Here’s a list of books that we especially love, and why!
Author: Roddy Doyle
I think one of the most exciting things brewing in children’s literature today is to see writers of fiction (read: Books for adults/ older readers) turning towards children’s writing. It’s a sure sign that this genre is finally coming of age and writers, publishers and educators are giving it its rightful due. Roddy Doyle (of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha fame and 1993 Booker winner) is one such writer who’s steadily bringing out books for young readers. He began with the absolutely enjoyable The Giggler Treatment (2000) followed by Rover Saves Christmas (2001) and The Meanwhile Adventures (2004), and now a novel for teenagers, Wilderness.
Wilderness is not irreverent or laugh-out-loud funny in the usual Roddy Doyle style. But it’s a book that is flawless and superbly written.
In a Dublin suburb, Frank Griffin lives with his daughter Gráinne, wife Sandra and their two sons Johnny and Tom. Frank’s first wife Rosemary (Gráinne’s mother) left them many years ago and they have heard that she has since moved to America. Frank married Sandra when Gráinne was six and all was well until Gráinne’s teenage years brought troubled times to the family. The situation comes to a peak when they receive news that Rosemary is visiting Dublin and wants to meet her daughter.
For a respite from the tensions at home, and to allow Gráinne and Rosemary their time together, Sandra takes her boys on a winter safari to Finland. In the wilderness, in the company of the beautiful huskies, Johnny and Tom come into their own. They are thrilled to be there, the only children on the safari. And in the company of Aki and Kalle, the guides, they make their acquaintance with the huskies.
The thrill of the wilderness takes a turn when their mother fails to return with her sled one night. Johnny and Tom decide to go on a rescue mission with the dogs. Meanwhile in Dublin, Rosemary is trying hard to reach out to her daughter but after such a long gap, Gráinne isn’t sure she can find her mother in this woman.
Do the children find their mothers’ forms the rest of the novel. It’s a touching story without an overdose of sentimentality. I especially like the way the boys and the huskies relate to each other and for those who don’t understand or acknowledge the interdependence of man and animals, this drives home the point.
Doyle taught English and Geography and it was only after the release of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993 did he give it up to become a fulltime writer.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Author: Brian Selznick
Age: 9 +
I discovered this book in early 2007 while trawling the web. The book was not released yet but the website was up by and Selznick’s illustrations were mindblowing! Like Maurice Sendak, Selznick too displays a versatility in his style and it’s always a pleasure to see an artist push the envelope steadily. The concept of this work of art is a skilful blending of illustration and text, combining the idea of filmmaking (Selznick draws inspiration from Georges Méliès the filmmaker from the early 20th century).
Now, the book. It’s a beautifully bound hardback and hopefully the sheer volume of pages will discourage a paperback edition. The pages are thick and every page will make you gasp in wonder. The illustrations are as much a part of the story and if you take the advice of the author and read it like a movie, the impact is memorable.
Set in turn of the century Paris, Hugo Cabret is an orphan living in a train station. His obsession is to get the robot that his father had found, to work. All he has to guide him are the notes his father left him. Forced to make ends meet when his uncle disappears, Hugo takes up his uncle’s job of being the winder of clocks. He also begins to nick little things from a toy booth in order to fix this robot. There he comes in contact with an unusual girl and the toy booth owner who’s more mysterious than meets the eye and the story picks up pace. The toy booth owner catches Hugo stealing and comes upon the notebook, which makes him really angry. He confiscates it and threatens to destroy the book. Hugo is now desperate to get it back; he is determined to finish what his father started. Selznick ties it all up rather neatly in the end.
It’s a well-told story but more than that it is an exciting book to hold and read. The storyline is interesting and at times it may feel as though the charcoal sketches overpower the text. But it’s a book I recommend strongly and if you have a few reluctant readers in your class, try this book on them – the sheer volume may look intimidating but once they open the book and see that more than half of it is in pictures, they may actually try and see what it’s all about.
Brian Selznick worked at a bookstore while also writing and illustrating his first book, The Houdini Box. He is probably best known for his illustrations for Andrew Clements Frindle. Selznick won the Caldecott Honor for The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (2001).
George’s Secret Key to the Universe
Author: Lucy & Stephen Hawking
Age: 9 to 12
Everyone knows Stephen Hawking – the author of the bestselling A Brief History of Time. I haven’t read that one yet but the latest book of his, co authored with his daughter Lucy, titled George’s Secret Key to the Universe was an enjoyable read. The first book for children by Stephen Hawking, it combines the story of a young boy’s adventure into outer space with space facts interwoven in it.
George lives with his technophobic parents and his pet pig, Freddy. He is acutely aware of how different his family is from those of his classmates, especially at lunch! One day, thanks to Freddy he ventures into his neighbour’s yard (something he has been forbidden to do by his parents) and comes in contact with Annie and her father, Eric, who happens to be a brilliant scientist. Eric introduces George to Cosmos, the computer so powerful that it can draw you a doorway to space. George’s days are spent learning more and more things about space. Of course, there comes a twist in the tale with Greeper (Dr G Reeper, George’s teacher) who is definitely after something. The adventure begins when Eric is stuck in space with no contact with Cosmos who has been stolen (kidnapped?). George and Annie have to save Eric but first they have to find Cosmos.
Throughout the story are interwoven passages on the black holes, planets, illustrations and scientific drawings that answer any questions the reader may have. I skipped some of them but it was good to know that the facts were there if I wanted to know more. I also liked how there was a reasonable argument between those who are pro technology and those against. It offers scope for further discussion if you are recommending this book for your class.
On the whole, it is an interesting concept and probably the direction in which many children’s books are headed – combining information within an interesting story. From histories, to science, mythology and now space, stories seem to be the chosen medium. And George’s Secret Key… is a commendable effort and good for a “romp through space”.
If you liked the book, watch out for the second book in the series, due for release in September 2008.
The Diary of Ma Yan: The Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl
Author: Ma Yan
I found myself drawn to books on history, biographies and autobiographies. There were some amazing books to pick and choose from but one that caught my attention was The Diary of Ma Yan.
It’s a series of journal entries by a 13-year old Chinese girl, Ma Yan who lives in a remote village in northern China, inhabited by the Islamic Hui community. The book begins from the time when her mother tells Ma Yan that she may not be able to return to school as the family has no money to pay for her education. The girl is distraught and her mother wills herself to work harder to keep her daughter in school.
As it happens, Ma Yan is a prolific diary-keeper and in 2001, a French expedition with Pierre Haski was visiting Zhangjiashu village when a woman suddenly came out of the crowd to hand over three notebooks to them. She was Bai Juhua and the notebooks contained the diaries of her daughter Ma Yan.
While she eats, my grandmother says to me: ‘You look so serious! I really wonder what it is you’re writing. Our lives have so little interest.’
Ma Yan’s writing captures the thirst of the parched land, the routine monotony of their lives, and the longing for respite, however brief it may be. Even her lessons at school seem weary as the teachers, indoctrinated in Communist philosophy over decades, go about doing their jobs unenthusiastically. There is none of the excitement of exploring or discovering something in class and rather, the pressing need to perform well if Ma Yan has to stay in school.
The recurring themes are of Ma Yan’s concern for her mother who works in the fields to earn money to send her children to school. Ma Yan often feels an enormous sense of guilt tinged with gratitude for she knows the sacrifices that are being made to keep her in school. When she sees her grandparents, her concerns envelop them too. She looks at her 80-year old grandmother and wishes that she’d live to be a hundred so that Ma Yan has time to grow, find employment and offer them the happiness they have never known thus far.
The publication of her diaries ensured that Ma Yan could stay in school. Furthermore, support came from various philanthropists and more such girls were able to be return to school. It’s a great book to pick up and initiate discussions on China, Communism, population challenges, and the existence of a religious community within an atheistic society.
The Long Lost Map
Author: Pierdomenico Baccalario aka Ulysses Moore
Ages 9 -12
Okay, I confess I accidentally skipped the first volume and picked up the second in the series. But it was such a fun ride that I couldn’t be bothered right then to stop and see that I was in the wrong book.
Have you ever wanted to time-travel? Not in a contraption that will squeeze the atoms in your body and realign them (hopefully) when you reach your destination. But more like stepping through a magic door and voila, you’re in Egypt. Well, I have always wanted to time travel and with this book, I felt like an armchair time traveller.
Jason and Julia Covenant are eleven-year-old twins, who have just moved to Kilmore Cove with their parents. Their parents are away and the two are home alone at Argo Manor with only Nestor the butler for company. Rick Banner, a friend, who has spent all his life at Kilmore Cove, comes over to Argo Manor and the three find themselves in an adventure that begins right away in Chapter 1. Well, as it happens, the three of them have been messing about with the diary of Ulysses Moore, former resident of Argo Manor and find themselves through the door that takes them way back in time. Eventually, they will figure that it is ancient Egypt.
In a small accident, Julia returns to our world but the boys are stuck in time, where they meet, Maruk (daughter of the High Priest, no less) who befriends the two. It’s not just a stroll through an old world for Jason and Rick soon figure that Ulysses Moore has left a clue for a map of Kilmore Cove and they begin their search for it. All is well until they hear their neighbour from the other side, the nasty Oblivia Newton, also in ancient Egypt, also looking for the very same map! The plot thickens and a thrilling journey through ancient Egypt is well underway. Meanwhile in Argo Manor, Julia and Nestor find themselves fighting Oblivia’s manservant, the big bad Manfred.
The story doesn’t end with this book. There are a total of 6 volumes and this is just Book 2! So make a pot of hot chocolate, stack up on your favourite munchies and begin this journey! Along the way, you get a good dose of history lesson too!
For books set in Ancient Rome, try the Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence; for King Arthur’s times, the Squire Tales by Gerald Morris, and on Greek Gods, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Stories of yore were never this much fun!
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Ages 7 – 9
Having enjoyed McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency so thoroughly, I was thrilled to find his books for children. And I haven’t stopped thrusting them on all who ask me for a recommendation, be it voracious readers or slightly reluctant ones.
Calculator Annie is such a fun read, especially for those who don’t enjoy math so much. Annie is a little girl who cannot add 2 and 2. Nor can she subtract, multiply or divide. Worse still, she cannot use the calculator to help her out! Poor Annie! She struggles through her math homework and even the expert who visits the school to see if she can be helped shakes her head in dismay.
(Sigh!) One day Annie falls asleep with her father’s calculator under her head and strange things happen when she wakes up. She can add more than her teachers, and even the Headmaster can manage! Annie is a math genius!
As you will see, life as a genius is not an easy one. Annie figures it too, for you cannot be smarter than a computer and hope no one will notice. Soon, she is invited to participate I in an international mathematical competition with Mrs Nandidrooka and Mr Willoughby Quick, renowned mathematicians.
It’s not much of a mystery, but I won’t give away the end anyway!
Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and has lived there and in Scotland. Besides Calculator Annie and other books like The Popcorn Machine, The Joke Machine, The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean, and books for adults, he has also authored books on medical and criminal law, and philosophy.
Singing for Mrs Pettigrew
A story-maker’s journey
By Michael Morpurgo
What a book this is! We picked it up recently for the library and I forced myself to slow down because I just didn’t want the book to end. For those who have not heard of Morpurgo, he was Children’s Laureate from 2003-05 and a prolific writer (author of over a hundred books!).
Singing for Mrs Pettigrew is a collection of his essays and short stories, which take the reader through the things that shaped Morpurgo’s life and his career. Calling himself a “grower of stories” he alternates incidents from his life and links it the short story that came from it. Morpurgo’s magic lies in how personal the stories feel and how honest they are. A lot of the stories in the collection are in first person and you almost sense the memories the have lingered with the writer long enough to be woven into a story. There are 11 stories and the ones I love a little more than the others are ‘Meeting Cezanne’, ‘I Believe in Unicorns’, ‘My Father is a Polar Bear’, and ‘The Mozart Question’.
The reason I’ve recommended it for teachers is because it somehow reminded of my own childhood, going back to things that I cherish. Of school, the teachers I remember are those who were able to earn my affection. It allows for a lot of introspection and prods the reader very gently to dig out his memories, as he himself has done.
Morpurgo brings alive those aspects of one’s childhood – showing how a story-maker picks from his own life to weave a tale. It’s not an autobiography for what he offers the reader is a “deeper insight” to maybe appreciate the stories a little more. Perhaps there are, among your wards, those who dream of becoming a writer and this book will make for a great companion on that journey.
The Adventures of Feluda
By Satyajit Ray
Ages 9 and above
Feluda is not the title of any one of Satyajit Ray’s books but sitting down, I found it hard to single out any one book out of the collection. There’s something supremely satisfying about reading a Feluda story. It evokes a certain complete-ness of experience that only a well-crafted detective novel can do. I can go on and on but here’s some background to the books themselves.
Feluda is one of Ray’s best-known literary creations. A super sharp detective, Pradosh Mitter aka Feluda by the bhadralok reminds one of Holmes but is closer home since the Kolkata of Feluda carries the whiff of mustard oil and the cacophony of honking vehicles. Like Holmes too, Feluda has a trusting companion, his cousin Topshe and the two are often joined by Lalmohan Babu who is a bit of a bungling writer. Together, they solve mysteries that baffle the best minds in the business. Feluda, of course, is the perfect detective – cool and composed with a razor sharp mind. The stories, although written years ago (the first Feluda story appeared in 1961, in Sandesh, a Bengali children’s magazine started by Ray’s grandfather) don’t feel dated. Perhaps the only time you realize that it’s from a different decade is when Feluda lights his cigarette, so un-politically correct for a children’s book nowadays.
Ray wrote in Bengali and in all, 35 Feluda stories made their way into the lives of his readers creating a fan following that still exists in Bengal and now to the rest of the country. Indian publishers looking, I assume, for ‘quality’ children’s writing, struck gold with these stories. The translations I have been reading are by Gopa Majumdar and Chitrita Banerjee for Puffin Books. Having never read the original in Bengali (despite buying a copy of Learn Bengali in 30 days) I can only say that they were thoroughly enjoyable and I recommend them with all the gusto I can muster. Look out for these books, published under the series, The Adventures of Feluda, by Penguin India.
Emil and The Three Twins
By Erich Kastner
Ages 9 to 12
This is not a new book (published in 1931) but while looking for more stories of sleuths and detectives, I wandered around the library and this book stood out. Three twins? That’s a mystery to solve in itself, I thought, as I picked it off the shelf.
I quickly realized that this was the second book in the series (seem to be making a habit of it!) but Kastner endeared himself to me with his two introductions to Emil and the Three Twins – the first for beginners who haven’t read the first title, Emil and the Detectives, and another for experts who are ready for the next adventure.
Originally written in German after the First World War, the book is simply marvelous. Emil’s friend, the Professor has just inherited a house in the seaside and wants to invite his friends, Emil, Gustav and Little Tuesday. Here, even as they begin to enjoy their holiday, adventure comes in the form of an acrobat and his twins. The plot thickens with the acrobat hatching a plan to give up on one twin who’s getting too heavy for the job. Emil and his friends are horrified that a father could do such a thing and decide to save the twin from this tragedy by foiling the plan.
It’s a rather mad book but so thoroughly enjoyable. Kastner lived through both the world wars and was against the Nazi rule. Consequently his books were banned in Germany during the Second World War. A quick look at Wikipedia will reveal a talented and a prolific writer for children. What works for Emil and the Three Twins is that it is an unpretentious story that spills very easily into the author’s world, seeming almost real and not entirely fictional. And I found it to a refreshing change from the later books – the American sleuth teams of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, or the British Famous Five sort of mysteries that somehow takeover this genre.
The Lion and the Lamb
Ages 9 +
One comes across so many books by American and British authors that I picked this one because it’s by an Australian writer and I was curious to see the things they write about. It turned out to be a fantastic choice for Harlen is first and foremost a skilled and sensitive writer, and The Lion and the Lamb is a very well written story.
The Lion and the Lamb is set in an urban Australian locale. It’s the story of neighbours, migrants, four children and their fathers, life in the city, political differences, racism – all of these and more. First, a brief on the novel: When Hector Castillo (who’s Nicaraguan) is bullied by the Russian twins Evgeny and Dimitri Stolkov who live upstairs, his father Juan is furious. He stomps upstairs and threatens the Stolkovs with his gun much to everyone’s horror. And as if to drive home the fact that he’s serious, he shoots the goldfish that belonged to one of the boys. Hector makes it up to him by buying him two goldfish as a present and there’s truce between the boys that soon leads to easy camaraderie, their cultural differences not withstanding.
Hector finds it more difficult to bridge the differences with his father. Their relationship is strained but as relationships with family members go, it’s also undeniably close. Juan wants his son to be a fighter and tells him, ‘It’s a shame you are a man.’
And Hector retorts – ‘It’s a shame I have a man like you for a father.’
Yet, all Hector wants to be is a fisherman, just like his father had been in the old country. Touching without being sentimental. I also liked how the son is more responsible and mature than his father – quite a refreshing change from stereotypes.
There are a lot of things that I liked about the book, most of all that it’s not preachy and that it doesn’t explore the racism or cultural angle very explicitly. Harlen’s characters are people first and all other things that define them, later. In an early interview that I found online, Harlen has said, “The restrained nature of the narrative voice also has to do I think with my reluctance to impose judgements, I don’t mean to portray what happens as shocking or unconscionable, that’s simply what happens…I don’t believe there will ever be an end to the conflicts of race, class and gender. I think people’s attitudes toward these things are forged somewhere very deep in the mind, far beyond the public realm in which a writer has any influence.”
I don’t know about that but what I do believe is that words carry a great deal of power and perhaps books like this will drive us all towards a better world.
Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land
Ages 9 +
I picked up this book because I’d heard Navayana’s publisher, Anand talk about it at a seminar. This indie publishing house focuses on the issue of caste, “from an anti-caste perspective”. Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land is written by Kancha Ilaiah, Professor of Political Science from Osmania Universtity and has been designed as a class room text with 11 chapters.
Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land is a remarkable attempt at espousing the case of dignity of labour, something woefully lacking in our society. It begins with an introduction to the Adivasis and goes on to introduce those whose labours have been relegated to the bottom rungs in the caste system – leather workers, potters, dhobis, weavers, barbers, farmers and cattle-rearers.
I recommend this book strongly but let me warn you that Kancha Ilaiah is an angry man. His writing is well grounded and the book is informative but one senses his anger in trying to explain why the caste system in unacceptable and how the Adivasis have contributed much to the world and society. It must be frustrating, one can imagine, and I do hope educators and students will read this book through to the end even if it takes a little while.
Ilaiah also explores labour in relation to religion and gender and sort of places it within a larger context which certainly helps one understand how things have been shaped over the years. The exercises at the end of the chapter keep the mood going for more introspection on this issue.
There is easy access to information with interesting facts breaking the text, although it still remains a serious book for study. Illustrations by Durgabai Vyam (Ghond artist par excellence) are beautiful and add great value to the book.
Why should you read the book? Because there’s nothing else really that tells it like it is. It’s hard hitting, well researched, and more importantly, an honest book.
The Search for Delicious
Ages 9 – 12
Was browsing through the book shelves at the library here and this book called out to me, not because Babbitt is a Newbery winner, or because I have read or watched Tuck Everlasting. I think the title did it, reminding me of a slower age (and why not, since it was written in1969!)
When the Prime Minister of this strange mythical kingdom begins compiling a dictionary, he’s headed for trouble of an unexpected kind when he reaches the word Delicious. The Prime Minister’s choice for Delicious – fried fish – angers the king (which is Calamitous as defined in the very same dictionary) who thinks apples are delicious only to be contradicted by his queen who counters it with Christmas pudding.
As hell threatens to break loose the king orders for a poll and the Prime Minister’s ward, 12-year old Gaylen is selected for the task. Now Gaylen sets off on this journey only to find that the King’s brother-in-law, Hemlock (love that name, don’t you?) has gone ahead before him and is poisoning the ear’s of the citizens against the king.
Gaylen has his work cut out for him for soon the kingdom is on the brink of a Civil War.
Adding to the excitement is an ancient fable, a woldweller in the exact center of the forest who Gaylen meets, a minstrel with a mysterious key and the dwarves who sing of Ardis the mermaid. He now has his work to finish and save the king and the Prime Minister from Hemlock’s evil but very good plan, and somehow make sense of this old tale he finds himself in.
What a delicious mix of fantasy and adventure! Babbitt began as an illustrator but soon turned writer, and thank goodness, for what a wealth of stories she has produced!
Get Out of a Mess – The Gudbuds
Swati Jalnapurkar & Jeyanthi Manokaran (Artwork)
Ages 3 – 5
I was thrilled to get my hands on the Gudbuds! A series of books published by CLR, Pune, they all ‘focus on basic human values’ but not at all preachy. They are fairly inexpenseive, great quality, and easy to read.
In The Gudbuds Get Out of a Mess, you meet Mama Gudbud, the bookworm, Papa Gudbud who enjoys gardening, Gauri Gudbud who likes climbing trees and Gundu Gudbud who loves his dog Raja Gudbud. They hate washing clothes and let the dirty clothes pile up until one day Grandpa and Grandma Gudbud announces that they’ll be visiting. They can incur Grandma’s wrath or else find another way around the problem. Except that will involve team work and everyone, including Raja must pitch in and help. Very sweet, very simple stories but it was the art work that made me turn the pages. Each page has an entire scenario created with little clay figures, clay houses, down to a thatched roof, little plants, clothes, a bucket and brush – absolutely delightful!
The other books in the series are Mama Gudbud Takes a Break and At the Park in Gudbudland. These introduce more Gudbuds and more families to the reader and take on topics that break stereotypes and those that most children will relate to. All the books come with a set of questions at the back that teachers and parents can use to initiate a discussion around the books. But more than anything, they are just good fun to read. Available in English, Hindi and Marati.