Since I first discovered Pratham books right here on Saffron tree, I’ve acquired – and greatly enjoyed – several of their books. So when they put out a call, some time ago, for reviews of their picture books, I was quite delighted to write in. And look what arrived in the mail a few days later – two little lovelies that the Imp and I have read over and over again. Brought out by Read India, an imprint of Pratham’s, both are written by Sridala Swami and illustrated by Sanjay Sarkar, and are picture books for 7 to 10 year olds.
‘Cheenu’s Gift’gives us a peek at a day in the life of a boy who accompanies his father to work after school. For Cheenu’s naana (‘father’ in Telugu) is a kabaadiwalla (junk dealer), and Cheenu enjoys his daily trips to collect old newspapers, books, magazines and bottles from peoples’ houses. He gets to ride in lifts too and , best of all, there are new books to be discovered among the things they collect!
Considering how integral a kabadiwala (junk dealer) is to urban India – and what an unsung ecowarrior he is, helping recycle a vast variety of household discards that would otherwise end up in landfills – I can’t remember the last time one featured in contemporary writing for children. For that matter, our cities and our everyday lives are propped up by the services of a million ‘invisible’ people – domestic help, vegetable vendors, car cleaners, presswallahs, tea boys, daycare helpers – who seldom feature as much more than background detail in Indian books for children . So ‘Cheenu’ is memorable in that it sets the focus squarely on one such ‘invisible’ person.
‘Cheenu’ does not preach a message of any kind, but it does neatly reflect the two Indias- rich and poor- that coexist in every one of our towns and cities, and their interdependence. It got the Imp talking about the children she sees around her – on construction sites, delivering milk and the daily paper – and wondering about their lives. The book also waves a gentle flag for education – Cheenu does work, but only after school. Not only that, he loves to read, a love that his father recognizes and supports.
The text mixes in Hindi and Telugu words, helpfully explained in footnotes.The story itself is simple, letting Sanjay Sarkar’s vibrant illustrations do most of the ‘talking’. His drawings are full of little details that kept us engrossed through each reading, be it the textures of the walls and floors, the changing landscape as Cheenu and his father travel from their village to the city and back, or the interior of their own little house. Sarkar even sneaks in a plug for his other book with Swami….
One of six books by Pratham nominated for this year’s Vodafone Crossword Book Awards, ‘Phani’ is a tongue-in-cheek look at a boy with a strange predicament. For Phani is helpless captive to a pair of slippers with a mind all their own – they make him late for school, keep him indoors (and TV-bound) at playtime, and won’t let him finish chores. And can you blame them?
For the slippers know all kinds of lovely alternate routes to school- routes that pass by mango trees and cool ponds- and don’t really enjoy being hurled at piles of stones or being sent on errands. “I can’t help it”, Phani says pitifully, to a world that just won’t understand his plight. Sadly, no one believes poor Phani, until his mother decides to solve his problem.
In a mere handful of wry words (this review is longer than the book) , author Swami delightfully captures Phani’s imaginative world. You can just hear this little boy’s voice as you read, trying to explain his sorry state to his parents and teacher. Sarkar does the rest, bringing Phani’s world alive with his lively eye, peopling it with a host of incredulous, annoyed or just plain amused characters, trying to deal with one happy hostage. Until, of course, the tables are turned, and it is Phani’s turn to look puzzled.