Read To Win

Five books for children that adults must read

Better still, read them before you pass them on to the children.

I don’t know about you, but there comes for me every year, without fail, a few weeks when I totally go off my usual reading. It is mostly in the thick of winter, when the days are short and the nights in Delhi so cold that my Bong bones creak and grind. Instead of harrowing novels and neurotic memoirs and meaningful poetry and complicated thrillers, I find myself hungering for something else – wholesome fare, perhaps books for children, to be read in bed under blankets, as I did during the winter vacations from school.

This phase had begun, inexplicably, five years ago, when I found myself breaking my worrying book-fast with Noel Streatfeild’s entirely charming Ballet Shoes. And there have been yearly binges since – re-reading Harry Potter or Feluda, or more recent recommendations from my nephews and nieces or book editor friends (children’s editors are the loveliest people, in my opinion). It is, of course, such a satisfying feeling that we have no hesitation at all in recommending to you a list of books for children that adults must read:

Muezza and Baby Jaan: Stories from the Quran, Anita Nair

A book fresh out of the oven and as delicious as the best noon nokhodchi, Muezza and Baby Jaan stars the two unforgettable eponymous protagonists. A shape-shifting baby djinn urf Baby Jaan, who settles on being a white camel as she listens to a long session of story-telling by Muezza, the cat, who has accidentally been left behind by her Shahir. But wait a moment. Muezza isn’t any random cat, and her Shahir is no ordinary man but Prophet Muhammad himself.

“‘Would you like to hear a story, white camel?’ Muezza hoped that by the time he would finish the story, his Shahir would’ve come to his rescue.
‘Call me Baby Jaan. That’s my name,’ she said, leaning on the date palm and scratching her back against it. ‘I like stories. Especially stories with happy endings.’
‘In that case,’ said Muezza, arranging his body so the desert chill wouldn’t seep into his bones, ‘let me begin with mine. It is not necessary for a storyteller to reveal who he is or what makes him a storyteller. But as god, the most merciful, knows, my life may have been that of an ordinary cat’s. Had my Shahir not taken me into his home and heart, and made my life quite extraordinary.’”

Thus unfolds an extraordinary night. Muezza tells Baby Jaan stories from the Quranic canon, beginning with that of prophet Nuh, while every now and then they get caught amidst attacks by the enemies of the djinns – the Palis and Guls – and the narrow escapes give further edge to our protagonist’s narrative adventures.

A large-hearted book with beautiful illustrations (take a bow Harshad Marathe), Muezza and Baby Jaan is a must-read for adults and children alike. Get your copy right away!

Flour Babies, Anne Fine

The annual school science fair has come upon the local comprehensive, but while sections 4A and 4B will get to conduct exciting experiments involving explosions and maggots – both firm favourites – 4C, the home of the “backward” students, those who were unable to, say, pass exams, are left with “textiles, nutrition, domestic economy, child development or consumer studies.”

“‘I’m not voting for none of them,’ said Gwyn Phillips. ‘They’re all stupid.’

Having a sneaking sympathy for this point of view, Mr Cartright said nothing. But when George Spalder added, ‘Girls’ things, that’s what they are!’ he felt obliged to put 4C right.

‘Don’t kid yourselves. While you lot are sitting here grumbling, girls all over the country are making soap, farming maggots and exploding custard tins. They’re studying Chemistry, Biology and Physics. To the Victor the Spoils now. And they passed exams.’”

Unfortunately for 4C, not only are the girls taking over the world and all interesting science projects, they are stuck with flour babies. Six-pound bags of flour which have to be parented meticulously for the next six weeks, following a whole host of rules, and under the hawk eye of parents, teachers, and other assorted volunteers/nosey parkers. As if this weren’t dorky enough, they will also have to write a journal documenting their parenting journey, even as they ensure the bag of flour doesn’t lose weight or become grubby.

The winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Carnegie Medal, Flour Babies documents the heart-warming story of father-less Simon Martin and his working-class friends from 4C as they struggle with this insane challenge while coming to terms with their own family histories.

The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel that Teaches You How to Draw, Mark Crilley

Since being selected for Entertainment Weekly’s “It List” in 1998, artist Mark Crilley’s internet art demonstration videos have obtained a cult following, with over two hundred million views on YouTube alone. Crilley’s book The Drawing Lesson is about young David, who is an artist-in-the-making and his somewhat reluctant mentor Becky, who, when she finally agrees to the impromptu lessons David demands, is an outstanding teacher.

While the story is very simple, Crilley’s artwork in sepia tones, demonstrating David’s growth as an artist, and his insights about teaching art portrayed through Becky’s eye, is a treat for adults who might not be able to draw a straight line themselves. I’d picked this book up on a lark, ostensibly to gift a young relative, but am loath to part with it myself now. If you are a fan of graphic novels, then this one will delight the child in you. You might even extend your hands out of that blanket to grab a paper and pencil and give old sketching a try!

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The Gita for Children, Roopa Pai

Every other Indian refers to the Bhagvad Gita while coming and going, while chattering or sputtering, and especially while giving advice to a despondent friend or buttressing a point at the company off-site. But many of these Indians will be confounded if you pin them to a spot and ask them exactly how many shlokas or parvas are in the Gita, where in the Mahabharata it appears, and while everyone knows who-said-it-to-whom, what about who heard it unwittingly and reported thereon?

I am not going to tell you the answers here but, instead, I shall urge you to read Roopa Pai’s The Gita for Children. Without dumbing down the message of this most radiant of texts at all, Pai has executed the task of retelling the Gita for young readers with an effortless grace that would be appreciated by some of the most serious commentators on the text, including, S Radhakrishnan and Swami Prabhupada.

Chatty, humorous and deep, Pai’s book cuts through the verses with a shining, blessed cleaver and extracts the luminous truths with a sense of ease that is as organic as it is spirited. And not only will you know all the stories around the Gita, your friends are likely to gain from your clarity too!

“Because, when you read the Gita, there is no escaping Krishna’s gentle – but no-nonsense – diktat to his confused, nervous, heartsick friend, Arjuna, and through him, to all of us:

  • Focus only on doing your duty; let the Universe take care of the consequences.
  • Defend the good, destroy the bad.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Never hesitate to fight the good fight with everything you’ve got, for as long as it takes.
  • Talk to your closest friend – your inner voice – often and at length (yes, even if it takes 700 shlokas worth of time, and especially on the eve of a big battle) and listen to what he has to say.

That is the secret to being happy. That is the secret of a good life. That, my beloved Arjuna, is the only way to live.”

On Two Feet and Wings, Abbas Kazerooni

“It was a typically hot in Tehran the day my life was turned upside down.

I was completing my homework in my bedroom, which always stayed cool because of its very high ceiling. It was a spacious room, much too big for me, with very few things. My small bed stood in one corner, next to the radiator; I loved it there in the winters, where I could squeeze my toes in between the rails to warm them. Above my bed was a huge window, nearly up to the ceiling. It looked out on our back garden that led to an orchard, divided into sections, each with different types of trees. There were orange trees, apple trees, cherry trees and pomegranate trees; it was the orange trees I remember best because they would fruit every year without fail, the oranges hanging like bright balls on the heavy, dipping branches. On hot summer days, when the sun was too strong for me to play outside, I would jump onto my bed and gaze at the trees, their leaves shining golden in the sunlight.”

Around the time of Abbas’s tenth birthday, his parents decide it is time for him to leave Tehran, since boys his age are being drafted into the army to “martyr” themselves in the horrifying Iran-Iraq war. The family sells nearly everything of value they have left still, though the regime change in Iran had meant that any family perceived close to the Shah – as the Kazeroonis were – had already been stripped of all valuables and moveable property. With this little money, Abbas and his mother plan to flee to Istanbul and from there apply for an English visa.

Unfortunately, at the airport, his mother is not allowed to leave on a technicality. Abbas’s father takes a unforeseen risk and sends him to Istanbul on his own (“If you stay, you will probably go to war,” he said, “I’m not saying you will die, but there is a good chance. However, if you do go to Turkey, you have a chance at life...”).

Nine-year-old Abbas has his task cut out for him. He must survive Istanbul, where he knows no one nor speaks the language, and manage to get his visa to England, where a distant cousin has promised to help out. The adventure of a lifetime follows, told in vivid prose, made more piquant by the fact that unlike most stories of boys accomplishing impossible objectives, this one is true.

One of my most favourite of recent books, I have gifted it to countless children and adults – and am waiting eagerly for the sequel.

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