Author’s shelf: Top Children’s book recommendations

A few recommendations for children’s books, from my personal bookshelf. See any favorites? 
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(Bottom to top)

The Dog Who Lost His Bark by Eoin Colfer
A gorgeous, pencil-illustrated book that shows why pets should not be bought, but adopted. An entertaining and moving story that drives the point home. 

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle – a fantasy-adventure novel which is a great introduction to sci-fi, for young readers. It’s not my favourite genre but this book is nothing short of terrific! 

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson- 
A coming-of-age adventure book you won’t forget in a hurry. Themes of fantasy, young love and coping with tragedy, make it a compelling read. 

Malgudi‘ and ‘The maneater of Malgudi’ by RK Narayan – The television series based on this fictional village was the reason why I picked up my first book as a child. It’s been the biggest influence on my writing and I can’t recommend it enough for RK Narayan’s inimitable style and storytelling. 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie – Soon after the fatwa in his name for writing Satanic Verses, Rushdie surprised the world with his first children’s novel- an allegorical book that explores contemporary issues in the world while drawing on classic fantasy tales. 

Rain in the Mountains by Ruskin Bond
A collection of stories that have a way of connecting with the reader beyond the barriers of age- by one of my favorite writers, whom I have the privilege of calling a mentor!

‘Kim’ and ‘Just so stories’ by Rudyard Kipling.
Kim – a story set in Imperial India, is one of my favorite reads from the Nobel prize-winning author, Rudyard Kipling. The intriguing characters and exciting plot make for a book that’s unputdownable- even for adults. 

Just So stories’ is a collection of delightful tales with Kipling’s signature wit. A must-read for younger children, to exercise their imagination and develop a keen sense of humor.

The Kirkus review of ‘Tales from the Himalayas’

Thrilled to receive another fabulous review for my illustrated collection of short stories,’Tales from the Himalayas’ – this time, from the prestigious Kirkus Reviews. Here’s what it has to say:

The adventures of kids living in the Himalayan mountain region are recounted in this debut collection of short stories for children.

These 17 tales are set in the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand among the Himalayas. In several stories, kids develop character through learning confidence and facing fears. In “The Villain,” for example, a girl talented in drama is distraught when her dark skin isn’t considered “pretty and dainty” enough to play the hero. Her sister convinces her that she’s special, beautiful, and strong—perfect for the fierce demon king, and she’s a huge hit in the role. Some pieces are ghost stories, as with “Daak Ghar,” in which village children test rumors that an abandoned post office is cursed. Other tales are based on inspiring, real-life figures, like the explorer and surveyor Nain Singh Rawat, or events. While several stories are set in the present day or recent past, others feel timeless: A little girl helps a dangerous animal, in this case a snow leopard, who later proves grateful; a king holds a contest to make a princess smile. Others subtly teach moral lessons, as when a girl learns the value of taking pride in any kind of work.

Pradhan—a journalist—cleverly weaves Uttarakhand culture and traditions into these entertaining stories. In one tale, for example, TV sets are among the loot of bandits who get trapped by a circle of traditional Choliya dancers celebrating the Holi festival. The stories also hold together well, as when the haunted post office’s function connects with its spookiness: Any trespasser “gets a mysterious letter in his name, which means he is the next victim of the blood-sucking ghouls that live there.”

Well-written, varied tales that draw on universal motifs and offer an appealing setting.” – Kirkus Reviews

*Kirkus Reviews are independent and unbiased, written by carefully vetted book reviewers from amongst a group of writers, librarians, educators and editors.

Buy the book on Amazon or Flipkart India. (International shipping for the book to open next week).

Convenience Store Woman: Book review

Japanese writer, Sayaka Murata’s translated book, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is edgy, dark and unpredictable. In parts, even speculative. 

A lot of the reviews on the book called it hilarious/comical for some reason, which is absurd because I found it alltogether grim. Perhaps because Asian societies are very similar in the way they put pressure on individuals to conform, I found the scenario too real for it to tickle me.

The best thing about the protagonist, Keiko Furukura is that you don’t know where you stand with her. Do you dislike her, sympathize with her or are just plain frightened by her?

What would you make of her 36- year existence without an identity outside of her strobe-lit workplace? She is convinced that her place in society is that of a ‘convenience store worker’ and absolutely nothing else. 

Keiko has never had the time or inclination for love- platonic or romantic. Even her two- three acquaintances consider her a ‘foriegn object’ in their circle because of her robotic, abnormal lifestyle, which inexplicably revolves around a part-time job. 

She even steers towards psychopathic tendencies when she mimics the intonation and accents of two of her female colleagues in order to appear more ‘normal’, or when she wonders why her sister does not simply stab her baby with a knife that’s within reach, to make him stop crying. 

Her childhood episodes reveal she lacks empathy – a crucial factor that shapes her life and defines her ‘abnormality’. At the same time, she’s highly intelligent and self-aware, so she hatches a plot to cheat her way into being accepted by society. Does it work? There lies the crux of the story.

Since the story is narrated in first person, it gives us a glimpse into her perspective of the world- sometimes, it’s grotesquely skewed and sometimes, startlingly clear.

Her sister, Mami’s opinion of Keiko’s ‘abnormality’ reflects the double standards of modern society. Keiko observes that Mami is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.” 

The reason I find the book leaning towards the speculative genre is because maybe our gradually eroding empathy as humans and our relentless need for societal approval is starting to skew our own perspective of the world. There may be a generation of humans who become so accustomed and indoctrinated into functioning as ‘cogs in the wheel’ of corporate machines, that they don’t have an individual identity anymore. 

Isn’t it happening already?

Where’s the work-life balance? There’s this constant need to work on the next career goal, next appraisal, next job and making our entire lives about work. In Japanese popular culture, there’s a growing section of youngsters with a strong aversion to sex and romance. There’s a name for it- the celibacy syndrome. 

Arn’t we all then, somehow becoming Keiko? Well, that frightened me the most (even more than her baby-stabbing idea).

Overall, an intense and thought-provoking book that throws light on social constructs that we subconsciously live within, seemingly happily. A highly recommended read.

My thoughts on ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

As the feminist re-telling of the Mahabharata, Divakaruni’s work stands out distinctly  amongst the scores of adaptations and renditions of the ancient Hindu epic.

Set in a deeply patriarchal society, this is the story of Drapuadi – a fiery, outspoken and fearless princess who, despite all her virtues and achievements, was known and remembered only for her vengeful and manipulative nature.

The Mahabharata is complex, with characters, episodes and incidences that overlap and/or stretch for over decades together, but Divakaruni’s story-telling is masterful. Her writing flows beautifully and effortlessly, allowing the reader to absorb, pause and reflect.

Draupadi’s perspective unfolds in a way that the reader is fully invested in her cause and immersed in her narrative.

Draupadi (or Panchaali, her favoured name), is by no means someone who can be defined or described in a sentence. Divakaruni urges the reader to empathise with this character’s multi-layered persona – even her pride, and her all-consuming thirst for revenge. Panchaali, is strong-wiled and isn’t afraid to put her needs and desires first – qualities that may not be necessarily likeable, but are certainly relatable, especially for the modern woman.

In a society where polygamy was the norm and royals or noblemen were accustomed to taking many wives, Panchaali was constantly chastised for marrying the Pandava brothers. This, despite the fact that it was never her own choice or intention.

In the ‘PG-rated’ version of the televised Mahabharata in the 80’s (which I watched as a child), I always thought of Panchaali’s character as only the victim of dubious situations – such as her mother-in-law declaring that she must marry all five of her sons instead of one, or her husbands ‘losing her’ to the villains in a wager of chess. It was only now, I realized that Panchaali was made to take turns to live with each brother for two years as a wife and repeat this cycle for the rest of her life. Little wonder then, she was never in love with any of her husbands.

As cringe-worthy this situation may be, I realized where some of her motivations came from and why she was considered to be cold-hearted. Could I blame her, after being passed around by all the brothers, each of whom had wives and children of their own, on the side? It was unfair that she was made to live such a strange and loveless existence, as ordered by her mother-in-law.

The antagonists, Duryodhan and Karna, had their ego bruised by Panchaali in public, which why they took the first opportunity to humiliate her. The public disrobing and shaming of Panchaali is the crux of the story of Mahabharat, making her the all-important character in the great epic.

After her public humiliation, she used her position as wife to five of the greatest warriors in history, to rally them against those who insulted her. She made sure the fires of vengeance burned brightly in them for twelve long years, in exile. She appealed to their sense of duty and justice, reminded them that her dishonour was theirs too and systematically propelled them towards the greatest war that mankind had ever witnessed. Manipulative? I call it being human.

Divakaruni makes the reader root heavily for Panchaali right till then end, when she is finally united with her soul-mate – Karna, in after-life. Her inexplicable draw towards Karna, her husbands’ half-brother and arch enemy, made for one of the most compelling and intriguing parts of the book.

The book ends in the aftermath of the war, where Panchaali was repentant for the war, having lost her beloved brother and her own sons in battle. As she ascends the mountains along with the Pandavas on their Final Journey, Divakaruni pens some poignant words which stay with the reader long after finishing the book – those of duty, sacrifice, family and vengeance but most of all, of love.

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When I found the exact spot which was used for the cover of the book, at Jaipur City Palace, Rajasthan

Milk Teeth By Amrita Mahale: Book review

I thought about why the book is named, ‘Milk teeth’. 

Is it a reference to earstwhile Bombay’s shedding of it’s post-industrial era greasepaint, into a shiny new coat of cosmopolitan, glitzy, ‘Mumbai’? Or is about the people that constitute the great metropolis, shedding their migrant ideologies, old habits and ethos to survive in the city of dreams? 

Perhaps its about how the central characters, Ira Kamat and Kartik Kini, two childhood friends, grow into their respective adult lives in post- liberalized India – in ways that are vastly different from what is expected out of them.

This was a time when satellite channels were beamed on television sets, the telephone had just arrived at home, cars had suddenly become more accessible- harbingers of permanent change. So was the rapidly changing skyline of Mumbai, from the comfortable chaos of Matunga’s network of crumbling old buildings to neat squares of sparkling new high-rises, grudgingly rubbing shoulders.

The story follows the life of a city reporter in Mumbai in the late 90’s. Ira Kamat is a third-generation daughter of working-class immigrants from the Konkan coast – a Goud Saraswat Brahmin (something she’s keenly reminded of, in her firmly casteist, bourgeois family). Her family’s tussle with their building’s landlord and a builder who want to drive out all the ‘tenants’ who’ve been occupying the building for generations, is intertwined with her childhood friendship and consequent courtship with Kartik Kini, who hails from a fellow high-caste ‘bourgie’ family.

A certain secret, forbidden love-affair exposes a glaring contrast to the protagonist’s middle-class values and manner of life.

As Kartik and Ira’s lives unfold, the story exposes the acrid class, caste and religious divides amongst the people of 90’s Bombay. The characters are vulnerable at times, irreverent at others- giving us an intimate glimpse into their lives and an insight into the motivations of millions of middle- class Indians living in the city.

I liked how my feelings for the three central characters were made to oscillate wildly throughout the book. Just when I started to hate one of them, Mahale carved a soft corner for him in my heart. Likewise, just when I stared to feel terrible for another character, she made him do something so vile, I recoiled in horror. I liked this ebb and flow of emotion- it kept me engaged and made sure I wasn’t partial to a particular character. It gave me objectivity as a reader, which was crucial to the story.

The exhaustive, everyday race for a better life is so poignantly put in words, the rich architectural heritage of south Bombay so intricately described, and the gaping class divide so sharply dissected, that it turns ‘Milk Teeth’ into a slick, sharp-tongued tour guide, offering a rare, voyeuristic view of the city.

I would’ve probably written the last page of the book differently, though. There was ample closure for the central character, Ira but I felt like there was something amiss – something huge. Apart from this, and the over-use of the word ‘acquiescence’ (four times in the second half of the book. Why? It’s not even a particularly good word), I relished the novel, page by page. 

A beautifully written and thought-provoking debut.

How to overcome ‘writer’s block’?

Firstly, stop calling it that.

What if I told you its a make-believe monster? That it doesn’t exist?

Now you may argue that every writer faces this creative impasse, when things don’t come naturally, there’s friction in the thought process and hindrance in the flow of writing.

Ofcourse, that’s true.

But writing is a CREATIVE PROCESS – one can never expect it to be consistent and mechanical. There’s bound to be a point when the creative juices dry up and all you can do is stare at the keyboard instead of typing away. But then, you’re a creative writer and not an Excel monkey!

The more you think of this pause in creativity, by giving it fancy names, shapes and forms, the bigger it becomes in your mind, ultimately overwhelming you to a point of giving up. So there are a few things you can do, to overcome this creative impasse.

Here are some of the things I do to get my writing mojo back.

Read
Set some time apart everyday to read something in the genre you’re writing in. Even better, read your ultimate favorite book again, so it gets you in touch with your love for the written word. Read something that inspires you to hit that keyboard again, and hit it hard.

Reading also helps you get in touch with your own motivations to write- takes you back to the basics. Let’s face it, a writer writes because of his love for reading!

Automatic writing
This is a new trick I’ve learnt, which has worked wonders for my writing. Before you begin writing for the day, spend just 10-15 minutes with a pen and notepad and simply write anything that comes to mind. ANYTHING. It could be absolute nonsense but just make sure the tip of the pen does not leave the paper for those ten minutes. No pressure, no one will ever read what you’ve written.

This is an excellent exercise to unlock your subconscious mind and bring your inner thoughts, motivations, fears and emotions to the fore, on paper. You’ll be surprised how those ideas and thoughts will make their way into your writing, later. Its a great way to unplug your mind and purge your ideas when you’re feeling stuck.

Free write about your work
As a variation of the automatic writing technique, where you simply jot down whatever comes to mind, I often free write within a structure- that is, think about my story or characters and then free write about them, making sure I keep writing for atleast 15-20 minutes without stopping to think.

My best ideas and plot twists have been born out of this exercise.

Take free online course on writing

Let’s face it- staring at the computer screen is no better use of time, so you may as well learn something new. Select from hundreds of free online writing courses and listen to experts talk about the craft of writing. Work through some of those writing exercises- it will give you the push you need.

Soon, you’ll be itching to apply those tips and tricks to your own work and you’ll find yourself well on the way to finishing your manuscript.

Take a break!
Sometimes, its just about mental fatigue. Or boredom. Whatever it is, give your mind a break – but don’t let it wander too far.

No phones or TV or games. Give your mind a visual or sensory break by doing something different, but still in the creative space. CREATE something else.

Like painting, or coloring books, cooking or pottery or even music and dance. This will give your mind a break but not let it slip into zombie mode (yes I’m talking about flipping through TV channels/ Netflix- DON’T go there).

When you come back to writing, you’ll be refreshed and rejuvenated.

So these are some of the things I do to give myself that creative push. Hope it helps!

The Happy-Maker: A book is born

Well, the idea of writing my first children’s book germinated one evening, as I was feeling particularly low.

In times like these, I always think of my grandmother, whom I was very fond of, while growing up. I think of resting my head on her warm lap and drifting off to sleep with her rhythmic patting on my back and her rather hoarse but soothing voice, telling me one of her many stories (some of which I suspect she made up on the go).

The smell of her well-oiled, shiny long hair permeated in the air – a mixture of gooseberry and coconut oil- which for me, is still the most comforting aroma in the world.

I’d often badger her to tell me my favorite story – the one with ‘Phool kumari’, a beautiful princess who lived high up in the Himalayas, amongst goats and cows, birds and trees.

The story remained the same throughout the years, but her animated, spirited story-telling made all the difference, each time.

That gloomy evening, it was her sweet memory that had me so overwhelmed with emotion that I found myself remembering each and every word of that story.

By the time the story was over in my mind, I was sobbing, not out of sadness, but just a sort of catharsis. I felt light, happy and full of enthusiasm.

I got off my bed in a tearing rush, I penned down my grandmother’s story for my own daughter, Mira. I hoped that someday, when she’s in need of a hug, she will be able to draw the same kind of comfort and warmth from my grandmother’s story.

That gave birth to the idea that I could tell this story not just for my own daughter but for other children as well. I could illustrate it and make a book out of it!

And so my first book was concieved.

The first draft was written in about 20 minutes on my laptop, at the edge of my bed. But of course, it wasn’t until two months and 6 other drafts later, a refurbished, polished and embellished adaptation of ‘The Happy -Maker’ was finally ready.

My grandmother was my happy-maker and hence this book is dedicated to her. Today, she’s no more but her memories live on through her stories, making her part of my everyday life.

With this book, I hope she’ll be part of many more.

Illustration: Mithila Ananth