While judging a book by its cover is best avoided, we’ve perhaps all been guilty of overlooking the art of writing for children. It’s all too easy to dismiss a narrow book with large print interspersed with illustrations, because on some level we’re conditioned to equate quality with quantity. Writing for young people must be easy, goes the logic, because there are fewer words, and less complex stories.
This year’s winner of the Crossword Children's Book Award, announced last week in Mumbai, throws such lazy assumptions out of the window. “Simple does not mean simplistic,” said Samina Mishra as she judged the award. “Telling stories to younger children requires extraordinary skill, and an ability to represent a complex world in simple and engaging ways.”
Timmi in Tangles (Duckbill, Rs 125), the book selected from the five-strong shortlist by Mishra and her fellow judges Payal Dhar and Shilpa Ranade, perfectly demonstrates this fusion of great depth yet apparent simplicity. Written by Mumbai-based debut author Shals Mahajan, the book is part of a series called ‘Hole Books’, conceived of by children’s publisher Duckbill Books to cater to first-time readers.
“As a series it fills a huge gap,” says Duckbill publisher Anushka Ravishankar. “There's not a lot of fiction written for Indian children at this stage of reading — when they're just graduating from being read to, to reading by themselves.” With the children’s category of the Crossword Award encompassing everything from picture books through to fiction for teens, usually this alone would have been enough to nullify the book’s chances of picking up the award, as young adult books – often seen as more ‘challenging’ reads, have traditionally dominated the category. “Just by virtue of having more pages, the young adult book has the advantage of seeming more. So it's quite wonderful that this jury realised the depth possible in a book for younger children,” elaborates Ravishankar.
What seems to have set Timmi in Tangles apart is the strength of its protagonist, Timmi, and the ease of relating to the fantastical worlds that she creates for herself. In reading the book, you enter a world seen entirely from the perspective of its feisty young heroine. The strength of Mahajan’s characters means that when Timmi passionately defends herself against her mother’s accusations of opening the windows and letting the rain in (by explaining that her friend Juju the giant ‘opened the roof’), you’re inclined to believe her.
It’s also refreshing to encounter a book that’s firmly rooted in an Indian context, without conforming to stereotypes. Rather than the scones and ginger ale you might encounter in Enid Blyton, Timmi’s universe is made up of ‘idlis, chatni and ghee’, and there are several delightful deviations into vernacular dialogue – the lady who looks after Timmi while her mother works is ‘Kamal Mausi’, and we loved the mention of ‘cockroach Kichu’ with his ‘long mooch’. Within this very local context though, Timmi’s family structure is non-traditional, as she herself realises when asked to draw her home and its occupants at school. It’s this effortless and ultimately very believable juxtaposition of old and new, tradition and change that makes this a book both relevant and important to children starting their reading journeys.
AUTHOR'S CORNER WITH SHALS MAHAJAN
Where did the inspiration for Timmi come from?
I wrote the first few Timmi stories over 15 years ago. I had a young friend who loved having conversations, and I wrote the rain story in the book for her. Over the last decade, I have revisited Timmi and her world every now and then and as I get to know them more, I work on another story. For the longest time I did not want to publish anything, even though friends have been kicking me for the longest time in that direction. But then I turned 40 and decided to take the plunge. I realised I was not going to get any wiser!
Tell us more about working with Duckbill.
I really appreciate what Duckbill are doing and the kind of books they are publishing. We need more interesting, fun, non-morality, 'not too mainstream thought following' books all around, but especially for children, and Duckbill is doing a great job
Can we expect to see more of Timmi?
There are some more Timmi stories and a few might come into the public domain, but am not sure when.
What are you working on at the moment?
At present, I am working on a novel-length fiction titled Lusha and the Missing Onions, something I have been working off and on for over three years and am not yet half way through. All I can say about it at this point is that there is no discernible plot so far, at least as far as I know, and the onions have yet to make an appearance. So they, at least, are truly missing!