Children’s books are kind of wedded to animal stories and characters. Sometimes as themselves, sometimes as humans – animals perhaps come close to human experience of emotions of all kinds, except that animals in stories often speak the human language in words which may not be true in real life. But that’s the beauty of the animals in children’s literature. They might also get stereotyped the way humans do, they might be the most loved. Here are my five favorite stories from Indian Children’s Literature with animals.
‘In cock and bull stories, cows climb trees, but my mother’s cow climbed all the way up to the first floor and loved eating fish and meat’, it begins… and one is intrigued by this cow. The cow of my imagination could only be sitting under the shade of a tree chewing grass or be worshipped!
But the ‘Incredible’ Nyadosh dismisses the stereotypical calm cow in my imagination and rushes into the mind just as she rushed into the lives of Mahashweta Devi’s family. One can see the miniature illustrations, by Ruchi Shah, around Nyadosh telling how the life of the family revolved around this free-spirited family member. I never thought a cow could have a personality. Unlike many animal stories this is more like a memoir, Nyadosh doesn’t speak here but I wonder what if she could. Mahashweta writes towards the end ‘ It is impossible to forget her’. Indeed, once you read, you won’t forget her.
The illustrations of this picture book have a magical quality. As these three little kittens, set out on an adventure chasing a mouse, then a frog and then a fish. It could be passed off as any other such usual story, but not really. The ‘curios kittens’ take us through flour box, pipes and puddles and every illustration brings the excitement of these kittens alive which no words could say. As you read you feel it. A very simple story with little text, the illustrations wonderfully draw you into the story coloring you as the kittens.
In Premchand’s ‘Do bailon ki katha’ he begins by asking how come donkey is called the dumbest?’ Bumboo, the donkey who would not budge is a story that breaks away from the stereotype of talking about a dull or a stupid, dumb donkey for fun. Bumboo is a beautiful story of a ladakhi girl, Padma and her pet donkey. It brings to us the love of a little girl with her donkey without making any judgments about Bumboo. Sprinkled with words from Ladakh’s language and a peek into its life, Bumboo is a warm story of love that sits in your heart. You worry about Bumboo as much as Padma does and wonder about his fate as the family decides to sell him off. It’s the dilemma of not agreeing with the way adults think and dealing only out of pure love and empathy that stands out for me in this book.
The title of the book and the story somehow represent the conflict that it brings. Calling the elephant ‘Roopa’ which is ‘someone with beauty’ and on the other hand Roopa Hathi doesn’t feel the same way. Another story with friendship to its center. The journey towards discovering yourself, accepting yourself and in this journey, knowing friendship. Roopa Hathi’s dilemma and worries are not new or unique, they are our very own and they are not just our childhood dilemmas, they stay with us as we grow up. This book puts it to us in the subtlest way and enables a space for many thoughts and discussions. Often post reading this book children’s drawings with ‘hathi’ of just any color they please, represents the freedom that comes through such stories.
Purple Jojo is a delightful bilingual picture book with my favorite of all animals, dog. There are very few such delightful books featuring dogs in their curious, natural state. As Jojo is lazying around under the shade of a tree he is woken up to find purple spots on his body. ‘Bowwow!’ Jojo wonders where they came from and sets out to find it asking the grass or the sun. Dogs little curious worlds come alive with Jojo’s concerns about the purple spots and finally as he comes to know, so do we – that’s the beauty of this book.
Other than the above five, strictly from Indian publishers, one cannot go without a few other honorable mentions both from India and other countries : Bhediye ko dusht kyon kehte hain written and illustrated by Quentin Greban and published in Hindi by Eklavya is an important book which pushes us to rethink rumors and gossip and how we stereotype others, hazardous in current times. Mahagiri, illustrated by Pulak Biswas and published by NBT is another wonderful story that brings to us empathy and leads us to question power. Tails published by NBT comes alive with Atanu Roy’s wonderful illustrations and you keep guessing the tails. Ferdinand, The Bull and Gordon, The Goat by Munro Leaf are very special stories that stand out for the many layers that they bring to us. Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day is a delightful picture book that you will fall in love with. And my most favorite ‘A sick day for Amos McGee’ Written by Philip C Stead and illustrated by Erin E Stead, brings to us a special bond of Amos’s solitary life with the animals he visits in the zoo. And how can one forget the ‘Library Lion’ by Michelle Knudsen which tells us how the love for library can come about for just anyone. It’s a tribute to the ‘paradise of books’, the library and the lion makes us rethink all our rules. These aren’t just all, there are many more and we need to go the library to discover them.