children's literature

The very silly world of Khushnaz Lala is full of pirates and children who like to play dress up

The writer and illustrator wants children to know that it’s okay to be weird and to embrace being different.

In the “very silly” world of Khushnaz Lala, children speak to aliens, apologise to autumn leaves for stepping on them, and try to make the colour blue feel a little bit better about life. They all acknowledge that it’s okay to be weird.

A Bengaluru-based writer and illustrator, Lala is the author of three children’s picture books – This Is A Very Silly Book, I’m With Silly and Dear Left Sock And Other Letters – or, as they have been referred to at times, “child friendly books for adult”. The books were released at the 2016 Bookaroo children’s literature festival.

Lala’s books do not follow a didactic formula. Her characters, instead of learning a moral lesson at the end of the book, are encouraged to embrace their weirdness and silliness. Lala, who claims that she grew up only by accident, feels that in most children’s books the focus is on teaching the child a lesson rather than inspiring them to ask questions.

“A lot of people still want a lesson plan out of children’s books, or they’re used to the traditional Aesop’s Fables style stories,” said Lala. “I think in the world’s current political climate it’s especially important to seek out and celebrate different perspectives in order to foster compassion, acceptance and empathy because that’s where we need the future to lie.”

In the Silly books, the Earth is a rock full of silly things, floating about in space and all the unnamed characters have a world within their heads. Lala enters these worlds and attempts to look at them not as her 24-year-old self, but as another child would. If someone likes to occasionally eat crayons, there is no reason why they would not one day become a philosophical genius and change the world.

A Page from
A Page from "Dear Left Sock And Other Letters".

“I’m convinced that in the grand scheme of things, we’re all just children in a constant process of learning to make sense of the world and then relearning as our perspectives widen,” said Lala. “It’s a beautiful sentiment, except it turns out that there are these things called every day responsibilities that don’t really care about the stars and the universe and meaning. I still maintain that I’m just a child, except now the things I’m trying to make sense of are the slightly less romantic concepts of pressure cookers, PMS and whatever the hell fixed deposits are.”

A page from
A page from "This Is A Very Silly Book".

According to Lala, when adults tell children to “be themselves”, neither party is sure about what that really means. “For the longest time society has weaponised storytelling to indoctrinate very singular ideas of what it means to be a boy or girl and good and bad, what a family or love is supposed to look like, what ‘happily every after’ is. What I’ve tried to do in my books is to take the rigid borders of these concepts and stretch them out far enough till everyone is included in that giant group hug. It was important for me to show characters with their own brand of intelligence and comfortable with their sense of self.”

A Page from
A Page from "Dear Left Sock And Other Letters".

Lala belongs to a group of writers who are introducing characters that encourage kids to embrace being different. One such writer is Jane De Suza of the SuperZero series.

The idea to write SuperZero came to De Suza after she realised that there were no funny books for children. In an interview to Hippocampus School Library Services, De Suza talked about a conversation with a bookstore owner: “‘I want a fun book for my kid,’ I told the bookstore guy. ‘About princesses?’ he asked. ‘No – funny.’ ‘We have books about vampires, wizards, morals, mythology, battles with greek gods?’ ‘FUNNEEEY,’ I said. ‘Take a quiz book,’ he suggested. ‘Makes your kid smarter.’ I don’t want kids smarter. They’ve got enough tests and mental maths and music classes. I want them to have fun. So I wrote SuperZero.”

The protagonist of the series is a 10-year-old superhero in training and the only student at the superhero school who can’t seem to find his super powers. Every time he tries to do some good and save the town, he ends up making a mess of things.

“The SuperZero series does not try to dictate morals or preach,” said De Suza to a blogger. “It is downright funny, and I think that’s why kids like it so much. Humour is so needed (and so little found) in their serious hectic lives today.”

A page from
A page from "This Is A Very Silly Book".

While De Suza’s book is all about believing in yourself, Lala’s silly characters challenge the notion of normal. “I use the word ‘silly’ in the first two books to recognise the bizarreness of the concept of normalcy,” she said. “In the Silly books, I’ve thought of each page as containing its own universe the same way each person is their own weird and wonderful universe. In Dear Left Sock And Other Letters, I have one character projecting this idea onto things she encounters in her everyday life. Even though they’re inanimate objects, it’s still a relationship where she sees the other side having it’s own consciousness.”

A page from 'I'm With Silly'.
A page from 'I'm With Silly'.

The characters in the Silly books appear without names because naming them, said Lala, would make them too much her own. “I liked that when I showed the books to someone they could relate it to their own life in some way and add that to the character.”

A page from
A page from "This Is A Very Silly Book".

While writing these books, Lala had some help from her nine-year-old best friend, Agastya, but, she clarified, he is not a bridge into some gimmicky world of child-like wonder.

Their creative process involved Lala sticking her notes and sketches to the wall of her room over which Agastya would then either draw over or create his own art and add it to the wall. Other times they tape their fingers together and pretend they are Tyrannosaurus Rex claws.

A Page from
A Page from "Dear Left Sock And Other Letters".
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