The 2014 Crossword Children’s Writing Award Shortlist
It was somewhat difficult not to give ourselves a pat on the back when author and columnist Nilanjana Roy called the 2014 Crossword Children’s Award shortlist ‘a triumph’ and that too ‘because none of the five books on the shortlist are earnest, preachy or are moral science lessons in disguise’. My fellow jury members, Samina Mishra and Shilpa Ranade, and I felt that this year’s shortlist was indeed a definite step forward in children’s writing in India. Significantly, for the first time, the role of illustrators was acknowledged in the making books for youngsters.
We had a rather easy time picking our shortlist—the five books that ended up on it were on each of our lists, and the winner too was a unanimous choice. The five books chosen for the shortlist stood out (for us) because they choose to question, experiment and have fun all at the same time. Briefly, here are our thoughts of each book.
Timmi in Tangles (Shals Mahajan; illustrated by
A word about the illustrations… so apt, and as unassuming as the writing in this charming book, I found the book quiet and unpretentious. And very real in a fun way, no dramatic tears and troubles, Timmi’s tangles are after all everyday ones with little twists where they run off into her own world of fantasy and imagination. The little pictures match the little world portrayed in the little book, while telling a big story. I felt this book stood out in the pile of books, without a shout. Timmi has been made all the more endearing by the childlike squiggly lines and blobs the illustrator chose to use to draw her and her world, and made with the same ease as the effortless storytelling, making both the image and the story unforgettable and entwined.
I loved so many things about the book but the most important, I guess, were the understanding of childhood, with its easy coexistence of fantasy and reality, and the bringing to life in Indian children’s books, a family that defies stereotype.
With YA and middle-grade fiction usually getting all the attention, Shals Mahajan’s Timmi in Tangles is a fresh and beautifully executed piece of writing for younger children. Shals manages to nail young Timmi’s voice perfectly and portrays her world beautifully; meanwhile, artist Shreya Sen plays a sterling role in bringing the stories to life with her illustrations. Whether it’s getting into scrapes, asserting herself or just wanting a hug from her mother, Timmi is a delightful and believable protagonist. Her non-traditional family situation is dealt with with a gentle yet matter-of-fact hand. Timmi fills a yawning gap in Indian children’s fiction—intelligent, throughful, responsible and entertaining writing for post-picture-book and pre-chapter-book generation.
Vanamala and the Cephalopod (Shalini Srinivasan; illustrated by Sebin Simon)
Vanamala in its writing has very rich imagery and conjures up a magical, dark, undersea world of fables and the unfamiliar, making for riveting reading. The language is rich and lush and enjoyable and can be savoured, sometimes over again. It seemed to refer to a personal lived history with probably many references that one may not immediately decipher, making the book mysterious and layered and somewhat complex. I felt this book could allow for superb fantastical illustrations of hitherto unseen characters, unknown terrain, unfamiliar time spans, and add an even more magical aspect to the elements that make up the story. The images, as they are in the book, don’t match the heightened imagination of the writing.
Really skilled writing that allows almost the entire story to unfold underwater. But the most striking thing is the plurality in the myth-making, especially important in these times where we are being pushed towards singular beliefs. Also, the fact that all the characters are shades of grey, grappling with or at least acknowledging what they recognize as their negative traits.
This is an outstanding piece of work, combining some creative storytelling with a wildly imaginative story to tell. Shalini’s prose flows like a knife through butter as you accompany the young protagonist Vanamala into a crazy underwater world to save her sister whom she accidentally sold. The book’s mythological twist intertwined with Vanamala’s quest makes for an unusual and imaginative setting. A brilliant work by a debut novelist, and definitely an author one hopes to see much more of.
Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times (Samit Basu; illustrated by Sunaina Coelho)
Had enjoyed Stoob! Much fun and ease in the writing.
I loved that it’s an everyday school story set in the world that children in urban India inhabit today, rich with details. The book also reveals an understanding of children’s inner lives, not always shared with the adults around them, and how that often helps them to rise to the occasion when confronted by a crisis.
Flawless writing, a terrific sense of humour and some wonderful supporting illustrations made The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times a shortlist contender. Illustrator Sunaina Coelho pairs with writer Samit Basu to put this book together, the story of a 10-year-old boy who suddenly has to deal with exams. A mundane storyline made entertaining by some excellent execution. (Read my detailed review at Goodbooks.in.)
Flat-Track Bullies (Balaji Venkataraman)
Flat Track Bullies is a truly entertaining, jam-packed, breathless coming-of-age verite account that is riveting for its innocent integrity and its refreshing point-of-view style personal narrative. It offers a close-up peek into the head of a growing boy on the verge of middle school and a ringside view of his everyday travails that refer strongly to specific locations and collective experiences. The language of the book is a spoken one, an intuitive voice in the head that is unrehearsed and pure and resonates with deep everyday reflections that are honest and edged with superlative humour.
Stands out for its voice that is so rooted in the aspirational middle-class characters and contexts, rarely seen in English language books for children in India. It is not self-conscious about writing an English which is not ‘proper’ but which is appropriate for the context.
Another impressive debut, Flat-Track Bullies is a portrayal of a preteen boy starting to find out a bit more about the world. Balaji Venkataraman not only found an inoffensive way to use a lot of swearing in his book, he also manages to portray middle-class urban Indian life from the point of view, and language, of a child so well that, apparently, there are schools that refuse to stock book in their library. Flat-Track Bullies feels a true portrayal of a coming-of-age story with no punches pulled, yet with none of the clichés that you would expect to find.
Susu Pals (written by Richa Jha; illustrated by Alicia Souza)
Susu Pals was the only real image-driven book which I enjoyed for its nice size! Maybe wouldn’t be so much fun if it was smaller possibly. The drawings themselves did not have immediate character or atmosphere. I really think there should be many more picture books published.
We have such few examples of picture books that work as picture books and not as illustrated books. The Susu Pals stands out for this—picture as narrative. It’s a simple story but the interplay of text and image makes it special.
This was one of the few ‘true’ picture books in the 2014 list of books submitted for the award. Richa Jha and Alicia Souza tackle a subject for young children that is otherwise a favourite of young-adult novels—friendship and the complications thereof. This is done in a way (one hopes) young children will identify with and the ‘susu’ angle is a particularly intriguing choice. The intended readers will no doubt be delighted with it, though various adults have found issue with the makers of this book for bringing a perfectly normal everyday bodily function into focus. We, the children’s book jury, however, loved the idea.