his friends but gets outsmarted instead, a tiger unaware that he fears himself, a cat and a rat who decide to be friends, Akbar and Birbal, Tenali Raman and Gopal Bhand… this collection has it all!
Spooky Stories (HarperCollins, 12 years+): Written by Tanushree Podder with pictures by Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, this is the story of a writer who is forced to spend the night in a tiny railway station when he disembarks from a train to catch a thief – and ends up missing the train. In the midst of a power failure, he finds his way to the waiting room, where he meets a dozen passengers, and they all decide to share ghost stories with each other. The eerie tales meander through an ancient Egyptian tomb, the ruins of an old fort and China’s Forbidden City.
The World Awaits (HarperCollins, 4 years+): Written by London-based spoken-word poet and filmmaker Tomos Roberts, this thoughtful book has some sparkling pictures by Japanese artist and illustrator Nomoco. A young child refuses to wake up one morning until he is reminded of how our potential fades away when we shut out the world and its endless possibilities. With its poetic prose, the book explains that our smallest words and deeds can help make the world a better place, and contribute to a powerful global goodness.
Enola Holmes: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (HarperCollins, 9 years+): Enola is an intelligent 14-year-old sleuth and the youngest sibling of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous detective. This YA series of detective novels by the American author Nancy Springer even has a Netflix film based on it. In this story, Enola has a chance encounter with her old friend Lady Cecily, and realises there is something dreadfully wrong. Risking her freedom, Enola joins Sherlock in order to help save Lady Cecily.
Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef (Scholastic India, 8 years+): Written by Vibha Batra with illustrations by Shamika Chaves, this charming book is about 10-year-old Pinkoo who loves eating and baking desserts, and dreams of becoming a world-famous pastry chef. But his father, who believes that a kitchen is no place for a boy, wants him to become a national-level shooter like his grandfather. With the help of his friends, the most annoying girl and even a professional chef, Pinkoo decides to secretly audition for the Great Junior Bake-A-Thon. With its upbeat prose, this one is sure to inspire young ones to experiment in the kitchen.
The Novel Coronavirus: We Can Stay Safe (Pratham Books, Reading Level 3 – Independent): Neema sings Happy Birthday two times while washing her hands; Ammachi advises that we call the doctor or the government helpline if we have fever, a cough or difficulty breathing; Uma always sneezes into a tissue or her elbow; Farida plans not to touch her face; Meera and Ameera decide to stay at least six feet away; and Nani is staying safe inside the house. Through little stories and rhymes, this book put together by multiple contributors tells us everything we need to know about how to be smart, stay safe and support each other in the time of Covid-19.
Your Body is Yours (Pratham Books, Reading Level 3 – Independent): Written by Yamini Vijayan with visuals by Aindri C, this important book aims to start healthy conversations around one’s bodies. Our bodies are unique and special, and belong only to us. We have the right to say no to anything that makes us uncomfortable. That’s the central message of this book that aims to educate children on vital aspects such as safe and unsafe touch.
I Wish (Pratham Books, Reading Level 3 – Independent): The freedom to speak, to sing, to dance, to breathe well, to sit among flowers in a garden, to eat chocolate, to visit a library, to go anywhere in the world, to play in the rain and enjoy the rainbow, to listen to one’s heart and make our own identity… The wishes of 16 children from across India in this unique bilingual book, ranging from whimsical to poignant, from blunt to deceptively simple, are full of hope and the promise of a better future.
P.S What’s Up with the Climate? (Pratham Books, Reading Level 3 – Independent): Through a series of postcards written by various animals, this creative book by Bijal Vachharajani with art by Archana Sreenivasan paints a picture of our world undergoing climate change – one where it’s sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, sometimes too much rain, sometimes less snow; forest fires and an excess of carbon and pesticides in the atmosphere; and where toads, rats and turtles have gone missing.
The Grass Seeker (Pratham Books, Reading Level 4 – Fluent): This beautiful photo book written by Uddalak Gupta traces the real-life journey that a 67-year-old Gaddi shepherd, Room Singh, has been making for the last 40 years. As the weather turns warm, Room Singh takes his flock and scales the Himalayas for fresh grass. With global warming a reality, the nomadic lifestyle of this generation of pastoral wanderers is fast disappearing. The story is set against some spectacular pictures of this untouched region of Himachal Pradesh by photojournalist Ruhani Kaur.
Rainbow Boys and Girls (Pratham Books, Reading Level 3 – Independent): Currently one of my daughter’s favourites, this two-in-one book written by developmental feminist activist Kamla Bhasin looks at girls and boys as unique individuals rather than boring photocopies of one other. Tall, short, fat, thin, angry, quiet, disabled… the book makes a point that children and people come in all shapes, sizes and forms, and that every boy and girl can be whoever they want to be! Accompanied by adorable pictures by Priya Kuriyan, this delightful book also questions several gender stereotypes.
Making Friends with Snakes (But from a Distance) (Pratham Books, Reading Level 3 – Independent): A book by Rohan Chakravarty, this insightful book is a collaboration with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. Two snakes, Naagin and Dhaman, tell us all about these reptiles while sharing a number of facts along the way – their likes and dislikes and how much they’re like humans. They also elaborate on simple precautions that humans can take to stay safe from snakes and the steps one should take in case of a snakebite accident.