There is a page in The Girl Who Was a Forest, a picture book biography on the life of EK Janaki Ammal, in which young Janaki’s father tells her she is a seed. Tears sting her eyes because she wants to be more like a bird that can fly far and high, away from stuffy rules. But her father explains that from a seed, grows a forest. “A forest of dreams, ideas, and possibilities. Nothing can stop a forest from growing, Janaki, not even rules!”
This “seed” planted itself firmly in my then-six-year-old’s mind the very first time we read the book. He didn’t necessarily have the words to tell us how strongly he felt about it, but it manifested in different ways. He was so enamoured by EK Janaki Ammal he read other books that featured her, presented a paper on her for a class project, and continued to be fascinated with her life’s work.
A picture book biography has the power to plant a seed by introducing a person and their work, intriguing the reader to know more, and leaving them inspired – perhaps the reason for its immense popularity, the world over. We are now witnessing a resurgence of picture book biographies in Indian children’s literature. Picture book authors and illustrators are not afraid to tackle themes and formats anymore.
Perhaps this is the reason biographies have suddenly become popular.
Mamta Nainy, author of the Magic Maker series (Penguin India) said, “The time is just so ripe for telling stories that take a nuanced look at people’s lives, many of which could be used to address imbalances in the historical representation and could potentially be a new paradigm to teaching history by looking at familiar figures with new eyes and culling out unknown figures that have been grossly overlooked.”
As parents, we all understand how difficult it is to impress and inspire our overstimulated, instantly-gratified children. The format of school history books and long chapters on India’s eminent personalities has stopped appealing to young audiences. It also seems like the right time to celebrate great achievers beyond those who have always been spoken about.
The Girl Who Was a Forest is part of the Dreamers Series (Penguin India) written and illustrated by Lavanya Karthik. Each book in the series – for children aged six and above – features one eminent personality by highlighting an event/incident from their formative years that would shape their future. The bonus, its illustrations are inspired by art forms associated with the personality. Why did the author choose to feature personalities like Janaki Ammal, Salim Ali, Mahasweta Devi, PC Sorcar and more?
“I wanted to write about personal heroes of mine – men and women who had inspired and influenced me as a child, but who were no longer the household names they once were,” said Karthik. “I wanted to introduce them to young readers, maybe get them to feel a bit of the magic I felt as a kid, watching them on TV, reading their work, seeing their art for the first time. I also saw these books as being gateways, rather than a one-stop guide to their subjects, encouraging readers to go find out more about them.”
Seeing the world through different eyes
And it isn’t just the Dreamer series that is enjoying its moment in the spotlight. The Magic Maker series (Penguin India) by Mamta Nainy has so far featured Rabindranath Tagore, Usha Uthup, and Annapurna Devi. Ektara Books recentlyreleased author Nandita DaCunha’s latest book, Who Clicked that Pic on pioneer female journalist Homai Vyarawalla and Lavanya Karthik’s Lady Tarzan on Padma Shri Jamuna Tudu; Karadi Tales’ has The Magic in my Fingers; Tulika has books on Zakir Hussain and Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Pratham has books on BR Ambedkar, Kasturba Gandhi, Mehlli Gobhai, Jadav Payeng to name a few.
These books appeal to the young reader by hooking them with an incident from the personality’s life. Author Nandita DaCunha said, “When I share people’s stories through picture book biographies, what I want is for children to see the world through the eyes of these inspiring personalities, get a strong sense of their values, outlook, get immersed in how they thought.”
Karthik agrees. “Finding that pivotal experience is the most exciting part of my research,” he said. “I try to find a story that hints at the person they go on to be and suggest the interest or passion they go on to make their life’s calling. I also try to turn the spotlight on other unsung heroes – PC Sorcar’s mentor, for instance; Janaki’s father, Satyajit Ray’s mother, PT Usha’s school coach, all of whom were critical in helping their young wards blossom.”
The work of a picture book biography isn’t just limited to inspiring and informing the reader about the personality it features. It also paints a vivid picture through its illustrations about the time and the region the character lived in, creating a foundation for meaningful conversations children can have with their parents or teachers.
Lady Tarzan illustrated by Rajiv Eipe transports the readers to the Sal forests of Jharkhand. Roshan’s Road to Music illustrated by Priyanka Tampi shows young Annapurna Devi hiding behind doors as girls were not allowed near areas where men played music. The Mumbai of young Salim Ali’s time is brimming with detail as depicted in Mughal Art style in The Boy Who Loved Birds; while illustrator Priya Kuriyan paints a picture of 1930s Mumbai in its celebratory fervour complete with quirky bystanders and Ganpati revellers in Who Clicked That Pic.
Ulysees may have wanted to drink “life to the lees” and travelled far and wide for inspiration, but our children have it easier. All they need to do is grab the latest picture book biography guaranteed to provide multiple sparks of inspiration for children.