Three books that landed on my desk recently seemed to be speaking to one another. Or, at least, they got stacked in one pile because of the stories they held inside their pages.
The first one, Bena’s Summer by Shibal Bhartiya, tells the story of a hope-filled childhood ringed with darkness. Set in the small town of Sultanpur, it paints a picture of a close-knit family against the backdrop of communal tensions, coupled with the innocence of childhood and events that threaten to topple that safe space. “This was a set of people that had seen and survived many riots before. They had lost those they loved, they had lost what they owned,” writes Bhartiya while describing young Bena’s extended family.
The second one, Nomad’s Land by Paro Anand, is a young adult book about two girls – Shanna and Pema – grappling with displacement and the aftermath of violence, but also finding friendship and hope.
Joining these two was The Book of Hopes: Words and Pictures to Comfort, Inspire and Entertain, edited by Katherine Rundell. The Rooftoppers author wrote to over 100 children’s authors and illustrators at the start of the pandemic, and the result are these stories that delight, reflect and offer that enduring feeling of hope.
“When the coronavirus pandemic began in the UK in 2020, I found myself urgently in need of hope. Because they are my greatest love, I went looking for it in books: old books, new books, terrifically serious books with footnotes in Latin and terribly unserious books with jokes too rude to repeat here,” writes Rundell in her introduction.
It’s a feeling I understand. Books are what many of us turn to for comfort, to understand this confounding world, for friendship, and solace – especially in times of turbulence, conflict, and intolerance.
Memories of darkness
The night was dark. The fire-breathing dragons have swallowed the stars that dot Delhi’s landscape. I stood in the corridor of our house, clutching my blanket – dubbed the Shawl, it was hand painted with red and blue feathers by my mother – close, as loud, angry noises punctured the smoke-filled air. My mother stood on the balcony, and I was flooded with a sense of dread.
It’s a memory from 1984 that refuses to leave me. I was all of five years old, too young to know what had happened, and not old enough to be apprised of anything by the grown-ups. All I remember is that I woke up the next morning, and our neighbours were no longer our neighbours. And their car was no longer a car – it was a smouldering pile of burnt metal.
Thirty-five years later, I turned to literature to make sense of that memory. That story became That Night, a picture book illustrated by Shrujana Shridhar. It’s a fictional account of that night, when a mother and child try to talk about the source of those angry, loud voices, and battle a feeling of dread as their father is pulled into them.
Reality and darkness
Darkness in children’s books is not new. Fairy tales are replete with them, as are mythological stories. Years ago, as the Kids section reporter at Time Out Mumbai, I discovered that children’s books had considerably evolved from my childhood staples of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, and the classics. There books were mysteries to dig into, riddled with jokes and elements of fantasy, but with stories tackling complex themes of female infanticide, abuse, escape, of coming-of-age.
Contrary to what adults think, children often know when something big is happening around them. They can feel the tension. They might be small, but they’re smart, and often pick up on details from what’s around them: snippets of news from a television that’s always switched on, a newspaper left on the dining table, furtive discussions about politics.
A friend of mine, Majid Maqbool, told me how his toddler daughter understood terms such as “pellets” and “tear gas”. How could she not? She lives in Kashmir. It’s a narrative reflected in Rohini Mohan, and Jayesh Sivan’s Mission Cycle, a story of a little girl who decides to learn how to ride her bike as she is stuck at home because of a curfew. . The readers watch young Noorain make sense of current events as she stumbles and progresses under the watchful eye of her family.
There is no denying, even to children, that we live in times of strife, of bigotry, of riots, of violence perpetrated against people based on their religion. But how do we write stories about communal violence and conflict for children? There are no easy answers.
Violence and darkness
I believe in this wise adage: write what you know. As a children’s books editor at Pratham Books, I find myself looking for lived experiences – narratives that reflect truths, that offer insight about disruptions and emotions, fears and joys. I also believe if you don’t know enough, find out. Research until your brain is buzzing with facts, meet people, talk to them, and really listen. Because then you’re telling someone’s story, and there’s no greater responsibility. And don’t appropriate someone else’s voice or narrative. Really, don’t.
Over a decade ago, I was swept up by Ranjit Lal’s Battle for No. 19: a story of eight schoolgirls who find themselves stranded in Delhi the same day of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Paro Anand’s Weed had a similar impact. Her narrative observes Kashmir through young Umer: a boy who grapples between the love he harbours for his family, and parents separated by their conflicting ideals. Both these books look at how children deal with unfortunate and real situations their worlds thrust onto them.
Some eight years later, in 2016, I read the epistolary Tanya Tania by Antara Ganguli, set in the early ’90s. Tanya is in Karachi, and Tania, in Bombay, and you already know that their friendship is going to be defined by the political and social tensions of the two countries in which the pen pals reside.
The story prompted me to recall the moments that followed the riots in Bombay, my mother arriving at the school’s massive gates to swoop us away, surrounded by other anxious parents. While most whizzed away in their sedans, my mother looked around desperately for an auto- rickshaw to take us to the safety of our home. My 12-year-old self knew that something was afoot because we weren’t taking a bus.
Drawing on darkness
Fiction offers spaces to recast and retell our stories – something I struggled with when I first started writing it. As a journalist, I was trained to find facts, interview sources, and tell as is. This practice helped me when I began writing books, but it also often appeared as this annoying asterisk, just as my imagination would try to leap. Are you sure, the asterisk would blink, that you want to add that/It didn’t exactly happen like this/Or really, that’s not how real life is/But hello, facts, remember those?
But ignore the asterisk long enough, and it can work. Siddhartha Sarma’s young adult book, Year of the Weeds, illustrates this. The book maps out a narrative where reality meets fiction in a powerful story of the Gond indigenous community resisting a corporation from mining their sacred hills. Yet again, it’s the voices of the two young protagonists – Korok and Anchita – which amplifies the problems and urges for action.
In books for younger children, illustrations play a significant role in assisting the interpretation of the narrative , while at the same time, sparking a child’s imagination. It is a strong tool in Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz, a memoir picture book set in the backdrop of the Partition, which uses applique— – common to both Pakistan and India – to tell the story of a moving friendship that transcends borders.
Another example is the novel Home. Author Fausto Aarya De Santis and illustrator Ogin Nayam use water as a poignant mainstay to outline the refugee crisis. This tactic is apparent from the protagonist Hasina playing with raindrops, and the events of a dark cloud-filled day when violence surrounds her and her mother, as they join a river of people crossing borders in a quest to find safe harbour.
In Priya Sebastian and Neha Singh’s picture book, Is It the Same For you? – one which is for a much older audience – an adolescent girl tries to make sense of her changing body, amidst the turbulence in Kashmir. With words pared down to their core, and the art haunting and compelling, the book makes for a powerful coming-of-age read.
However, the most important thing that goes into making a children’s author is this: the ability to recall, understand and mimic a child’s voice. Everyone’s been a child. You may not have been an astronaut, banker or a magician but you’ve been a child. Reach back to that feeling of what it was to be smaller, the world much bigger, shinier, scarier, and exciting.
Where every new thing could elicit wonder or fear. Where loud, angry voices are louder and angrier, but the malevolent intent behind them often remains unexplained. Where hushed voices huddled around the news is bewildering and frightening. It’s that child who you revisit, who holds your hand while you write the story.
You may have noticed that all the protagonists in the books I’ve talked about are children or young adults. As a writer, you want to dream up characters who your reader will relate to, the reason most children’s books do have children protagonists. Children have a wild imagination, but let’s face it, it is easier to slip into another 12-year-old’s school shoes than a grouchy uncle or aunty’s chappals.
I often get asked – how dark is dark? Children love it when narratives tickle their fear born , which is why horror is such a favourite genre, as are fairy tales. But they’re also resilient. A story will haunt them, but they will come up with ways to understand it, to digest it, and to perhaps dust it out from the recesses of their minds when they need it most.
Darkness is often just a reflection of the reality around us. The narratives, characters, and reflect the creators’ responsible interpretation of this reality. Perhaps this is why we should lace books with hope. As Rundell says, children’s writers and illustrators are “professional hunters of hope” – “We seek it out, catching it in our nets, setting it down between the pages of a book, and sending it out into the world.”