Books to pack in your child’s suitcase this summer vacation

BOOK REVIEW: The Beebop series

Published by: Harper Kids (A Harper Collins imprint)

Ages: 4-7

Price: Rs 75 each

So things happen when you write your first children’s book. Other children’s books start appearing magically in your mail. So when the Beebop series (a Harper Kids imprint) of four charming little story books accompanied with four equally charming activity books showed up, I handed them all over to him, declaring it as his first official review.

The books are about Beebop, the friendly Bee, who takes four friends, Sarah, Jay, Zoya and Zubin on many exciting adventures.

The Beebop series And although I am no book reviewer and I am at that stage in life where I find it tiring to have an opinion on everything, I do have a point of view on what kids should be doing in their holidays and I think reading should form a major chunk of it. Or doing nothing. Or allowing the fertility of boredom.

And now that Re has started to read, it is such a joy to watch him staring letters into words and words into sentences. His first pick was Zoya and the Bee, and it’s a lovely little story of a little girl who chases a bee and “a lot of useful things happen while she is chasing the bee,” as Re put it.

It’s about the magic of friendship, he declared, since he is still heady from Rainbow Rocks. And family, he added.

Although I am not a great one for “activity books”, I would particularly recommend this set  (each book is priced at Rs 75) to carry along on your summer vacation, because the stories are simple in plot and their telling, and the books are a perfect, compact size to slide into your suitcase. Each of the set of activities accompanying every book – including little puzzles, drawing and coloring projects, word scrambles, spot the differences and other brain teasers – has been very thoughtfully put together, and makes you look at the story in a new light, enhancing the reading experience.

Reading aloud and why it must never end

Long before I had a baby, long before I was even in the reckoning for it, I had developed an appetite for children’s books. Perhaps it had to do with my diminishing attention span or inability to focus those days. I would read them aloud, imagine someone reading them aloud to me, buy myself a copy, and buy extra copies and gift them to friends who were having babies when babies are meant to be had. I remember buying The Caterpillar who grew a Mustache for my friend Rashna’s daughter Shibumi and relishing it so much, I didn’t want to give it away.  Needless to say, I was everyone’s favorite aunt, but the whole process created a whole new world for me to live in, where things could be the way I wanted them to be.

I don’t remember too many books from my early childhood, and the earliest books I can remember were from the time I was seven or eight. This was because a large part of my early years was spent listening to stories told by my grandmother, rather than being read to. When I recently tried to put together a book of family stories for Scholastic, I realized I remember each and every story that my grandmother told me, (except one, which I have forgotten the twist to). It’s been nearly four decades, but such is the power of listening.

I began reading to Re quite early, even as I was nursing him. My friend Abira gifted him his first book – Karen Katz’s Where is Baby’s Belly Button?. It was a book he ate, read, played with and listened to, over and over. Reading aloud became our nighttime ritual and it seemed to soothe him and me equally. We moved on to Spot’s antics, Dr Seuss’s delightful journeys, Arthur’s strange neighbours, Pippi’s fascinating adventures, the colorful world of the Mudpuddle farm and many other books, unfolding many new worlds as we grew up. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg is one baby book we have been reading for five years, and there is still that magical moment when we spot Mother Hubbard in the cupboard. We have read aloud brochures and inflight magazines on planes, when a book was in the overhead compartment and clumsy to access; we have read aloud road signs and hoardings and bus shelters on bumpy rides that made reading difficult. We never tired of reading aloud.

Of course technology, the not-so-silent predator, was lurking around everywhere, sometimes in the next room, where his father consumed hundreds of hours of screen time, watching television or gaming. But I carried on, trying to dilute the effects with my nighttime ritual which lasted half hour to an hour, every single day, and still does.

Some days, his father would abandon his controller and join us, and just the fact that the three of us were huddled together, reading aloud, transporting ourselves, took us to a warm fuzzy place. It was like we had coalesced into the family we were meant to be.

I know it’s very easy for any child (even Re) to be completely usurped by technology. It is designed to do that. But as long as I stick my neck out and read to him every day, and as long as he knows that he cannot go to bed without hearing a story from his mamma or dadda or aunt or grandma, all will be well.

Spoon-feeding is easy, and there are just millions of ways of doing so and the iPad is just one. But allowing our children to create their own magical worlds exercising those imagination muscles is harder. It takes time, it takes work, but is oh-so-rewarding in the long run.

The husband, who has been wholly consumed by technology, wanted to do his bit and downloaded glitzy story books on the iPad (something he legitimized the buy of by saying, “it’s for story time”, much to my chagrin). Sure the iPad offers visual, interactive story-telling. But it can’t allow your child to paint the land of Carabas or hear him giggle when he touches his belly button or says “Rumpelsliltskin”. The iPad can’t answer why.

How long do you read aloud? Forever, if you ask me. Weaning a child off reading aloud time just because he can read is like weaning a child off breastfeeding just because he can eat solids. Even social media-infused, technology-deformed people and children come alive when they are read aloud to. At a recent storytelling event I attended at the Loft in Pune, which was packed to the gills, I realized how starved adults are of listening to stories unfold.

Of course the Internet is winning the books vs Internet war. Which only means we have to work harder on our children. Like Megan Cox Gurdon wrote recently in her article in the Wall Street Journal, “In an epoch in which screens of one sort or another have become ubiquitous, it is more vital than ever to read aloud often, and at length, for as long as children will stay to listen. Without sustained adult effort, many kids won’t bother going through the gateway at all.”

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 20th July, 2015)

Review: The Boy Who Drew Cats

The boy who drew catsIn the last two years, Re has been through a rainbow drawing phase and then a castle drawing phase and a butterfly drawing phase and is currently stuck at a ball-gown drawing phase, no less. In each of these phases, I saw a rather unhealthy obsession with getting the details right and repeating the process as if on loop. So when a book called The Boy Who Drew Cats landed on my lap, I realised the timing couldn’t have been better.

Published by Karadi Tales (Price Rs 150), this is a delightful little story retold from the Japanese by Anushka Ravishankar and intricately illustrated with watercolors and ink on rice paper by Christine Kastl.

It had me at cat. For those who know me, you know my obsession with cats and their absolute grace and felicity. I could have been Akiro, the boy in the story who loves drawing cats, except I suck at drawing and would take even less chances with a creature I am in awe of. But I can so foresee Re doing it.

Akiro is a little boy who draws cats. Okay, let me correct that. He draws only cats. On mud, in his rice, on rice-paper, on any surface he can gain access to. His aim is to find the perfect cat, which us cat people know does not exist, but Akiro’s parents don’t and they are worried for him. They send him off to become a priest, but Akiro spends all his time drawing cats on the temple wall. The rest of the story is about his fascinating journey through the world, with his cat drawings as constant companions and how he eventually becomes rich and famous drawing cats all over the world.

If you are a cat person, buy two. If not, buy one and gift it to a cat person.



Learning to grow down

A few days ago, while dropping Re to school, I shared an auto ride with a 12-year-old. He was charming, polite, well-mannered, and I couldn’t help thinking, “This is how I want Re to be when he grows up.” He then asked me what I did. Now this question usually makes me squirm when posed by an adult, particularly at a stage when I am ambivalent about my career (or whatever you could call it). But somehow, I was happy that he asked. I was eager to tell.

“I write,” I said. It felt good to say it in a manner that involved no legacy, no flourish, no validation. He then went on to ask me what I wrote about and that was harder to answer. “Everyday stuff,” I said, after some thought. “Marriage, children, food and things like that? But I try to make it funny.” I really wanted this boy to like me.

–“That must be hard. Humour is the hardest to write,” he said.

–“Yes,” I found myself saying. “It is.”

–“Does it make you happy?” he asked.

–“Yes.” It was a “yes” pregnant with extreme conviction, after years. It was a “yes” that set me free.

I love this boy, I thought. He just distilled the meaning of my life for me in this very short ride.

Re and I are going to have many such conversations in the years to come, I thought. This is going to be so much fun, my chirpy mind told me, while my body, still weary from broken sleep and the overtures of my child, an extremely “morning person”, did a mild grumble. I hushed it. My body is getting used to getting hushed by my mind these days.

Children are as liberating as they are limiting. On most days, I feel physically depleted by motherhood, but my mind has never been more fertile as it has been in the last three years. Re and I live in a world of green dogs, blue horses, pink hippos and cats wearing hats, and in that world, anything seems possible. Lions sleep with zebras, baby bears drive mamma bears around, fish climb up mountains, sharks have pet rhinos and cats lick dogs. I love playing along. I seem to be asking “why not” instead of “why” more often these days. I want to learn how to skate, write for children, do ballet, somersault.

Pic By Bajirao Pawar

I think we all reach that point in life when jobs and relationships make us more adult than we ever wanted to be and soon we find ourselves all grown up and nowhere to go. I was there too till I felt slightly rescued by my child. I am enjoying the growing down much more than the growing up. There’s definitely less angst. And more exclamation marks.

Very often, you also put your foot in your mouth. In a nice way. Like when Re asked me one day, while watching Shrek 2:

– “Mamma, why is Shrek beating Puss in Boots?”

– “Because he really annoyed him and that made Shrek angry.”

– “But he is a good boy, no?”

– “Yes, but sometimes, good boys do bad things too.”

I found myself thinking deeper about the treacherous dichotomy of life when Re told me one day:

– “Mamma, you are a very bad girl.”

– “Why?”

– “Because you are a good girl.”

Children have that effect. Just when you thought you had reached a dead end, along comes someone “Youer than You” and you begin to feel grateful to Dr Seuss for helping you start all over again.

So I found “me” back. I found I liked mud and water, that clothes were limiting and that norms were lacerating. I found the joy in black, my child’s favourite shade of paint. I found that horses looked good in pink and a sheep had every business to eat a lion if it wanted to. I found my body. I found dance and how to let it all go. (He had me at “You did it mamma!”). I found that there was a whole new universe in children’s books, for even a die-hard realist like me. I realised that there can never be enough oxygen. Or words. I found a little room in my head where I used to live.

(This post appeared as my column in the Indian Express Eye on 1st July, 2012)