23 Unusual, Illustrated Children's Books From India That Offer Perspectives We Need

23 Unusual, Illustrated Children's Books From India That Offer Perspectives We Need

Isn’t it a little strange that Indian children, or that constantly classified “middle class, English-medium schooled” bracket of Indian children anyway, can recite the last 4 Presidents of the United States of America by rote but seem rather surprised if ever they’re questioned about their lack of indigenous knowledge?

Post-colonial hangovers have brought their share of positives and negatives but perhaps one of the biggest losses for young Indian minds is the lack of exposure to more rooted literature. In most households, the chances of being exposed to Enid Blyton’s Noddy series over Zai Whitaker’s Andaman Boy is not just likely, it’s almost a certainty.

But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of incredibly gifted children’s book authors and illustrators in the country from going ahead and creating some wonderfully pertinent children’s stories either way.

Tara and Tulika Books, especially, two publishing houses based in South India we’ve come to love for their ability to give an international voice to marginalized Indian literature and arts through both children’s and adult design books, have played a huge role in inspiring us to put this piece together--a platform of sorts for these artists and writers who deserve a little slice of the interweb pie for their works.

From making tribal art forms accessible through their illustrations to discussing the origin of the zero to instilling a sense of environmental responsibility through their narratives, these works of Indian children’s literature all stand out for reasons specific unto themselves. We only hope they capture your imagination just as much as they’ve captured ours.

Scroll on to revert to juvenile fantasies of the third kind:

I. Why Are You Afraid To Hold My Hand?

By Sheila Dhir

Right from the title to the illustrations, every single word in this book echoes the hearts of disabled children as they make an ultimate plea for acceptance. The author has gone straight out to hit the bull’s eye with the title of this book, as unlike most of us adults, children are very literally “afraid” of anything and anyone who seems to defy their narrower idea of the normal. It’s not that they do not want to, but rather that they are unable to handle an encounter with a disabled child. Cowering in fear or displaying rude demeanour in the presence of the disabled is their defence mechanism to the seemingly unreal and this is where parents come in to give them a reality-check. In the absence of that guidance however, there’s always brilliant books like these.

Homegrown Loves: The quirky and self-explanatory illustrations which aim to communicate that acceptance is not so much a personality trait as it is a habit. 

II. The Why Why Girl

By Mahasweta Devi

Curiosity might’ve killed the cat, but that never stopped any child from asking the questions that seem to perpetually go off in their heads. Over the course of our little investigation, we came across this wonderful book that explores how our general reaction to the vast and seemingly unending curiosity of little children is a lazy ‘I don’t know’ or a dismissive ‘Stop asking so many questions!’

In the sea of naysayers emerges this book that highlights that curiosity is the trait that has led to the progression of human civilization, and that urge to ask ‘why’ is ingrained in us to facilitate this growth. Through the lovely story about a curious little girl who loves to ask questions before she learns to read herself and find her own answers, children are encouraged to nurture their curiosity as a gift and resurrect that ‘Why Why Girl’ residing inside each and every of them.

Homegrown loves: The simplicity and juvenile innocence that really comes through in this book. Addressing what seems initially to be a trivial subject, it sheds light on the great impact asking the right questions and receiving mindful answers can have on the personality of children, and how it has the potential to shape the individuals they will grow up to be.

III. Barefoot Husain

By Anjali Raghbeer

Fantasy is a genre that is perhaps one of the most instrumental aspects of opening up a child’s mind and helping them explore the extent of their imagination. This book is great food for thought, in which the artist has lost his shoes and the protagonist, Jai, attempts to help him find them in the best sort of magical fantasy for children.

They zoom in and out of some of the author’s most famous paintings, discovering various themes along the way, and the story is punctuated with a nod to the artist’s celebrated free spirit.

Homegrown loves: The fantastic and seamless blend of knowledge and fiction narrated both engagingly and imaginatively.  

IV. All About Nothing

Story By Deeya Nayar ; Pictures By Nina Sabnani

This intriguing book revolves around the origin of the zero as used in mathematical calculations, an Indian discovery we’re usually lauded for in scientific circuits. Information meets fiction in this compelling narrative and it has even been adapted to the big screen in the form of an animated movie.

A characteristic of outstanding storytelling, this book keeps its readers hooked and personifies the nature of books that critics quite love to use for the very best kinds - ‘unputdownable’.

Homegrown loves: The visual backdrop of the text that is reminiscent of old parchment, and the earthy-coloured illustrations that help recreate stories from a bygone era while drawing the young reader in.

V. Mayil Will Not Be Quiet

By Niveditha Subramaniam & Sowmya Rajendran

Raging hormones, chewed-on nails and an ever-changing threshold of perceived propriety - puberty is a turbulent phase for budding teenagers and parents alike as they traverse through this hitherto uncharted territory. At this strangely unstable juncture, what could be better than maintaining a private diary? Reading another’s private diary of course, but only with his or her consent.

Filled with all the same problems that can be strangely comforting and that is what this book offers to children who are entering a period of volatility and an onslaught of physical and mental changes, ‘Mayli Will Not Be Quiet’ relates to us an account of a 12-year-old girl called Mayli and her opinions on people, incidents and things in her daily life.

Homegrown loves: How the book illustrates the mush of problems that coming of age brings. It’s always great to know that we are not the only ones stuck neck-deep in them, isn’t it?

VI. Gajapati Kulapati

By Ashok Rajagopalan

After the wildly famous Walt Disney feature ‘Jumbo’, the classic combination of an elephant and humour are back to sizzle up some great chemistry, this time with a desi touch. A big temple elephant catches a cold and hilarity ensues as every time he sneezes, absolutely hullabaloo is created.

This book stands as testimony to the vivid imagination of little children as well as their naive and endearing attribution of humanistic characters to animals. This story, infused with a sense of humour that will resound with absolutely anyone, puts the zing right back into storytelling.

Homegrown loves: The sense of detachment from the trappings of reality that this book offers as it gives little children the freedom to believe in a world that might not be real or rational, but is fantastical and engrossing all the same.

VII. Padma Goes To Space

Story By Shweta Prakash; Pictures By Shreya Sen

Another one for the fantasy/sci-fi enthusiasts. A crazy mix of science, fiction and fantasy, this book will tweak a child’s wild sense of the universe and stars and open up avenues of thought that might not have previously existed. It encourages them to think beyond their everyday existence and dabble in exciting notions of adventure.

Homegrown loves: That this book introduces scientific concepts in the most exciting way possible, thus making understanding them a cake-walk, and learning, a pleasure.  

VIII. We, The Children Of India

Leila Seth

In an attempt to introduce a sense of civil responsibility to the tender minds of our little citizens, Leila Seth, the former Chief Justice of our country, has beautifully elucidated the Preamble to our constitution. Breaking it down phrase by phrase, she depicts its meaning through clear diagrammatic representations to visually illustrate the vision of the country to its future citizens.

Homegrown loves: The simplicity and transparency with which a political insight is provided to the children and is, most importantly, devoid of any sort of bias.  

IX. Mathematwist

By TV Padma

Mathematics was a little bit of a hiccup for many of us in school, and it’s hard to forget that feeling of dread that gripped our stomachs as word problems swirled all around us intimidatingly. But fortunately, children today - we have Mathematwist coming to the rescue. This book is a collection of stories set across different countries stimulating logical reasoning and encouraging problem-solving.

Homegrown loves: The fact that this book challenges children to work just a little bit harder to bring about spontaneous solutions through lateral thinking. Word problems might not be such a problem after all!  

X. Little Indians

By Pika Nani

Hidden stories, forbidden secrets and unknown facts abound in the paperbound world, spanning across 15 states of India. An adventurous book embellished with a dollop of delicious mystery, every fact here is backed by a story, making this book a must read for little munchkins.

Homegrown loves: That this book breaks out of the clichés of the generic Indian tales and does so in a commendable fashion.  

XI. The Ouch And Moo

By Poonam Bir Kasturi

An environment-oriented book highlighting the unlimited use of plastics and its detrimental repercussions, the knowledge that this book attempts to unleash is imperative for the children of our society to have access to. It is essential for children to understand how they can tackle such a problem as well as how to find alternatives for it.

Homegrown loves: That this book also encourages children to take the initiative in taking the reins of an issue that is pressing and isn’t receiving the attention it merits.  

XII. At Least A Fish

By Anushka Ravishankar

As little children most of us have yearned for pets. But what happens when you really want a dog and get a fish instead? Well, just to sum it up, a lot of mischief and humour. This book is a hilarious account of how a girl called Ana desperately longs for a pet dog but is only able to get a pet fish, and how she finally gets her way through things.

Homegrown loves: That this is a great way of introducing children to a lot of new concepts. Filled with mischief, innocence and fun, the writing style makes it easy for little children to resonate with.  

XIII. The Conch Bearer

By Chitra Divkaur Banerjee

This is an adventurous story about an Indian boy belonging to the lower middle class strata of our society, who has to bag the responsibility of returning a shell to its rightful owner. When the time comes he will have to make a decision that could be potentially life-changing.

Homegrown loves: How this is a good insight into the redundant concept of societal class as well as righteous decision-making; this book is definitely one that parents should get children flipping through.  

XIV. Tiger On A Tree

By Anushka Ravishankar

This book is a comical and interesting account of a little tiger cub who wanders into an Indian village and the various reactions encountered by the villagers. The adventures that follow are depicted in an eye-catching way and there’s an element of compassion in the story that kids are bound to take away.

Homegrown loves: The vivid and bright pictures as well as the beautiful landscapes depicted in this book that stimulate visual understanding and correlation in children. Moreover, considering tigers might actually become extinct in their lifetimes, let’s hope books like  

XV. The Runaway Pepper Corn

Story By Suchitra Ramadurai ; Pictures By Ashok Rajagopalan

The Runaway Pepper Corn is here to give The Gingerbread Man a run for its money. A simple narration with a catchy style is what truly defines this book. It is a comical autobiographical account of a little peppercorn after he awakes from the deep slumber and sets off on an adventurous journey in search of freedom.

Homegrown loves: That the story is always in a state of motion, with near escapes and twists making it a fast-paced read that is at par with the attention span of a child. At the same time, it is easy to follow for kids and and that is what makes this book take off on a flight to success.

XVI. Tree Matters

By Gangu Bai, Text by Gita Wold and V. Geetha

With schools and colleges already taking efforts to re-instill sensitivity towards our environment and surroundings in children, this book makes learning the same values a great pleasure. In this book, Gangu Bai, a Bhil artist explores the close relationship that the Bhil people of Central India share with the natural world. This is also the first-ever book featuring Bhil art that explores an indigenous community’s relationship to the environment.

Homegrown loves: The illustrations in this book all revolve around trees, and all her memories are centred around these. This will help children to understand the pivotal position that this endangered biosphere holds in human life and on our planet as a whole.

XVII. Between Memory And Museum

By Arun Wolf, Gita Wolf, Various Artists, Various Various Artists (Illustrators)

This book highlights the importance of the preservation of our past endeavours - successes and failures alike. The past is a veritable well of experiences and teachings to draw from, and the need for the existence of museums is reinstated and they are depicted as a treasure trove of fragments from ancient collective memory.

Homegrown loves: The manner in which museums are re-introduced as the closest mortal cure to otherwise inevitable oblivion.

XVIII. The Boy Who Speaks In Numbers

By Mike Masilamani

This book is a dark satire set against the backdrop of war time and the freakishly bizarre attitude of quantifying human death in terms of apathetic numbers. It is an ironic narrative centred around a certain unnamed boy who stands witness to the deaths of hundreds of people, with no distinction in mercy shown to either adult or child.

Homegrown loves: The balance between subtlety and blatancy that this book strikes, while portraying the complex and sensitive issues of reality, death and human behaviour to the tender minds of children.

XIX. Handmade In India

By Olivia Fraser

Cultural identity has acquired a renewed importance in the age of information technology (not to mention flippant comments by prominent politicians) and this travelogue of India depicts to kids the diversity of our country in a compelling manner. In order to eventually carve your own niche in the world, it is important to be aware of your own heritage before learning from others, and this book sheds light on our cultural heritage in a holistic manner that instils a sense of pride in being Indian.

Homegrown loves: The pleasant shift from Indian mythology that most of us consider as the only cultural aspect of our heritage, to various other less explored dimensions of our heritage that this book chooses to elaborate upon.

XX. Alone In The Forest

By Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf, Andrea Anastasio

For those like us who have exhibited an inexplicable fascination (read: obsession) with the less-visited Dark Side, celebrated Gond tribal artist Bhajju Shyam illustrates this captivating tale of a young boy who ventures into the woods to fetch firewood for his ailing mother, set to a story by Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio. For those who can handle it, this is one of the best illustrations of the unexpected.

Homegrown loves: That this is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

XXI. Excuses, Excuses

By Anushka Ravishankar

How many of us have weaved likely tales to suit our whims and fancies of being late? Well, maybe I should pose this question in a different way - how many of us have not weaved likely tales to suit our whims and fancies of being late? Relatable for all readers from the ages of 9 to 90, this is a delightful and humorous read for all those out there who have ever glanced at a clock, only to do a double take for how late they actually are.

Homegrown loves: How easy it is to identify with stories like these, and the simple manner in which it is narrated.

XXII. Elephants Never Forget

By Anushka Ravishankar

Identity crises start younger for some than others, and so it was with a baby elephant who got left behind by his herd in this endearing story. It depicts the steps this little one has to take to finally find where he truly belongs, beautifully rendering the concept of nature versus nurture in a way that can be best conveyed to children.

Homegrown loves: The simple narration of this story paired with great onomatopoetic rhyme. Elephants are gentle giants that a lot of children adore, making this one really linger in their minds.

XXIII. Andaman’s Boy

By Zai Whitaker ; Pictures by Ashok Rajagopalan & Indraneil Das

And finally, we come to one of our personal favourites. Chronicling the life and adventures of a little boy, Arif, who runs away from the hustle bustle of Mumbai city and his Chacha and Chachi, hops on a train to Chennai, smuggles himself onto a boat and heads on over to the beautiful, mischief-filled Andaman Islands. Through adventure and humour Whitaker depicts the wonders of nature and also fills it up with details about the unique, misunderstood world of the Jarawa, a tribe in the Andamans whose very survival is being threatened, especially by the forces of so-called development.

Homegrown Loves: How delicately and sensitively the issues surrounding the much-politicized Jarawa tribe are portrayed. In fact, many adults could benefit from reading the book to experience a simplified, yet poignant account of the issue.

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